Protests overshadow Brazilian heroics

June 26, 2013

Inside the arena, glory. Outside of it: anarchy.

Brazil beat Uruguay 2-1 to advance to Sunday’s Confederations Cup final thanks to an 86th minute header from Paulinho. The hosts await the winner of Spain’s semifinal match against Italy match in Fortaleza (live, Thursday, 2 p.m. ET).

But the story of the day was not on the field: it was in the streets of Belo Horizonte, where protesters clashed with police, resulting in fires, tear gas and mayhem that quickly spread across the city. One marcher was reported in serious condition after toppling off a viaduct overpass. At least 13 marchers were arrested on various public order offenses.

Even with a one mile blockade, the violence could not be escaped in the confines of the Estadio Mineirao, as tear gas and smoke wafted over the walls and settled onto the field and the fans. One reporter witnessed police repelling marchers by lobbing tear gas into what appeared to be mostly nonviolent yet menacing demonstrations, at points, Molotov cocktails were thrown at the police and army forces outside the stadium grounds. Three buildings, housing furniture and car dealerships, were torched. Fires burned around the grounds well into the night.


The protests were not confined to Belo Horizonte; Brasilia saw demonstrators kick soccer balls into the reflecting pools surrounding the Congressional Building; Recife saw marches through the center of town; while Rio and Porto Allegre also saw small demonstrations.

Neymar (L) helped deliver the game-winning goal for Brazil against Uruguay (Photo: Ueslei Marcelino/Reuters).  

But the epicenter was here, and the focus was on this game.

The Confederations Cup has become a symbol of corruption and waste, and the chants – asking for “FIFA-standard” schools and hospitals – have been cutting. The government, despite days of backpedalling, seems to have no idea how to defuse the tensions, and every time the police and protesters have clashed, it seems to result in mayhem. As the night fell, police were predicting a riot would break out around the Mineirao.

On the field, the action was far less intense. It was a sloppy game, with both teams looking haggard and weary. Both teams failed to create enough chances, and when they had them, they failed to capitalize more often than not.

Uruguay should have seized the lead in the 14th minute after David Luiz foolishly manhandled Diego Lugano, giving referee Enrique Osses no choice but to point to the spot. Diego Forlan stepped up, fired low and hard to the near post – and was stunned to see Julio Cesar make a brilliant, diving save. It was a spectacular piece of goalkeeping and it instantly changed the tenor of the game.

Brazil began to press, and while Edinson Cavani did a fine job as the first defender on Neymar, the hosts’ possession began to wear on Uruguay. Finally, in the 41st, he would break free of the back line, fire on keeper Fernando Muslera and force the Galatasaray man to parry right into the path of Fred. Despite a miskick, he beat Diego Godin on the line to break the deadlock.

But right after the break, some ramshackle defending by Brazil allowed Uruguay back into the game. David Luiz attempted to clear a shot by Luis Suarez out of his own area. Instead, David Luiz ripped it off the back of a teammate Thiago Silva. Unfortunately for the hosts, Silva then played a slack ball in the direction of Marcelo, allowing Cavani to nip in, and fire a left-footed blast to the far post.

From there, the game wandered as the smoke continued to waft over the walls. Brazil enjoyed more of the possession but seemed to have fewer ideas about what to do with it, with most shots taken from range failing to trouble Muslera in the slightest.

It wasn’t until a late corner that Brazil were able to seal their destiny. Crossed in by Neymar, Paulinho beat Martin Caceras at the back post and delivered a textbook header into the net. It was a bitter blow for the Uruguayans, but probably a well-deserved result. Aside from his goal, Cavani had done little, and Suarez was totally taken out of the match by a tough-tackling midfield.

As it was, Cavani and Luiz Gustavo were lucky to have remained on the field for the entire match. Cavani caught Dani Alves with an errant elbow – unintentionally, but surely – and had already been warned. Luiz Gustavo would later make an explicit tackle on Cristian Rodriguez that channeled some by Nigel de Jong. He too was only cautioned.

Uruguay now has the joyless task of facing Thursday’s loser in the third-place game Sunday in Salvador. Brazil have a chance to face Spain, and set up what would be a clash between the consensus two best teams in the world.

But far, far bigger questions remain. Given the mayhem that surrounded a game featuring their own team, can Brazil guarantee their visitors’ safety next year at the World Cup? Can the protests be defused – or can the police, who have shown a penchant for overreaction – be reined in? Only time will tell.

As the night wore on in Belo Horizonte, one thing was clear: the streets were getting worse, and the end to the violence that has paralyzed this nation was nowhere in sight.