A ‘bloodbath’ on the pitch, a riot in the streets

On the Road With Football's Outsiders: A World Cup Odyssey James Montague

Editor’s Note: CNN is serializing extracts from Thirty-One Nil, a new book from author James Montague, who traveled the globe documenting qualifying games for the World Cup. Montague visited Brazil last summer as it hosted the Confederations Cup, a World Cup warmup tournament, and found that vinegar is useful in a riot.

Chapter 6

Rio de Janeiro. June 2013

The Estádio do Maracanã in Rio de Janeiro has a special, rueful place in the Brazilian psyche. It is beloved by all who have seen it, even at its rundown worst. When it came to be renovated for the first time, it was feared it was an impossible task. So much human urine had been expelled over its concrete foundations that it had made the stadium structurally unsound.

It was also the venue of an event that Brazilians had never forgotten, from the last time the country hosted the tournament: the 1950 World Cup final. Those who weren’t born then have never been allowed to forget it either.

In 1950 the World Cup wasn’t the mega-sponsorship event it is today. There were fewer teams and those that did make it had to travel for days to get there. There was a different format for the competition, too. The final was actually a final group game. Brazil merely needed to draw against their tiny neighbors Uruguay to become world champions.

So convinced were the Brazilians that they would triumph several newspapers went to print with the news that Brazil were already world champions. O Mundo’s front page, printed that morning, read “These Are The World Champions.”

The Maracanã was full, with as many as 210,000 fans. They watched Brazil take the lead in the 47th minute, too. Yet they somehow went on to lose the match 2-1. The catastrophe was so deeply felt that a word exists today in Portuguese from that game. Maracanazo means an unexpected victory for the underdog over one of the big teams in Brazil.

I spoke with (Spain coach) Vincente del Bosque ... he has no interest in humiliating us.

Tahiti had walked on to the Maracanã pitch hoping that they, too, could channel the spirit of Uruguay 1950 before they took on Spain in their Confederations Cup group game. It would be difficult to find a bigger mismatch – the champions of Oceania versus the champions of the world – in any sport anywhere on Earth.

Outside the stadium Spanish fans had arrived taking bets on whether it would be 10-, 11-, 12-0. Before the game Tahiti coach Eddy Etaeta had said he didn’t think Spain had any interest in destroying his team.

“I spoke with (Spain coach) Vincente del Bosque,” he had happily told me. “He is a good man, with good values that we share. He has no interest in humiliating us.”

The Spanish players didn’t get the message.

The Maracanã crowd was brutally pro-Tahiti and booed Fernando Torres every time he touched the ball. He received one positive gesture. Goalkeeper Mickael Roche, a PE teacher, placed a garland of shells around his neck. Torres responded by tormenting him, scoring at his near post within four minutes.

When Torres scored Spain’s third he left Roche on his backside, skipping around him and passing the ball into the empty net. David Villa nutmegged him. Torres scored a hat-trick. Villa’s hat-trick came when Roche completely missed a ball over the top. Mata nutmegged him, too. Every goal was met with a disappointed shriek from the crowd. But the biggest cheer was reserved for Fernando Torres when he missed a penalty.

It finished 10-0.

It was a bloodbath, a record defeat in any major FIFA finals. Gone was the joyful expression from coach Etaeta’s face, that a goal – no matter what else happened – was all that mattered.

“It hurts, it is really tough to take,” he says after the match, eyes on at the floor, mumbling his answers. I wasn’t sure whether he was more upset by the defeat or the fact that Vincente del Bosque was more than happy to humiliate Tahiti. Or at least his players were. Mickael Roche was the last player to leave the stadium.

“All the players had a hard job tonight,” he says sheepishly when he finally decides to go back to the hotel. “It’s really hard because I hate having goals scored against me, but 10? It really hurts. I’ve got to accept that. I just want to keep in mind the wonderful supporters. It was awesome. They don’t know us and for them to be cheering us like this was awesome.”

Tahiti’s Confederations Cup journey ended against Uruguay, with a marginally better outcome. They only lost 8-0. Tahiti had finished the tournament with a record of played three, lost three, scored one, conceded 24 at an average of eight a game. Maracanazo was nowhere to be seen. At the end of the match the players did a lap of honor anyway, carrying a banner that read: “Obrigado, Brasil!” Thank you, Brazil!

The fireworks don’t end at the final whistle in the Maracanã. A protest has been planned to coincide with the Tahiti match. More than 300,000 peaceful protesters have marched in Rio to coincide with the Spain−Tahiti kick-off. Just like in Belo Horizonte and the other Confederations Cup host cities they denounce FIFA, the government, the president, Sepp Blatter, big business and the mayor.

After the game, I catch the tail end of the mass of people moving north. They are young, mostly university students. Many are with their parents. One sign catches my eye, cleverly segueing the country’s poor state education system with its excellence on the football pitch. “Brazil doesn’t teach soccer in school,” it reads. “That’s why Brazilians are good at soccer.”

The protest thins out the closer I get to the front. The movement is now in the opposite direction, as people leave to go home. It has been a long and exhausting march for them. At the front Rio’s riot police are standing, two deep, in full body armor, shields up high with guns and water cannons behind them for backup.

A handful of protesters, half a dozen perhaps, no more, begin to goad the police, throwing bottles that crash meters from their feet. Rio’s police are skilled in the art of favela pacification, an Orwellian term for local martial law where police effectively “take back” areas of the city overrun by gangs and drug lords and patrol it with impunity until order is restored.

As soon as they sense a provocation, they move forward, firing tear gas at first. I watch as they stop, fire, and move, blasting shotguns with rubber bullets into the backs of the fleeing crowd.

Hundreds of police march down Avenida President Vargas, past smashed out banks and shops, past burning barricades and cars. They fire at the slightest movements, or hurl stun grenades, three or four at a time, down side passages. One lands by my leg, temporarily blinding and deafening me.

June 20, 2013: Police and protesters clash in Rio de Janeiro.

When the buzz of disorientation fades I’m breathing tear gas and retching into the gutter. I’m kneeling on the pavement with gunshots firing all around me, reaching for a bottle of vinegar I’d packed for just such an event. I had gone that morning to a hardware shop and a supermarket. A gas mask was too expensive, but a painter’s face mask was a good alternative.

Seamus, a film maker who had shot the entire thing, and I huddled together, pouring vinegar on to our faces to counteract the tear gas. When our sight had returned, the streets looked like a war zone.

A 300,000-strong largely peaceful protest had been pacified. The spotlight and downdraft of hovering police helicopters moved along a now empty Avenida President Vargas, looking for anyone foolish enough to defy it. A last stand of protesters waited on the steps of Rio’s beautifully grand municipal theater.

Tear gas had filled the square’s surrounding restaurants and cafés, families and couples and friends trapped inside, crying, holding napkins and scarves to their mouths to keep out the gas. But everyone here was cleared, too, by flash grenades, advancing police lines and, as a last resort, the crack of a baton.

We want and demand what is ours. Let’s make the governments understand that Brazil belongs to the Brazilians.

It was clear that night. If the football continued, so would the protests. Yet, Brazil had been enjoying a brilliant tournament on the pitch. As the 1950 World Cup final proved, the national team – A Seleção – generally operated under almost inhuman pressure. Eyes were now elsewhere. And when it came to be asked about the protests the players took the side of the people, agreeing with their aims and the cause, while also denouncing the violence.

Romario, one of Brazil’s greatest ever players, also criticized FIFA and the government. Once an uncontrollable wild child blessed with almost supernatural talent, Romario is now one of the country’s most upstanding politicians.

“We want and demand what is ours,” he said after the Rio protest. “Enough robbery, lack of attitude, humiliation. Let’s make the governments understand that Brazil belongs to the Brazilians, and we will not tolerate in silence the absurd things that have been happening. Congratulations, Brazilians!”

Nearby a white and blue Brazilian police kiosk has been burned out. Only a few hundred protesters remain on the streets, dazed and walking in different directions. The police have returned, angrily pulling the poles and burning tires that had been thrown into their smoldering, melted workplace.

This, remember, followed a Confederations Cup group game between Spain and Tahiti. But the Brazil team’s progress has not been affected by the largest protests. Their matches have proceeded relatively unmolested and the team have easily qualified for the semifinal. They will play Uruguay, their tormentors from 1950, in Belo Horizonte. But the protests will finally follow them there, too.

Copyright James Montague, 2014. From Thirty-One Nil: On the Road With Football's Outsiders: A World Cup Odyssey, published by Bloomsbury in the UK at £12.99 from May 22, 2014.

Producer: Matthew Knight, Design: Nural Choudhury, Development: Nav Garcha, Video: Ryan Smith, Editor: John Sinnott, Exec Producer: Ben Wyatt