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Photos: Brazilian Riot Police Squashed a Big Protest During the World Cup Finals

A standoff in Praça saens Pena, and tense fans on the Copacabana. Matthew Niederhauser’s Photo Diary: Day 15

Matthew Niederhauser is reporting from Brazil with support from the Pulitzer Center.

It was a whirlwind of a weekend in Rio de Janeiro. The drama began on Saturday with the third-place match, which is in and of itself a depressing affair. After being on the edge of fulfilling World Cup dreams, two teams are forced to conjure up one last effort to save face. Brazil, in its case, had just suffered one of the worst defeats in World Cup history and didn’t want to compound it with another loss. The Dutch coach, meanwhile, thought everyone should hang up their boots instead of tempting fate once more. Nothing felt right about the match, so instead I decided to visit the Maracanã, the epicenter of the futebol universe, where Brazil never got to play a match as host of this World Cup.

The Maracanã looks more like a fortress than a stadium. It’s huge and brawny. The surrounding neighborhood was pleasant enough, but after crossing to the wrong side of the tracks (literally), I soon found myself climbing the hills of the Mangueira favela, which provides an outstanding view of the structure. Mangueira is widely known for its samba schools, as well as for being one of the more dangerous neighborhoods in Rio before the pacification campaigns. Residents still live in a completely different world from those who can afford World Cup tickets at the nearby stadium. Most live below the poverty line and lack basic services such as running water and sewage. The tracks of the Maracanã metro station, along with heavily armed security guards, keep them at bay. But that didn’t stop the people here from firing up grills and throwing parties for the third-place match. Locals gathered in the streets and children exuberantly played soccer with the Maracanã as their backdrop. The enthusiasm dampened quickly, though. Holland scored two goals in the first 20 minutes, and everything went downhill from there. 

I don’t think Brazilians have processed their ignominious exit from the World Cup. It will take some time to fully register. For now it seems like people just want to move on with their lives and hope the federal government will start concentrating on the social, educational, and public health improvements that so much of the country desperately needs. A few go so far as to say that they are happy Brazil lost—all of the corruption and excess involved in hosting the tournament might have been swept under the rug with a victory. Brazil needed a wakeup call. Still, there was one thing every Brazilian could agree on: an Argentina victory would be the ultimate disgrace after suffering such a humiliating departure from the tournament. Tens of thousands of Argentine fans had swarmed into Rio for the finals, desperate for their third World Cup triumph in the home of their archrivals.

The morning of the finals I first went to visit the Sambadrome, which was opend—along with a number of public squares—to accommodate the overflow of Argentines. They were setting up encampments across the city. Rio couldn’t handle such a massive influx of fans and most refused to pay the outrageous costs of hotels during the World Cup, especially with the Argentine peso so weak against the Brazilian real. It was relatively quiet by the time I arrived, though, far from the madness of the gaudy floats that pass through the Sambadrome every Carnival. Most of the Argentine visitors parked their cars and fled into the city, crashing on beaches, benches, or anywhere else they could lay their heads. The only highlight at the otherwise sleepy Sambadrome was a Neymar lookalike chilling out with a television crew. Apparently his popularity has fallen off after the real Neymar’s injury. It was bad for business.

The Maracanã was unapproachable during the lead-up to the World Cup finals. I was glad I visited the day before. Foreign dignitaries were flying in from around the planet, and the largest security operation in the history of Brazil was underway, with 25,000 police and military personal taking to the streets. Argentines were desperate for tickets. Germans were better prepared (of course) and stoically forged their way through the crowds and toward the stadium. Everyone felt the climax of the tournament about to break. I didn’t stay too long to ogle the costumes and frillery of the fans. Brazilians were trying to express themselves in a different manner at the nearby Praça saens Pena, where the biggest protest since the start of the World Cup was being held. Hundreds of people showed up after police had rounded up leading activists the day before on trumped up charges that they were organizing violent activity, a conspicuous blow to civil rights in Brazil. 

Gathered in the Praça saens Pena was a heady mixture of students, journalists, oddballs, anarchists, activists, and members from the Brazilian faction of Anonymous. Slogans denounced FIFA’s corrupt corporate practices and demanded politicians be held accountable for broken promises: “The party at the stadiums isn't worth the tears shed in the slums." But as soon as the protestors tried to march on the Maracanã, they were quickly penned in by an overwhelming deployment of riot police. The protestors were forced to change directions multiple times as security forces closed them into a smaller space. The vanguard of the march eventually tried to break a hole in the line of officers onto a small side street, and mayhem quickly ensued. Tear gas canisters were thrown, pepper spray was liberally showered on the press, and a handful of riot police beat protestors with large batons. It was an efficient operation. The security forces quickly blotted out another attempt by Brazilian citizens to exercise their democratic right to protest.

After breaking free from the melee, I quickly hopped the metro to Copacabana beach, the epicenter of World Cup revelry. I felt like I was entering a different world only minutes after being chased by riot police and pepper sprayed. All of sudden it was sand, surf, and caipirinhas. That, and tens of thousands of Argentines crowded around massive screens set up on the beach. They were chanting, swimming, dancing, and drinking to wild abandon. It was an epic sendoff for the World Cup. But at the end of regulation time, with the match still tied at zero, the Argentines started getting tense. All eyes were riveted on the game. Not even a radiant sunset outlining Christ the Redeemer on its lofty peak could distract the crowd. Even though I initially hoped for a German victory, I started feeling sorry for the mass of Argentine humanity in front me. I have never seen so much hope and expectation concentrated in one place—until it was broken by a goal by Mario Götze, a brilliant strike worthy of winning a World Cup.

Germany’s victory was well deserved, and the Brazilians got in on the celebration, joining ranks with Germans fans. An Argentina victory would have been too much to bear, and the host country deserved to indulge in a little bit of schadenfreude after their own great loss and blow off steam after the stresses associated with hosting the World Cup. The Argentines, on the other hand, were heartbroken. Their tears streamed into the Atlantic Ocean on a moonlit Copacabana beach. Some broke out into more chanting, but it was only a temporary reprieve. Messi did not secure his legacy. Some vandalism did occur, and I saw a group of especially rowdy Argentines get pepper sprayed, but for the most part they, like the rest of the 2014 World Cup, went quietly into the night.