“An educator is worth more than Neymar,” chanted a group of 200 striking teachers, referring to Brazil’s star striker, as the team bus edged through the protesters on its way from Rio de Janeiro’s international airport to the base camp where the squad will train before playing Croatia in the World Cup opening match on June 12.
Despite a heavy police presence, the demonstrators managed to hold up the team’s convoy long enough to plant anti-World Cup stickers on their bus before it finally cleared the throng.
At the squad’s training complex, where they were met by more protests, technical director Carlos Alberto Parreira downplayed the demonstrations and said Brazilians overwhelmingly supported the team.
“Make of it what you will, I believe the team is the cultural and sporting heritage of the Brazilian people. The people are going to support the team throughout the World Cup, I don’t have the slightest doubt of that. No one is against the ‘selecao,'” said Parreira, who coached Brazil’s 1994 World Cup-winning team.
“What I saw during the 100-kilometer (60-mile) drive to get here, when the team stopped, there were people supporting and applauding them, the people were encouraging them the entire time.”
Football is a national passion in Brazil, and the national squad, which has won an unmatched five World Cups, is widely revered.
But it was the protesters who seized the media’s attention, greeting the squad with their trademark slogan, “There will be no Cup!”
Some tried to block the team bus from leaving Rio, but the driver dodged them and accelerated away.
“I hope the marking at the Cup won’t be as tight as here,” joked goalkeeper Julio Cesar.
The teachers went on strike in Rio state on May 12, demanding a 20-percent salary increase.
Even diehard fans who had turned out to greet the team and wave the flag amid tight security around the training complex were frustrated as they barely got a glimpse of their heroes, hidden behind tinted glass.
“I came from Mage (about 40 kilometers away) especially to see Neymar, but unfortunately I couldn’t see anything. What a shame — the bus just sped past,” said Marineide, 40, who had come with her two daughters.
– Climate of protest –
To ensure Brazil have the best possible conditions to prepare, the CBF earlier this year gave a multimillion-dollar facelift to the Granja Comary training complex in Teresopolis.
The facilities include 39 individual rooms with king-size beds and several full-size pitches where coach Luiz Felipe Scolari will prepare.
But such luxurious details have angered a populace demanding urgent investment in infrastructure, health and education.
A small group of protesters gathered outside the facility, where one banner read, in English: “Billions for the FIFA World Cup, no housing for the victims of the heavy rains (of) 2011. Do you think it is fair?”
Torrential rains claimed more than 900 lives in the Teresopolis region days after President Dilma Rousseff took office.
Rosangela Castro, a local teacher, said: “It is a real scandal they spent more than 15 million reais ($7 million) to refurbish this training center and billions on the World Cup.”
Police will stand guard 24 hours a day at Granja Comary to ward off any trouble.
Brazil has been hit by a wave of strikes and protests ahead of the World Cup and elections in October. Police, teachers, bank security guards and bus drivers have staged disruptive strikes in recent weeks.
Protests during last year’s Confederations Cup, a World Cup dress rehearsal, brought a million people into the streets and turned violent at times, to the embarrassment of tournament organizers.
Recent protests have been smaller but more radical.
The players will train from Wednesday and undergo fitness checks after a long season in Europe, where all but five of the 23 play.
They will travel to the central city of Goiania for a June 3 friendly against Panama. Three days later, they will play their final warm-up against Serbia in Sao Paulo.