Lost in translation – Why sensationalist journalism over referee beheading does Brazil a disservice
If time really “is the longest distance between two places,” as the line from Tennessee William’s The Glass Menagerie has it, then May 27th must now feel like several continents away for Dilma Rousseff and Brazil’s World Cup organisers. Back then, the country’s president was bouncing up and down in her seat with excitement at the thought of the upcoming Confederations Cup. “Brazil is going to shine on and off the pitch,” she said before the competition. “We’re going to show everybody how welcoming we can be, and that this is a happy, peaceful country.”
On the pitch, certainly, thanks to Neymar, Fred, Paulinho and company. Off it, not quite so much. Fast-forward six weeks and, at least according to the foreign (and even domestic) media, the only image that Brazil seems to be projecting is one of confusion and chaos. First there were June’s street demonstrations that sometimes spilled over into vandalism and violent clashes between police and protesters, leading at least one national squad (according to reputable sports journalist Juca Kfouri) to consider leaving the country. Then, this week, came news of a gruesome beheading that took place in the northern state of Maranhão on the same day as Brazil’s win over Spain.
Seldom has an isolated killing (actually two) in a poor rural backwater, no matter how brutal, garnered such global infamy. Certainly not in Brazil, where the homicide total, according to UN figures, was over 40,000 in 2010. So what made Otavio Jordao da Silva so special? That’s easy. He was refereeing a football match, and, after fatally stabbing a player who had attacked him, was then hacked to pieces by an angry mob of “football fans”.
That was enough to get the newswires buzzing. “The brutality of the killing has sent shockwaves through Brazil,” shrilled The Daily Mail, before going on to make the can´t-believe-I-missed-it link between a random murder and Brazil’s hosting of the World Cup. The Express, meanwhile, made sure no one overlooked either the gory details of the story (by putting “beheaded” in its headline in giant capital letters), or the football connection (by using a fetchingly De Stijlian photo of a big red card against a perfect blue sky). Both The Guardian and The Independent, bafflingly, went with photos of riot police tramping across a ravaged urban street to accompany their stories, although it is unlikely that Mr Da Silva, or even Josenir Santos Abreu, the other victim that day, were on their way to a protest march.
Even the excellent David Goldblatt, in an otherwise insightful look at the failings of the Brazilian justice system in The Guardian, seemed happy enough to lump the murder in with other recent football related incidents in Brazil, such as the collapse of a fence at Grêmio’s new stadium in Porto Alegre, some 3000km from the town of Pio XII, where the grisly events of June 30th unfolded.
It matters little, it seems, that the game was an amateur fixture, with the names of the teams, if they even had names, going unmentioned. And who cares if the field on which the game was played had little in the way of stands or terraces, or that the “fans” were generally pals of the players, rather than paying supporters? So what if the setting was culturally (and in this case physically) as far from the Maracanã as a brick and broken glass strewn council pitch in Little Hulton is from Old Trafford? It was gruesome and brutal and frightening and there was a football involved somewhere. Chalk up one more attention grabbing “bad news from Brazil” story to add to the pre-World Cup ball of confusion.
The irony here is that those looking for troubling football stories hardly need resort to such sensationalism. Lance! magazine reported last year that there have been 155 deaths in Brazilian football since 1988, the vast majority a result of violence between torcida organizada gangs. And in the country’s older stadiums, crowd safety often seems an afterthought (I speak from experience, having witnessed a number of alarming stairway crushes at the huge, but hardly plush, stadium of Recife’s Santa Cruz). These are clearly situations that have been tolerated for far too long in Brazil, and while the arrival of the new World Cup stadiums is hopefully the start of an attempt to address the latter issue, the problem of violence remains as far from being solved as ever.
That is because, as Mr Goldblatt points out, thuggery in Brazilian football is a reflection of violence in wider Brazilian society, which despite some progress in terms of social mobility, remains riven by inequality, and where gun crime is rife. Despite Fifa’s best efforts (banners and flags mentioning the protests were prohibited, sometimes aggressively so, inside Confederations Cup stadiums) football does not exist in a bubble.
While banning troublemakers from grounds and a greater (and perhaps more disciplined) police presence may help in the short term, it is likely Brazilian football violence (which based as it is around clubs, gangs and neighbourhoods, is unlikely to cross many paths with glitzier World Cup fixtures) will only be truly eradicated when the bairros from whence the “hooligans” (for want of a better word) come become better places to live, and the educational and professional options on offer to these young men become more attractive than petty crime and gang feuds. This is not to say that organizada violence is not a football problem, just that it is not only a football problem.
Unlike, that is, the death of Mr Da Silva, which is not a football problem at all. It is instead another sorry, sordid little tale about how cheap life is in the overlooked parts of Brazil, whether in the wilds of rural Maranhão (where it seems things often get heated enough for a referee to decide to carry a knife in his belt, as this one did) or in the periferia of the country’s sprawling metropolises.
Brazil is a country with many problems, and many (if not all) Brazilians are working hard to try and fix at least some of them. Whether they are successful or not, the summarising of largely peaceful street protests as a “slide into anarchy” (as BBC editor Jeremy Hayes tweeted during the demonstrations), or the regrettably casual description by the otherwise honourable Mr Goldblatt of the fence collapse in Porto Alegre (at which no one was seriously injured) as a “disaster”, or the lurid game of join-the-dots that links repellent but unconnected crimes to Brazil’s ability to host the tournament, and therefore to the state of the nation itself (such as the New York Times’ description of the rape of an American tourist on a Rio de Janeiro bus as a “black-eye for the country in the run up to the World Cup”) teach little, and help no one.
James Young writes about Brazilian football for Sports Illustrated, The New York Times, The Blizzard, and World Soccer, among others. He has lived in Brazil for the last eight years, and is currently at work on a novel about “love, death and football” in the northeast of Brazil. He can be reached on Twitter at @seeadarkness.
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