Sporting Homeless

Tournament logo "Copa Popular"

About a hundred athletes, coaches, and activists gathered early morning in front of Maracanã stadium in Rio de Janeiro for a spontaneous race of two laps around the sporting facility. Among them were some of the most successful athletes in Brazil who are preparing for the 2016 Olympic Games. They call themselves the "track and field homeless," since there is not an adequate place to practice in the future Olympic host city. "I take advantage even of the subway escalators or the sidewalk in front of City Hall," says the heptathlon champion, Marcelle da Cruz, who is 17 years old, winner of several national championships, and one of the greatest athletic hopes of the host country. "But how are we supposed to reach an Olympic competitive level under these conditions?"

The morning race of the track and field homeless is one of the creative ways in which the Brazilians are calling attention to the dismal training conditions for the sporting mega-event. The first race, which took place on March 9, 2014, will be followed by many other protests that are in the form of sports training.

Since January 9, 2013, the athletes have not been able to use their training location: the Track and Field Stadium Célio de Barros. They encountered closed doors. Nobody gave them any information and they could not even get their personal belongings from their lockers. The track and field lanes and the surrounding facilities were demolished due to orders from City Hall. In the land next to Maracanã stadium, a shopping mall was designed to make the stadium – the building of which was offered to the private sector – more attractive to the investors. Before this, the state invested R$1 billion into renovations so that the stadium could meet FIFA requirements.

After numerous protests, Governor Sérgio Cabral went back on his decision and promised to rebuild the Célio de Barros – a great and rare success of the World Cup protest movement. But since then, nothing has happened, and the fear is that they will not have any place to practice. “To them, the sport is nothing more than a commercial spectacle, and the popular sport ends up slaughtered,” criticizes one of the protesters.

Also in other cities, the construction of sophisticated stadiums comes at the expense of other sporting facilities that are much more important to the population than the high-profile projects. An example is in Salvador, in the northeast, where the only aquatic park suitable for the competitions had to be removed for the construction of the Fonte Nova stadium. “Only the best athletes have suitable places to practice. The rest are not important enough,” says Renato Cosentino, from the Rio World Cup and Olympic Games Popular Committee, which supports the initiative of the homeless athletes. “Many athletes have already left Rio, and this is a shame for the Olympic city.”

The bad feelings about the billions in expenses for the World Cup and the Olympic Games have created a protest movement that has spread across the whole country. Above all, the criticism is that cities are restructuring not in the interest of city residents, who would like to have better mass transportation systems and a working infrastructure, but in the interest of creating a media sporting spectacle, for which many of the poor residents are expelled from the streets or their homes.

Other forms of protest

It is true that the large protests in June last year during the Confederations Cup brought hundreds of thousands of people to the streets across the country; the confrontations between the activists and the police were often marked by violence and called attention to the critics’ demands. But the protests increasingly took creative forms of action, combining protests with cultural events and organizing shows, competitions, and games in the streets. In accordance with an Olympic tradition that has been forgotten, the idea was to show that the sport is about much more than just the podium, the medals, and the business. What is important is to participate – and this is good for everyone.

For this reason, in some host cities there will not only be official football matches, but also a Popular Cup to protest against the transfers. The first version of this tournament took place in Rio de Janeiro on the day that the Confederations Cup began, in June 2013. The chosen location was Quilombo da Gamboa in the middle of the old and decrepit port zone. With a lot of money, the urbanists want to transform the region into a modern entrepreneurial center called Porto Maravilha (Wonder Port). But for many years, the homeless dwellers have been occupying the empty houses in the location. This is why many were transferred and Quilombo da Gamboa will serve for some as temporary housing.

Ten male and four female teams participated in the Popular Cup tournament. All players came from slums threatened with transfers in the wake of the re-urbanization and construction of the new traffic lanes. In the majority of these slums, numerous houses have already been demolished, and many residents were forced to move to construction developments far from their communities. Among the teams there were people from Morro da Providência (next to Gamboa), from Vila Autódromo (next to Olympic Park), and from Vila Recreio, the Santa Marta slum, and the Salgueiro slum (close to Maracanã stadium).

”To us, besides the leisure, football has become a form of protest,” declared one of the team players. Despite the light rain, the atmosphere was happy; these artists of the ball exceeded themselves with the football passes. But there were no insults to the referees. “This is the place for those who do not normally have a voice or space; it is the place for the excluded,” declared the stadium speaker.

The tournament logo was a mascot of their own design that, unlike the FIFA logo, is not copyrighted. There was also a lot of music and, of course, a barbecue for those who participated. “It was awesome to participate in this,” said a happy and exhausted Criciúma Salgueiro from the winning team. “We were able to call attention to female football.” The media was present – not only the Brazilian media, but reporters from all over the world. “The World Cup could bring a lot of improvements to the city, but what is missing is including the residents,” criticizes Gustavo Mehl from the Popular Committee.

This was not an event against the World Cup. Quite on the contrary. In the afternoon, the Confederations Cup opening match, Brazil vs. Japan, was televised in Quilombo da Gamboa. Everybody followed the national football team’s performance with attention. Initiatives such as the Popular Cup intend to show how football can unite people beyond the commercial aspect of the sport.

The Rio de Janeiro Popular Cup proceeded with many phases in April and May, and the last roundup will be performed in June, concurring with the World Cup opening. There will be more teams participating, not only from the locations that are threatened with transfers, but from other groups impacted by the World Cup elitist approach: for example, streets vendors, whose presence is not allowed around the stadiums, or the homeless, victims of “cleanings” in the downtown areas. The locations for the games have yet to be decided, but they will be in the areas where there are conflicts between the residents and the city government.

The sport as protest also exists in the Santa Marta slum in Botafogo – the first to have a Police Pacifying Unit and where, for a good six years, shootings and drug trafficking have decreased considerably. On the other hand, this has brought real estate speculation, and the prices in the poor neighborhood with a wonderful ocean view skyrocketed. City Hall is organizing the transfer of residents, especially from the highest locations, close to the scenic views and the city’s symbol: the statue of Christ the Redeemer.

Neither the World Cup nor the Olympic Games need the land at the margins of the Atlantic Forest. Thus, City Hall created another reason to expel the residents, warning them that their houses are located in insecure locations and threatened to collapse due to the rains. The studies that prove the opposite are summarily ignored.

Supported by the Popular Committee, the residents regularly organize walks through the community. During these walks, the people, whose families have been living in the location for 70 years, tell the settlement history and how they built the paths and the electric and plumbing installations with no help from the state. It is about the slum’s identity, a way of life that the residents want to maintain. They resist the stigma of the government and the media that it is a dirty place and a location for criminals. “We are proud of our slum and we are happy here. Despite all the problems we have here, they will not be able to expel us,” says the rapper Fiell, who helped to build the Santa Maria community radio station, until its closure in 2012 for being illegal; he is accused of breaking the law.

More than 20,000 people were transferred just in Rio de Janeiro, and many others are threatened with suffering the same fate. “The state acts in a despotic way, and many of those transferred do not receive adequate compensation,” explains the activist Cosentino. According to him, the reason is the government’s wish to take advantage of the sporting events to keep the city only for the elites. “Many of the poor are forced to give way to the profits of the wealthy,” Cosentino continues. “It is against this policy that we want to protest with a lot of creativity and with more and more people on the streets.”