Confederations Cup: Football unites troubled Brazil

By Ben SmithBBC Sport in Salvador

The deep rumblings and the crackle of noise were rich and familiar in Salvador on Saturday. But something had changed.

Some 48 hours earlier, Arena Fonte Nova had been surrounded by military police as fierce protests raged across the city. Tear gas had been thrown and sound bombs fired, as some 30,000 people took to the streets to express anger at a situation they felt had been allowed to spiral out of control.

On Saturday, those same noises echoed around the streets of Salvador but on this occasion it was not in search of justice, but as an expression of joy.

The Brazilian national team was on its way to victory over Italy and, for a short time at least, the country was united. Fireworks exploded into the evening air around the stadium after each of the four goals, they seemed to linger for longer following the Neymar free-kick that illuminated the night.

The Selecao remain the one issue that all of Brazil can agree on in the current climate. They are a unifying presence, a beacon of hope for a population that is angry with its leadership. "We don't feel any more pressure because of that," right-back Dani Alves told BBC Sport.

"The national team is a source of joy for the nation. We have already said how we feel towards what is taking place in our country, our pride in it. But we can only control what we do on the field. And bring people together through football, give them hope."

The national anthem remains an outlet for the fervour and passion that has enveloped Brazil in the past 10 days. As it had when Brazil played Mexico in Fortaleza last week, the singing of it before the match against Italy was a special moment, it roused national pride and visibly moved the players.

The words mention the "resounding cry of a heroic people" and the "assurance of equality", echoing the feelings among those protesting peacefully in the streets. When Neymar left the field some 20 minutes before the end, the crowd stood as one and chanted 'sou brasileiro, com muito orgulho, com muito amor'. That translates to 'I am Brazilian and I am proud of it', the national football team is that unifying source of pride.

A number of small protests took place in Salvador on Saturday but the mood in the city was one of celebration in the hours after the game. It is the festival of Sao Joao in Bahia at this time of the year. The central old town square in Pelourinho was alive with colour and noise. Hundreds of people danced to Forro music, most of them wearing the yellow of the Selecao. The country had stopped to watch them, but this was the party that followed.

"All of us want justice in our country with everything that we imagine possible," said Brazil coach Luiz Felipe Scolari.

"I hope that you from abroad, who are experiencing the Confederations Cup, watch it, but know that this is not an usual situation for us. Things will change and perhaps, in one, two, five, 20 years, who knows, we might have a better country. But it won't happen today or tomorrow."

Less than a month ago, Scolari's side was a topic of controversy and public disappointment. To many the team were money-grabbing mercenaries, most of who played 5,000 miles away in Europe, many of whom they had only seen when they appeared in the yellow of Brazil.

But four victories on the spin have changed all that. As has the situation on the streets and the mood of protest.

Now, the nation listens when David Luiz, or captain Thiago Silva, says they support the protests. The peaceful activists draw strength from their words, feel inspired by their faith in what is being fought for - a better Brazil, a more equal Brazil.

Paulo Riccardo, a 32-year-old Bahian, told me he was encouraged by the compassion the players had showed and that it had helped to close the gap between the people and their Selecao. "They are very rich and we don't have money, but we are all facing the same problems as Brazilians," he said.

The protests have not stopped. On Saturday, there were violent clashes in Belo Horizonte, where Brazil play their semi-final on Wednesday.

The success of Brazil on the field cannot rid the country of its problems off it. But as they continue to progress through this tournament there is a sense that momentum is building behind them. At the final whistle, the Arena Fonte Nova sang 'o campeao voltou' - 'the champion is back'.

The national team dare not disappoint the people of Brazil.

map showing protest sites

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