Demonstrations against the World Cup descended into street riots in Sao Paulo yesterday (Sunday) as a Brazilian anti-inequality protest movement launched a campaign against public spending on sports extravaganzas.
Cars were burnt in the streets, shop fronts were vandalised and bank windows were smashed as Brazilian chapters of the worldwide radical activists Anonymous called for support for "Operation Stop the World Cup". Police clashed with the crowd of up to 2,500 in running battles that at one point forced bystanders to seek refuge from the fighting.
The protest forced the Sao Paulo authorities to call off an event to mark the city's 460th anniversary. As many as 128 people were detained by the security forces.
While the rally was dominated by the middle class at the outset, it was joined by an anarchist group known as Black Block as the violence started. Solidarity protests were also staged in Rio de Janeiro and Brasilia, the capital, as organisers attempted to set in train a series of mass demonstrations in the run-up to the World Cup, which opens in June.
Last year the country was racked by some of the worst violence it has seen since the dictatorships of the 1980s when it staged the Confederations Cup, the lesser tournament traditionally regarded as a prelude to the World Cup. Social unrest ranks alongside shoddy infrastructure as leading concerns for teams and supports planning to travel to Brazil for the tournament.
While the country has won the World Cup five times, many Brazilians resent the scale of spending poured into hosting the tournament. Banners carried in the business districts of Sao Paulo proclaimed "No rights, No World Cup" and "Fifa go home".
Despite the popularity of the game, some demonstrators took aim at the earnings of players. "Wake up Brazil, a teacher is worth more than [footballer] Neymar" was one slogan. It is not just the disparity of income between rich footballers and public sector employees that took the brunt of anger.
"By rights we mean the people's right to decent public services," said Leonardo Pelegrini dos Santos, a university student. "We are against the millions and millions of dollars being spent for the Cup. It is money that should be invested in better health and education services and better transportation and housing."
Demonstrators staged a sit-in along a line of lavatory bowls set along Cocabana beach in Rio to highlight that 70 per cent of the city's sewage was untreated before it was dumped in the bay. "The Olympics are coming, the World Cup is coming, it's a chance to draw attention and maybe the world can talk about what's happening here in Rio," said Leona Deckelbaum, an activist.
"To me it is unbelievable that there's not basic sanitation in a city like Rio." Another pointed out the contrast between the images in tourist brochures and the consequences of lack of city services. "It's really dirty. The sand, everything," said Ruth Ferreira. Separately Brazil has been hit in recent weeks by generalised unrest targeting commercial areas.
Almost a dozen shopping centres in the country have been hit by "rolezinhos" - mobs, composed primarily of young people from slum areas, going on the rampage in upmarket shopping malls in sRio and Sao Paulo.
Dilma Rousseff, the president, has seen her government's popularity hit even as she prepares to launch her campaign for re-election in October.