Civil strife all part of the game in Brazil

WATCHFootball fans crowded around screens large and small across Rio on Thursday evening as the host nation Brazil faced Croatia in the opening match of the FIFA World Cup.

At one point or another in the days leading up to Thursday’s World Cup opener, transit systems and airports in Rio and Sao Paulo have either been choked with traffic congestion amid work stoppages or threatened with it.

Welcome to Brazil. Travellers still end up getting where they have to be (albeit later than intended) in spite of the striking transit workers in Sao Paulo and a partial job walk-off at Rio’s Galeão International Airport.

“It’s certainly a different culture than it is here—it’s organized chaos every day,” Gabor Forgacs, an associate professor at the Ted Rogers School of Management at Toronto’s Ryerson University said.

The wave of labour disputes in the lead up to the World Cup “is a little more than the usual organized chaos,” admits Forgacs, an expert in the Brazilian tourism industry.

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But in soccer-mad Brazil, where so much is on the line for a government and local organizers eager to put their best foot forward – or save face – disgruntled workers are seizing the moment while they can.

The strikers, who have “legitimate issues,” are “taking this opportunity, when governments and organizers are under tremendous pressure, to further their causes,” Forgacs said. “They’re opportunistic.”

The brinkmanship has been effective.

Brazil’s federal police force negotiated a double-digit pay increase last week, while transit workers in Sao Paulo and Rio have won similar pay increases. Airport unions are now demanding their own raises, which they’ll likely get.

“Things more or less fall in place,” Forgacs said. But not without some fireworks first.

“All the most important things that are supposed to happen will happen. But it’s not Switzerland, or Germany where everything happens on time and everything is neat,” the academic said. “No, this is not that [kind of] country.”

So it seems FIFA, soccer’s Zurich-based organizing body, can get Brazil to change its laws, but it cannot force a change in culture.

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READ MORE: Beer back on menu in Brazil stadiums as controversial ban lifts

WATCH: The head of Rio State’s Project Management Office, Jose Candido Muricy, said Brazil’s second largest city is prepared for potential strikes during the World Cup.

And as the 2014 World Cup is about to officially start, there are still fireworks going off in the streets of Sao Paulo surrounding the city’s gleaming new 68,000-seat stadium.

Alongside labour disruptions, Brazilian activists have threatened to disrupt the tournament to protest the estimated $3.4 billion Brazil has spent on the tournament in new facilities that sit a short distance from the favelas, or shantytowns, where tens of thousands reside in poverty.

More than 300 demonstrators gathered along a main highway leading to the new Corinthians stadium. Some in the crowd tried to block traffic, but police repeatedly pushed them back, firing canisters of tear gas and using stun grenades.

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READ MORE: Worker’s death, incomplete stadium mar lead-up to World Cup

“I’m totally against the Cup,” said protester Tameres Mota, a university student at the demonstration. “We’re in a country where the money doesn’t go to the community, and meanwhile we see all these millions spent on stadiums.”

The demonstrations in recent months have paled in comparison to those last year, when a million people took to the streets on a single night airing laments including the sorry state of Brazil’s public services despite the heavy tax burden its citizens endure.

Those protests were largely spontaneous and no single group organized them.

That’s now changed, said David Fleischer, a political scientist at the University of Brasilia. He said the recent protests have shrunk, because they are “very specific in their aims, so they are quite easy for the police to control.”

Because the recent protests have been organized by established groups, there are leaders with whom the government can negotiate. For instance, Fleischer said, in the past week the federal government convinced a large activist group of homeless workers to not demonstrate during the Cup.

“From our [Canadian] perspective, it looks like ‘Oh my God, this is horrible,’” Ryerson’s Prof. Forgacs said.

“But we should understand, this isn’t too far from their everyday way of doing things.”

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GALLERY: Is Brazil ready to host the World Cup? 

This aerial view shot through an airplane window shows the Maracana stadium behind the Christ the Redeemer statue in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Tuesday, May 13, 2014. As opening day for the World Cup approaches, people continue to stage protests, some about the billions of dollars spent on the World Cup at a time of social hardship, but soccer is still a unifying force. The international soccer tournament will be the first in the South American nation since 1950. AP Photo/Felipe Dana
The view from inside the Maracana stadium during a press tour this week. The stadium will host the World Cup Final on July 13. AP Photo/Silvia Izquierdo
Work continues at the Arena da Baixada in the southern city of Curitiba. The host country had seven years to get ready for the World Cup, but it enters the final month of preparations with a lot yet to be done. The unfinished stadium was nearly excluded from the tournament by FIFA earlier this year. AP Photo/Denis Ferreira Netto
An aerial view of the Arena Pantanal in Cuiaba, Brazil from January. A worker at the World Cup stadium died on May 8 in an electrical accident. AP Photo/Portal da Copa, Jose Medeiros
Members of the Homeless Workers Movement protest against the money spent on the World Cup near Itaquerao stadium which will host the international soccer tournament's first match in Sao Paulo, Brazil, Thursday, May 15, 2014. AP Photo/Andre Penne
Labourers work on constructing Terminals 3 and 4 at the Sao Paulo/Guarulhos Governor Andre Franco Montoro International Airport in October. Getty Images
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This Sept. 11, 2013 file photo released by Portal da Copa 2014 shows an aerial view of the Galeao international airport in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. (AP Photo/Portal da Copa 2014, Daniel Basil, File)
A collapsed metal structure sits on the ground at the Arena Corinthians, known locally as the Itaquerao, in Sao Paulo, Brazil, Thursday, Nov. 28, 2013. (AP Photo/Andre Penner). AP Photo/Andre Penner
This March 2014 file photo released by Portal da Copa, shows an aerial view of the Itaquerao stadium in Sao Paulo, Brazil. (AP Photo/Portal da Copa, Mauricio Simonetti, File)
Britain's Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne visits the Maracana stadium in Rio de Janeiro in early April. AP Photo/Silvia Izquierdo
Brazil's previous World Cup champions, from left, Zagallo, Marcos, Rivellino, Amarildo who holds the World Cup, and Bebeto pose for a photo below the Christ the Redeemer statue at the launch of the FIFA World Cup Trophy Tour in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. AP Photo/Silvia Izquierdo, File
The World Cup trophy sits on display during the FIFA World Cup Trophy Tour at Maracana stadium. AP Photo/Felipe Dana
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Popular demand: Star Brazilian footballer Ronaldinho is putting his Rio de Janeiro mansion on the rental market during the World Cup. The five-bedroom house is available for the first 15 days of July for $15,500/day. AP Photo/Bruno Magalhaes, File

–With files from Associated Press

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