Between “Jogo bonito” and riots on the streets
By Kai Pfaffenbach
Football is the sport I most like to photograph.
Almost everybody in Reuters knows that. When I was assigned to head to Brazil to cover the FIFA Confederations Cup one of my dreams came a little closer: covering a soccer match at Rio’s famous Maracana stadium. After almost two weeks of following the tournament’s group stage matches I haven’t seen the Maracana (that only happens for the final). But I have had the pleasure of traveling in a team of three with my colleagues Jorge Silva and Paulo Whitaker from Brasilia to Belo Horizonte, Fortaleza and Salvador. The stadiums look great, they are ready for the big event next year, the spectators are as enthusiastic as expected and so far we have seen good games with an outstanding Brazilian superstar Neymar and spectacular overhead kicks from Hulk.
But I have to admit that my attention has been taken away from the stadiums, organization and the games by the huge demonstrations across Brazil. It is very obvious that the people are not happy about how things are happening here and it seems solidarity for the cause is rising.
Some of these protests unfortunately turned into riots and violence. Being quite experienced with this and even used to rough police enforcement for the last few days I found myself outside the stadiums to cover the street fights before heading back in to cover the matches. The situation develops very quickly here. Most of the protesters were calm, only shouting slogans and holding up placards and flags but some of them were ready for trouble. Stones flew everywhere, barricades were set on fire and it turned into proper civil unrest.
The reaction of the police varied. In Fortaleza they threatened the media with fire arms. That was one of the most scary situations I have ever faced as a photographer. This didn’t happen to me in any war zone I have covered the past ten years but in Fortaleza a police officer pointed his pistol towards an AP colleague and myself to prevent us from taking pictures as police and national guard faced off against the protesters.
Police in Salvador reacted completely differently. They let the media move around and work without disturbing us at all despite the riots being a lot more violent. Police withstood a hail of stones and fired tear gas with their shotguns to block the protesters from marching to the stadium.
I expect these clashes will get bigger and wilder and for us it’s time to get some riot gear to stay safe. Usually we wear a helmet and a mask for protection from tear gas. When I packed my equipment back home in Germany two weeks ago, I didn’t expect anything like this so I am a bit “short” of protection gear and had to improvise. A handkerchief with water and lemon juice works quite well against tear gas (at least inhaling it is not that painful) and we found a construction worker’s helmet to round out the silly look. With ten more days to go in the tournament I, to be honest, don’t expect the protests will stop until the final. Even the great performance of the Brazilians second biggest love, their national football team, the “Selecao” will not stop the people marching for better and fairer living conditions.
In case I return for the World Cup next year I will bring a second bag with my “just in case” equipment but I hope I will not need it. It would be great if the politicians could take some action and react to the demands of their people. If that happens we can expect the biggest football festival ever, if not I assume the riots we are seeing now are just a light warm-up for even heavier clashes next year.