The President Wins the Midfield Battle: Watch out Washington! Lula, Brazil's New Leader, Bent on Social and Economic Reform in Defiance of the IMF, Has Already Won a Contest That Matters to Millions

By Bellos, Alex | New Statesman (1996), November 3, 2003 | Go to article overview

The President Wins the Midfield Battle: Watch out Washington! Lula, Brazil's New Leader, Bent on Social and Economic Reform in Defiance of the IMF, Has Already Won a Contest That Matters to Millions


Bellos, Alex, New Statesman (1996)


When Brazil's finance minister, Antonio Palocci, hobbled into Congress on crutches last April, be bore an injury that resulted from a brutal confrontation with a senior union leader. Tension between government and unions is common in most countries, and scores are sometimes settled with violence. In Brazil's case, however, the minister's broken ankle was sustained during a game of football at the presidential palace.

It is now a year since Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva was elected Brazilian president. The former shoe-shine boy, economic migrant, lathe worker and militant has brought a change of style to political life in Brasilia, and no example is more resonant than the regular matches he plays with friends, family and colleagues. In August, when Lula wanted his ministers to commemorate a victory in the battle for pension reform, he invited them for a kick-about. Lula's team beat the side captained by the fisheries minister 5-3.

To relax by playing football with friends, as Lula does, shows that he shares the simple joys of the common man--as, perhaps, the country's first working-class president should. It also authenticates his Brazilianness. When Lula kicks a ball, he is expressing his cultural identity. You would expect the leaders of the country with the most successful record in the world's most popular sport always to have been conspicuous for their love of the beautiful game. Yet Lula is a rare exception; as a grass-roots supporter of Corinthians, Sao Paulo's most popular club, he can claim to be the first genuine football fan to lead the country for 30 years.

That helps to explain the great affection he inspires in most Brazilians: he speaks their language, feels the simple passions they feel. But more importantly, football influences the content as well as the form of his administration. Lula was elected on a leftwing platform of social reforms; his priority, he said, was to end hunger. Yet the first two laws he signed as president in May both concerned football.

In Brazil, football is one of the most prominent stages on which the battle to make the country a fairer place is being fought. The sport is run by a network of unaccountable, largely corrupt figures known as carrolas, or "top hats", who have become obscenely wealthy while the domestic football scene is broke and demoralised. The public plundering of football is a constant and very visible reminder of the country's failings.

In 1998, this came to a head. For most countries, an appearance in the World Cup final is the stuff of dreams. For Brazil, a 3-0 defeat to France in that year's final was a national disaster. It prompted two years of congressional investigations which revealed shocking details of the behaviour of the cartolas. As a result, Fernando Henrique Cardoso, Lula's predecessor as president, introduced temporary legislation to enforce transparency in club administration. In May, Lula ratified the measure--it became the Law of Moralisation in Sport. On the same day, he sanctioned a more ambitious and wide-ranging law: the "fans statute", a bill of rights for the football fan. Brazil's dispossessed millions are denied their rights as citizens in many areas of their lives--at least now they are allowed them as fans.

The statute contains obvious and elementary rules about safety, hygiene and ticketing. Yet it also requires the Brazilian FA (CBF) to hold at least one nation al competition in which the "teams know before it begins how many games they will play and who their opponents will be". While it seems faintly ridiculous for this to be a law, rather than common sense or part of the CBF's regulations, the article is actually one of the statute's most crucial.

Brazil has had a national league only since 1971--a year after it became the first country to have won the World Cup three times. The league has changed its format every year since then as the cartolas, hand in glove with the dictators who ruled Brazil until recently, used the sport to serve their own interests.

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