In the next of our Brazil Series, amid continuing anger ahead of the World Cup, the contrast couldn't be greater between Carnival, now underway, and the summer's festival of football. Revellers on the streets brought Brazil to a stand-still at the weekend. A repeat in June could spell a nightmare for FIFA and the image the tournament hosts want to convey to the watching world.

carnivalIn the next of our Brazil Series, amid continuing anger ahead of the World Cup, the contrast couldn’t be greater between Carnival, now underway, and the summer’s festival of football. Revellers on the streets brought Brazil to a stand-still at the weekend. A repeat in June could spell a nightmare for FIFA and the image the tournament hosts want to convey to the watching world.

Few love a party as much as the Brazilians and with the fiesta of music and colour in full swing, the nation besotted with football indulges in its other great passion, Carnival. While still at Santos, Neymar complained of having to play during the festival weekend while the rest of the country celebrated. Over the years, many European-based Brazilians such as Ronaldinho reported back for club duty from a trip home carrying a few extra pounds.

ronaldinho sambaWhile Carnival has been celebrated for centuries, samba schools have been inaugurated into the Rio de Janeiro commemorations since the 1920s. Many of Rio’s largest schools such as Salgueiro, Unidos da Tijuca, Grande Rio, and Beija Flor were formed from, or owned by, football teams in the beginning. Many of the groups throughout the country owe their origins, and are still connected to, Brazil’s football teams. And like football clubs, the schools have their own flags, emblems, colour-schemes, anthems, and devoted life-long supporters.

The Imperatriz Leopoldinense school in Rio paid tribute to the former Brazil and Flamengo star, Zico as the theme for their entire performance at the weekend.

“This is one of the greatest tributes one can receive. For a Brazilian, a samba school parade is right up there with a World Cup,” Zico told AFP.

Last November, we visited the Vai Vai school in Sao Paulo. Formed after a split from a football club called Bandeau, from the Rio Saracura region, it is the school with the most amount of titles in the Carnival parade Special Group. Closer to Carnival, the school rehearsals are open to the public and each night attracts locals and tourists to the Bixiga neighbourhood. There among the revellers, the dancers, and pounding drums on the closed street was Cafú, Brazil’s 2002 World Cup-winning captain. For a visitor wanting to experience Brazil’s two passions, there could scarcely have been a better mix. Looking like he could still do a job on a football pitch, and called down to the stage, Cafú walked through the crowd stopping for photographs and handshakes.

Each year the Carnival parade sees competing schools performing for votes with the results announced on Tuesday. Just like on the football pitch, teams can be promoted and relegated with the best schools closing the following year’s festival.

Gavioes da Fiel is the samba school of Corinthians FC in Sao Paulo. Back in 2012, things weren’t going well for Gavioes (The Hawks), trailing in ninth place as the results were read out. But it was a fan of the Imperio de Casa Verde school, incensed at the announcement, who scaled the barriers, grabbing the papers, ripping them apart. Chaos followed.

Fans of the Gavioes, drawn mainly from Corinthians hardcore following decided they’d heard enough too. They began pulling down fencing and invaded the Sambradrome, where the Carnival parade takes place, before eventually moving onto the nearby motorway.

With the announcement incomplete and the winning school unable to perform their victory dance, the police moved in as rival fan groups then set fire to parade floats.

And it these hardcore supporter elements that are causing concern for Brazilian football at present. Last month, up to 100 people aligned to Corinthians’ support broke into the club’s training ground and attacked players after a 5-1 defeat to Sao Paulo state rivals Santos. Peru international Paolo Guerrero was grabbed around the neck, while some teammates had money and mobile phones stolen.

Corinthians have threatened to strike if player security is not improved. Violence is becoming a high-profile problem for Brazilian football authorities. Two weeks ago, a 34-year-old Santos supporter was killed while waiting for a bus following a derby match with São Paulo.

Writing in the Guardian, former Arsenal player Gilberto Silva described the Common Sense FC movement, a union he created and already consisting of over 1000 professional players who have come together to protest against low pay, poor pitches, and lack of player security. The ‘weak response’ from the Brazilian Football Confederation has increased the possibility of an all-out strike in the first week of the Brazilian championship, on 19 April.

During the last season, numerous games in the Campeonato Brasiliero saw players refuse to compete immediately after kick-off in protest against fixture congestion. The state-championships are eagerly contested in Brazil alongside the national league.

20131207_194656Visiting the new Maracana stadium on the final day of the season, we took in newly crowned cup champions Flamengo against league winners Cruzeiro. Among our group was 76-year-old Francisco Santos, scarcely recognising the ground since he’d last seen it many years before. Now a shining new edifice in time for the great FIFA extravaganza this summer, the stadium impressed him but Francisco is one of the millions of Brazilians who have witnessed services suffer while mind-blowing amounts of money are poured from the public purse to finish facilities in time.

Tickets for the tournament will be beyond the reach of most ordinary Brazilians. Francisco will take pride from the positive image of his country, though its under threat with protests against the World Cup and violence having already returned to the streets. But he’ll take the greatest pleasure in the Selecao’s genuine chance of lifting the trophy on home soil.

Last weekend three generations of his family headed together into the centre of Rio de Janeiro for the great free street parties near the Copacabana celebrating Carnival. In three months, the party will be branded by FIFA but the streets may be thronged with people in less joyous mood.