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How Brazilian Soccer Became An Elitist Pastime

High ticket prices and fancy stadiums are making the games of the national pastime off-limits for most of Brazil's population.

Fluminense FC's fans
Fluminense FC's fans
Eduardo Scolese

SÃ​O PAULO — Marlene Matheus is filling up a glass of beer when she's suddenly taken aback as the TV cameras zoom in on the crowd at the Porto Alegre stadium. It's June 25, and São Paulo's Corinthians, the soccer team she managed in the early 1990s, is playing against Grêmio. Looking at her sons-in-law, she asks why there are no black supporters in the stands.

It is not an easy question to answer, but it might have something to do with the growing elitism of Brazilian soccer. Starting in the late 1990s, the price of tickets went up, standing room places were gradually eliminated and stadiums turned into well-groomed arenas, all resulting in the gradual exclusion of the population's poorest. And in Brazil, three-quarters of the poorest are black.

Over the past two decades, those who earn minimum wage, or even twice that, have lost their place in the "sport of the people." These days a bus driver, cleaner or laborer cannot even consider going to the stadium.

One explanation might be in the so-called "partner-supporter" model, which gained ground in the south and spread throughout the country, putting an end to long lines outside ticket shops and retaining only the most fanatic supporters. But the model excludes those who only want to attend two or three games per season.

For example, Matheus's club, the Corinthians, functions more like an investment portfolio than a club of supporters: The more tickets you buy, the more points you earn. The more points you have, the bigger your chances of being part of a restricted group allowed to purchase tickets before the others. The tickets remaining after the initial selection go to other partners. If any tickets are left, they go to the ticket office, where the price is always above 150 reais, ($45), too prohibitive for low-income supporters to even consider.

In the past, stadiums used to bring together the rich and poor. They would all enter through the same gate, they would hug each other, cry together. Many would even become friends. Soccer would unite people of different classes and cultures.

Of course, there are some positive aspects to today's arenas: There are more women, decent toilets and clean seats. But recent news reports have also shown that homophobia, violence and ignorance remain rife. Matheus says she knows nothing of all that. But she does know that if a supporter makes the mistake of shouting "goal" a second too early, he could get beaten up by other supporters for having jinxed the player.

Brazil might be the favorite for another World Cup, but sadly, it has slipped far behind in keeping its own national pastime a sport of and for the people.

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