Riot police control crowds before a match between Brazil and Mexico in Fortaleza yesterday. Photograph: Robert Ghement/EPA
Authorities in Brazil's two biggest cities have made a U-turn on public transport fare increases in the face of mass protests that have overshadowed the country's build up to next year's World Cup.
In advance of major demonstrations on Thursday, the leaders of São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro announced that bus and subway price rises will be rescinded, but it is far from certain that this will be enough to mollify public unrest.
Although the demonstrations began on a small scale last week in opposition to the fare rises, they have spread rapidly to encompass a variety of frustrations. A quarter of a million people took to the streets in at least 12 cities on Monday to call for better public services, an end to corruption, punishment for police brutality, and less wasteful spending on the World Cup.
Sporadic protests have continued since and spread to smaller cities, occasionally resulting in violence. Among the most recent incidents was a clash on Wednesday between police and demonstrators in the north-eastern city of Fortaleza ahead of a Confederations Cup game in the city between Brazil and Mexico. The 15,000 protestors were forced back from the Castelão stadium perimeter with pepper spray, tear gas and – by one account – rubber bullets. A police car was torched and some supporters were obstructed on their way to the game.
President Dilma Rousseff has attempted to placate the protesters by declaring her government willing to listen. She also held meetings with several regional governors, urging them to step back on fare increases and to ensure police restraint.
São Paulo's mayor Fernando Haddad reluctantly accepted, but said the loss of revenue for fares would affect other areas of the budget. "This will represent a big sacrifice and we will have to reduce investments in other areas," he said.
The organisers of the demonstrators have yet to respond, but protestgroups on Facebook and other social network sites that have rallied the public continue to call for "a million man march" on Thursday. There is also expected to be a protest near the Maracanã ahead of a Confederations Cup game in the afternoon.
Fifa president Sepp Blatter has called on Brazil's protesters to stop linking their demonstrations to the tournament, which is a dry run for the World Cup. "I can understand that people are not happy, but they should not use football to make their demands heard," Blatter said on Globo TV, a domestic station.
But several of Brazil's national team players have expressed their support for the demonstrators. "I see these demonstrators and I know that they are right," the forward Hulk told a press conference in Fortaleza on Tuesday. "We know Brazil needs to improve in many areas and must let the demonstrators express themselves."
Fifa's tournaments have become a focus for many demonstrators, who feel the 12 stadiums the country has built or renovated at huge cost show how public money is spent on projects that benefit construction companies and TV stations rather than hospital and schools. This argument has been eloquently expressed in English in a popular YouTube video titled "No, I'm not going to the World Cup", which has drawn more than 1.5m hits.
The video's narrator, Carla Dauden, said: "Suddenly there is all this money available to build new stadiums and the population is led to believe the World Cup is the change they need for their lives to get better. "But the truth is that most of the money from the games and the stadiums goes straight to Fifa and we don't see it so we don't get it and the money from tourists and investors goes to those who already have money." The government says the $13.3bn spending on the tournaments is also being used to improve roads, metro services, airports, communications and public security, all of which would help boost the country's economic and social development.
This point was emphasised by Blatter, who said Fifa did not impose the tournament on the hosts. "Brazil asked to host the World Cup," Blatter said. "They knew that to host a good World Cup they would naturally have to build stadiums.
"But we said that it was not just for the World Cup. Together with the stadiums there are other constructions: highways, hotels, airports … Items that are for the future. Not just for the World Cup."
He and Rousseff were booed by the crowd at the opening ceremony of the Confederations Cup on Saturday.