A public prosecutor in Brazil has opened an investigation into FIFA’s alleged rejection of two black celebrity presenters for Friday’s World Cup draw in favour of a famous white couple. FIFA has denied any wrongdoing, amid accusations of racism and outrage on social media.
A Brazilian news magazine, Veja, reported that FIFA had rejected the choice of Lazaro Ramos and Camila Pitanga, stars of the popular novela Lado a Lado (Side By Side), who are of African descent, in favor of a blond, white couple, Fernanda Lima and Rodrigo Hilbert.
Veja’s report sparked a media fire-storm.
"Why are you messing with the draw presenters, Brazilians want Lazaro Ramos and Camila Pitanga!" said one tweet. Another widely retweeted message read "FIFA, we want Lázaro Ramos and Camila Pitanga, ok? They are our face, our people, and we love them!"
American filmmaker Spike Lee, who is filming a documentary in Brazil, told Rolling Stone that "This shows who is really in charge. When it comes to soccer, who really runs this s*** is FIFA and FIFA is only concerned with the audience."
World-famous Brazilian singer Seu Jorge reportedly said, "FIFA doesn’t act the same way in Brazil as it would in other countries. That would never happen in the United States if they chose Jay Z and Beyoncé to present something."
"The problem is that in our country black is not beautiful, blacks have 'fine features'. No one admits to black beauty," he added.
On Monday, Sao Paulo Public Prosecutor Christiano Jorge Santos opened a case to assess "a possible crime of racism, considering that the actors [Ramos and Pitanga] represent more adequately the racial and ethnic composition of the people of Brazil, while the actors chosen, Fernanda Lima and Rodrigo Hilbert, of white/Caucasian race, under this aspect do not," Veja reported.
FIFA denied that it had vetoed the Afro-Brazilian actors, saying that Lima and Hilbert were chosen from a list of "many names", based on their performance at the World Cup logo launch in 2010.
"FIFA has never vetoed anybody, since the proposals for presenters are made by GEO agency, in coordination with TV Globo," said the organization in a statement cited by news site Estadao. "The presenters and artists will reflect the diversity of Brazil."
FIFA said that, "the definition of the presenters and artistic body of the draw was made after the suggestion of several names by GEO, the agency responsible for the artistic concept of the show. At no time did FIFA veto the name of the aforementioned artists."
Friday’s World Cup draw is to be held in Costa do Sauipe, in the Northeastern state of Bahia. Bahia’s capital, Salvador, has the highest proportion of Afro-Brazilians in the country, and a rich Afro-Brazilian culture. More than 50 percent of Brazil’s 191 million inhabitants declared themselves to be of African origin in the 2010 census.
Lima, the white model who was chosen, responded to the controversy in an interview with newspaper Folha, saying "I’m an employee, a communicator. I was called and I accepted as such and I will do my job. What do I have to do with it? Just because I’m white?"
Adding to confusion surrounding the events, Pitanga told Brazilian media that she had never been officially invited to present the event.
Brazil, which has the largest African-descended population outside of Africa, has been ramping up efforts to reduce racial inequality in recent years. Last month, President Dilma Rousseff announced plans to establish racial quotas requiring 20 per cent of government employees to be black. Last year, a bill was passed requiring prestigious public universities to set aside half their places for public school students and increase the number of spaces allotted to black, mixed-race and indigenous students.
- Controversy likely to add to ill-feeling toward FIFA
Brazilians are sensitive to any perceived missteps by FIFA in the run-up to the World Cup, due to what they argue has been massive overspending on the event in a country that suffers from inadequate public services. All over the country, existing football stadiums have been razed to make way for new and expensive arenas that comply with FIFA's regulations. A commonly held banner during the huge protests that erupted country-wide in June was "We want 'FIFA-standard' hospitals and schools."
In many parts of the country, millions are being spent on stadiums which are likely to become expensive white elephants after the games. In Manaus, in the middle of the Amazon rainforest, a $257 million, 44,000-seat arena is being built, in a city without a top football club. Football matches in Natal, a poor city in the northeastern tip of the country, usually attract at best 5,000 fans. For the World Cup, its existing arena was bulldozed to make way for a 42,000-seater venue.