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IRAJA, Brazil – The protesters who many feared would wreck Brazil's World Cup party failed to show up. While the national team fell short of claiming the coveted championship, the country at least can say the tournament that wraps up with Sunday's title game has gone off with only scattered demonstrations.
Brazil avoided a repeat of last year's Confederations Cup when violent protests broke out in several cities and more than a million people took to the streets on just one night to demand the government spend on improvements for education and other public services instead of soccer. But the absence of conflict during the World Cup came less from dissipated anger than attention being glued to the games and police cracking down on even small demonstrations.
Paulo Cavalcante, a 50-year-old public servant, shouted himself hoarse during last year's protests, even bringing his teenage daughter along on the marches. But during the World Cup, like many other Brazilians, he chose to stay home.
"The police had orders to break the demonstrators," he said, referring to the early days of the monthlong tournament when officers turned tear gas and powerful stun guns on even small crowds of protesters. "I couldn't put my family in harm's way."
For Sunday's final between Argentina and Germany in Rio de Janeiro, authorities ordered the deployment of more than 25,000 officers and soldiers, the largest security detail in Brazil's history. On Saturday, police arrested 19 people suspected of vandalism and seized gas masks, fireworks and firearms, according to local media reports.
President Dilma Rousseff, who bore the brunt of criticism over spending on World Cup stadiums and projects, rejoiced in having created a festive and welcoming atmosphere for fans that proved doubters wrong. "We competently maintained peace and order," she told a group of foreign journalists Friday night.
Whether such celebration will serve her in the campaign for her re-election in October's election remains to be seen. Anger continues to simmer over inflation, gripping poverty and allegations of corruption.
"The average Brazilian citizen has deep grievances against the government and is sympathetic to the unified demand of the street — namely that the government funnels the same resources they put into organizing the World Cup into education, health and housing," said Guillermo Trejo, a political scientist at Notre Dame University who focuses on social unrest in Latin America.
The peace of the last month is due, in part, to the lack of a "catalyst — something that would transform widespread grievances and moral indignation into a return to mass mobilization," he said.
During the 2013 Confederations Cup, small demonstrations over a 10-cent rise in bus and subway fares in Sao Paulo quickly escalated. A police crackdown on the mostly young demonstrators there provoked anger nationwide, fueling the country's largest protests in a generation.
The movement lost steam as protests became increasingly violent, with fiery clashes between police and supporters of Black Bloc anarchist movement. Many Brazilians were alienated by the movement's radical tactics, such as attacks on banks, international business offices and even police.
But during the World Cup, aside from an early clash outside Rio's Maracana stadium, the black-masked anarchists were nowhere to be seen.
Political artist Paulo Ito alluded to their absence in a mural painted along a road in Sao Paulo. In it, a TV screen showing a soccer match has the attention of a group of people, including a masked protester whose banner denouncing soccer's governing body, FIFA, hangs limply over his shoulder.
Were it not for the potential danger of participating in protests, Cavalcantes said he would have taken to the streets again.
"Since we protested last year, no tragedy has happened to our family — no one got laid off, no one had an accident, no one got sick. But even so, we're worse off now than we were a year ago," said Cavalcantes, who lives in the bleak and violence-wracked Rio suburb of Iraja. "Our costs continue to outpace inflation and even living an extremely modest lifestyle, we barely make it to the end of the month."
Still, it was hard not to put anger aside during the World Cup party.
"World Cup was like an extended Carnival, like samba," Cavalcantes said. "Once it got going, people got caught up in the fun because it distracts from the difficulties of life."
Even his daughter Maria, who protested with him last year, was swept up in the spirit.
"I know why the World Cup is bad for Brazil, bad for people like us," she said. "But I still went out and bought a Brazil jersey. I couldn't help myself."
Associated Press writer Bradley Brooks in Rio de Janeiro contributed to this report.