The government must be relieved that things have gone relatively smoothly, though a Brazil loss still strikes terror into the hearts of many here. With protests and strife in the background for now, many Brazilians have been mixing with foreigners meaningfully for the first time.
For the last few months the war cry of Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff was that the tournament would be “a Copa das Copas” – the best World Cup of them all. Even as stadium work stumbled, rather than raced, towards the finishing line, and worries remained over creaky transport networks and the chaos wrought in a number of cities by striking bus drivers and policemen, under-fire Dilma remained defiant – everything would be alright on the night.
Two weeks into the tournament, the president could be forgiven for settling back in her armchair at the Palácio da Alvorada and smugly lighting a large cigar. None of the stadiums have collapsed, most fans have managed to get to games on time (with the exception of those unable to hire canoes to get them to the USA v Germany match in a submerged Recife on Thursday), and the general chaos predicted by many has failed to materialize.
The real success of the tournament, however, has come on the pitch. The group stage has seen a whopping 136 goals in 48 matches, giving an average of 2.83 goals per game. It is the highest total ever recorded during a World Cup group phase, and only nine fewer than the total number of goals scored during the entire 2010 competition.
There have been too many memorable games to mention, with pride of place perhaps going to the Netherlands’ 5-1 thumping of Spain. The lush grass pitches of Brazil’s pricy new stadiums have been lit up by tremendous individual performances from the likes of Neymar, Messi, Robben and Colombia’s James Rodrigues. And there has even been time for a few surprises – the fairytale progress of little Costa Rica, for example, who topped a group comprised of three former World Cup winners and went on to advance past Greece. Large numbers of visiting fans, and even the odd Brazilian or two, have created a boisterous, yet largely peaceful atmosphere at virtually every game.
But it could still end in tears for Brazil
Whether Brazil manages to stage an enjoyable, efficiently run World Cup or not, however, was never really the question, and the real success of the tournament for the country will only be known long after the dust has settled and the visiting fans have gone home – once balance sheets and tourism statistics have been totted up, the long-term futures of a number of stadiums resolved, and the long list of unfinished infrastructure projects addressed.
While last year’s political protests and the large numbers (prior to the competition at least) of people opposed to hosting the World Cup suggest that the “Brazilians only care about football” theory may no longer hold true, if it ever did, there is no doubt that the emotional sway created by a Brazil World Cup win would go a long way to making people look favorably upon the Copa once the last final whistle has blown.
Whether the Seleção will fulfil its part of the bargain, however, is open to question. Brazil squeaked past Croatia in its opening game in São Paulo, then battled to a tough goalless draw against Mexico. A ramshackle Cameroon side were dispatched 4-1 in Brasilia in the final group game, but even then Brazil had looked nervous in the first half. And the less said about the team’s agonizing, sweaty-palmed win on penalties over Chile on Saturday the better. Striker Fred has been out of sorts, there are worries over the form of full backs Marcelo and Daniel Alves and midfielder Paulinho, and Neymar aside, the team has struggled to create chances.
A testing route to the final lies ahead, with Colombia up next. The players and coach Luiz Felipe Scolari have at times looked unnerved by the pressure and emotion of playing a World Cup at home, with captain Thiago Silva crying before even taking the field against Croatia, and Scolari growling at journalists in the press conference that followed the Mexico game.
The World Cup will not fall apart if Brazil are eliminated, but there is no doubt that those Brazilians caught up in the patriotic fervor currently swirling around the country (encouraged in no small part by a rash of tub-thumping TV commercials) might take a rather dimmer view of the tournament should the unthinkable happen and Brazil are knocked out.
World Cup melting pot
In a country where even the most erudite publications and media outlets continue to use the word gringo as a catch-all for foreigners of every stripe, and where the world is seemingly divided into Brazilians and non-Brazilians, the arrival of hundreds and thousands of visiting fans has been an eye-opening experience. It is unlikely, in fact, that Brazilians have ever had quite such an opportunity to observe the rest of the world up close.
For the most part those fans have done themselves proud, supporting their teams loudly, passionately and in many different ways. Stadiums have echoed to the sound of throaty, old-school and defiant English fans (who amusingly refused to participate in such frivolity as “the wave”) and raucous, flare-waving Algerians. Hordes of Argentinians have invaded the Maracanã and the Beira-Rio in Porto Alegre, singing about why Maradona is better than Pelé. An army of Mexicans have made Julio Cesar and the rest of the Brazil team feel that as though they were playing at the Estadio Azteca and not the Estadio Castelão. There have been American frat boys and swaggering Germans drinking together in rain-lashed Recife. Thousands of boisterous Colombians have swamped Belo Horizonte and multitudes of Chileans have taken over Copacabana. In general, all this cross-border intermingling has passed off peacefully. The world has come to Brazil and been made to feel welcome. Perhaps, in return, the host country has learnt a little bit about the world beyond its borders.