The very fun World Cup confounded expectations while exposing some deep truths. Was it all worth it? Above, dismantling the extra seats at São Paulo’s Itaquerão Stadium.
It is January. The foreign journalist sits at his desk in London (or New York or Berlin) and thinks about the World Cup. The foreign journalist is not happy. The foreign journalist is worried. The foreign journalist is angry. The stadiums are not ready, he hears, and even if they were, the traffic and the public transport network in Brazil is such a seething mess that he and his fellow foreign journalists would not be able to get from their expensive hotels to the matches anyway. People say the hundreds of thousands of protestors who took to the streets last June will back in five months’ time, and that there will be more of them, and that they will be more furious and more violent. “It’s the World Cup of chaos!” he writes, and leans back in his chair, pleased with his work.
At the same time the foreign journalist knows none of this is important. What is important is o povo Brasileiro – the Brazilian people. The foreign soccer journalist loves the Brazilian people. He cares about them – about their terrible public schools and hospitals, the high taxes they must pay, their capering, corrupt politicians. One of those politicians, the president Dilma Rousseff, says it will be the Copa das Copas – the best World Cup of them all. “Who is she trying to kid?” writes the foreign journalist, his fingers banging on his keyboard with ever increasing rage.
It is June. The foreign journalist is sitting at a bar on Copacabana beach in Rio de Janeiro. A caipirinha glistens icily on the table in front of him. He gazes at the milky green ocean and the depthless blue sky. He feels the warmth of the sun on his bare toes. As he watches, a Brazilian woman walks past. He stares at the lustrous dark shank of her hair and the soft coppery skin of her arms and legs – it almost seems to glow!, he thinks to himself, making a mental note not to forget the image. The woman smiles at him. Such friendly people!, thinks the foreign journalist. He sips his caipirinha and remembers the thrilling tumble of goals he saw while watching the Netherlands v Spain in Salvador a couple of days before. “It really is the Copa das Copas!” he thinks. He raises his glass to Dilma, and to Brazil.
Such bipolarity is not the foreign journalist’s fault, of course. To dip into touristic cliché, Brazil is an intoxicating, embracing country of sunshine, smiles and sensuous, bewitching rhythms. And the World Cup was, for the most part, far more exciting and goal-drenched than any such multi-billion dollar, corporate-sponsored modern soccer tournament has any right to be. Even the final between Germany and Argentina, normally a bitter, bickering affair, was open and enthralling.
The stadiums did not fall down – though two, the Arena das Dunas and the Arena de São Paulo, hosted games without proper safety certificates (the former) or being tested to full capacity (the latter). The airports did not collapse under the strain of transporting thousands of fans across this vast country (though overall passenger numbers were 4% lower than they were for the month before the Copa, Brazil’s aviation authorities have said, as business travelers and non-World Cup tourists postponed their trips until after the tournament).
The traffic was not as apocalyptic as threatened, even if that was largely the result of the country’s traditional mid-year school holidays being moved forward to coincide with the World Cup, eradicating the horrors of the school run, while public holidays were declared on match days in many cities. In the end, no one died – apart from the eight construction workers who lost their lives to accidents during stadium building work, and the two Brazilians who were killed when a road bridge, part of an unfinished World Cup urban infrastructure project, collapsed in Belo Horizonte (needless to say, as a nation swooned into a collective crisis after a young soccer player cracked a vertebrae, an injury from which he will soon recover, there was not even the suggestion that a minute’s silence might be held before games to honor such deaths).
Brazil is a country where many still live below the government’s extreme poverty line of less than $32 per month, and where there were a dizzying 50,000 murders in 2012. Stress levels among Brazil workers are the second-highest in the world, according to a report last year by the International Stress Management Association, which rather punctures the image of Brazilians as beaming girls or boys from Ipanema, samba-ing down the beach in tiny bikinis or sungas (the snug fitting beachwear of choice for local males) while effortlessly juggling a soccer ball on their toes. While the media (both local and international) shrieked with delight over the avalanche of goals during the group stage of the Copa das Copas, before declaring with equal drama that Brazil had been plunged into mourning after being dismantled so humiliatingly by Germany in the semi-final, the majority of locals I spoke to in a non-interview scenario during the tournament about (a) the World Cup and (b) Brazil’s elimination responded roughly as follows:
“I haven’t watched that many games because I’ve been at work, but it seems like it’s been pretty good.”
“Yeah, it’s a shame. This Brazil team is shit. The players are all money grabbers who care more about their careers in Europe than the national team. But really I’m more interested in [insert local club of choice].”
In other words, the reaction of people who are impressed and intrigued by the fact that an entertaining sporting competition is taking place in their backyard, and angry about the crappy performance of their team, but also of people who, quite frankly, have more important things to worry about.
The Mineiraço was not the Maracanazo (Brazil’s historic, and allegedly psychologically scarring defeat to Uruguay in the final game of the 1950 World Cup at the Maracana) because Brazil is a very different country now to what it was then. Back then this relatively young nation was still coming to terms with its identity as a multi-racial society (slavery had only been officially abolished in 1888), and wrestling over the idea of whether a nation built on miscegenation could ever really amount to much – the complexo vira lata, or “mongrel complex”, described by renowned sportswriter and dramatist Nelson Rodrigues. As the historian David Goldblatt writes in his book on Brazilian soccer and history, Futebol Nation, after the Seleção lost to Hungary in the violence scarred quarter-final of the 1954 World Cup, “the official report continued to cast the problem in terms of miscegenation: “The Brazilian players lacked what is lacking for the Brazilian people in general…The ills are deeper than the game’s tactical system…They go back to genetics itself.””
Today things are much different, although racial segregation is still rife, with the country’s exclusive leisure clubs, expensive restaurants and shopping malls (and World Cup stadiums) generally populated by wealthier, paler-skinned Brazilians, and the public hospitals, schools and working class jobs and neighborhoods filled largely by their poorer, most often darker complexioned countrymen (a recent survey showed that black Brazilians earn 36% less than their non-black counterparts). Nonetheless, led at least in part by black or mixed-race soccer players, from the country’s first superstar, Arthur Friedenreich, to Leonidas da Silva, at least today’s Brazil is no longer in any doubt that on and off the pitch its present and future success will be the result of, rather than despite of, its rich racial heritage.
Now – after the teams and the foreign fans and journalists have gone home, the real debate over the success of the World Cup can begin – the benefits and costs totted up, the long term future of the stadiums discussed (Brazilian club soccer returned to action this week, with many Mundial stadiums not even half-full), and lessons over the painful preparations for the event hopefully learned.