(Published on June 12, 2014, by The Oregonian, Newark Star-Ledger, Cleveland Plain-Dealer, New Orleans Times-Picayune, and other Advance publications)
Soccer is not everything in Brazil.
It’s just the biggest thing.
It’s like that in May, and it’s like that in November.
In the north and the south.
In the cities and rural stretches.
Brazilians call this sport the beautiful game, and the way they play it, they are not wrong. They play the game in the alleys of decaying favelas, on sunlit beaches and concrete playgrounds, in darkened hallways of apartment buildings, on patchy fields with little grass. All you need is a ball and imagination. You don’t even need shoes.
Brazil’s national image is reflected in the way its team’s play the game: graceful and daring, stylish and attractive, and better than just about everyone else. The Brazilian national team reflects the best parts of what Brazilians see in their own country. It is the pride of the nation, but it is also the love of the nation.
Now they have the World Cup, the biggest tourney of them all. This event is a huge deal for Brazilians when it’s held elsewhere, let alone in their homeland. The country basically shuts down so everyone can watch the national team’s matches. Businesses free up their workers. Banks close. Presidential elections coincide with World Cup years, and some claim it is to take advantage of patriotic sentiment carrying over from the tournament.
Really, this is how it is.
Now the World Cup is at home, in Brazil, so close they can touch it.
There is excitement.
But there is also anger.
A reported $4.2 billion has been funneled into 12 stadiums when Brazil only needed eight to host the tournament. There’s a stadium in the Amazon jungle city of Manaus, which will host four matches and doesn’t even have a first division soccer club to play in it after the World Cup. Critics say much of that money could instead have been spent on education, social programs and road improvements in a country that, despite the recent rise of a developing middle class, still has one of the world’s largest gaps between the richest and poorest. One of its biggest critics is a former national soccer hero turned congressman.
Protests have riled Brazil for months in opposition to this approach to the World Cup by Brazil and FIFA, the international soccer body. In 2013, riots marred the Confederations Cup, a tournament that is basically a test run for the World Cup. Sao Paolo subway workers are on strike. More demonstrations will likely follow.
Meanwhile, Brazil has failed to come through with many of the infrastructure improvements that the country promised FIFA to gain hosting rights for the World Cup. Capital projects remain unfinished.
For many Brazilians, it’s like someone took something you love and distorted it.
But you still love it, like a bad girlfriend or boyfriend who keeps taking advantage of you. (For more, see John Oliver’s classic take on FIFA below.)
My wife is Brazilian. She remembers gathering with other Brazilian friends in the post-midnight hours to watch the 2002 World Cup final, which was held in Japan. We both remember arriving in her hometown of Belo Horizonte in 2003, just after local team Cruzeiro won the national league. Cruzeiro’s blue was everywhere.
And I’ve heard the funny but sometimes angry stories about “the Brazilian way” and the accompanying use of connections, corruption and other means in so many parts of life.
Many Brazilians think the World Cup will be a disaster. Many think it will be spectacular. It will probably end up being a bit of both.
But one thing is certain: It will be memorable.