By Edwin Johan Santana Gaarder

As a European-born Brazilian of mixed heritage, taking part in the World Cup in the region of my mother’s birth, one might say that I have a privileged outlook on this extraordinary event. Whilst maintaining the critical posture of a European, with first-world expectations regarding the organisation of the World Cup, I am nevertheless able to witness the event as an insider and understand the details of what might seem, to many, an incomprehensible jumble run by a chaotic administration and enjoyed by the most fanatic and enthusiastic fan base in the world. I chose to return to Fortaleza (in the northeast of Brazil) because I knew that this World Cup would be special, not only with regards to the quality of the football and the ardour of the Brazilian fans, but also because it has ignited a genuine movement for political change in a country that desperately needs it. Brazil is divided between those whose love for the sport is unconditional and leads them to accept the disgraceful opportunism of national and local politicians who deliberately sabotage the event, and those who have decided to sacrifice the game in order to promote political objectives that they consider more important to the nation, such as healthcare, education and economic opportunity. I believe that it is possible to assume both postures, and to celebrate the momentum generated by the World Cup whilst simultaneously deploring the fact that it has hitherto been unaccompanied by real social change.

My first few days in Fortaleza were accompanied by a deep feeling of disappointment, as I began to realize that the improvements that had been promised when I left two years ago had failed to materialize. The official guide to the city includes a map of the underground railway system that has yet to be completed, indicating the location of stations that do not even exist. The traffic in the city is infernal, trapping the locals in a daily commute of up to two hours, regardless of whether they have the means to travel by car or are crammed like sardines into age-old buses without air-conditioning, in a city where the average temperature throughout the year is 32°C. Worst of all is the crime, which has only increased in the two years since I left. Having been here for less than a week, I have already witnessed two arrests, several acts of violence by the police against unarmed men and, of course, the petty theft which is routine in this country. The increase in the available police force is less reassuring than it might seem to the outsider, since the trigger-happy nature of both the perpetrators and the preventers of crime make shootings a regular occurrence in this largely residential city, even during daylight hours. I do not know, moreover, if it would be worse to be kidnapped by unscrupulous “marginals” (marginais), as the locals say, or to be imprisoned in one of the hell-holes that Brazilians call a prison. Several times already, I have found myself feeling pity for those on the other side of society, having seen one fellow squirming as he was kicked repeatedly by an officer, gun held to the head, or another who was aggressively searched then tossed away without an apology, before rejoining his wife and two children at the FIFA fan fest.

Edwin at the World Cup

The author poses next to an inflatable Neymar in Recife, Brazil. Photo Credit: Edwin Gaarder

Most of the city is much as I left it two years ago, with its crumbling roads, endless queues at the airport, chaotic bus stations, lack of public lighting and awful traffic. Right next to my aunt’s house, where I am staying, a single train rests, unused, on the unfinished tracks of the proposed metro system. The improvements that were meant to be made to the city’s port, which will receive thousands of tourists onboard cruise liners during the World Cup, have not been completed. The only true exceptions are the stadium known as the Castelão, one of the largest in Brazil, and the FIFA fan fest on the beach, which are both massive and impressive. Quite some work has also been carried out to beautify and extend the neighbourhoods known as Praia de Iracema and Dragão do Mar, the only remaining vestiges of the city’s historical legacy, which are now connected to an extended beachfront that includes many restored and freshly painted colonial-style houses and several new bars and restaurants. The prostitution that used to be highly visible throughout the city has also been significantly reduced, following an effort to shut down the city’s brothels and clear the area around the FIFA fan fest, which used to be particularly notorious. All of these efforts have been reinforced by an enormous police contingent, drafted especially for the World Cup and stationed at the beach around the fan fest. As the World Cup itself begins, one can hardly turn one’s head without seeing a police patrol of at least ten or fifteen men and women, who are unfortunately called into action at frequent intervals to ensure the security of the fans. All in all, it seems likely that the fans themselves will be kept relatively safe if they stick to the tourist hot-spots, although it remains to be seen whether the fight against crime will endure beyond the final on the 13th of July.

But what about the people themselves and their feelings with regards to the football, the parties and the visitors that have come from all around the world? The week before the beginning of the tournament was eerie, as the locals would often express their fears with respect to the increase in crime and the possibility of large-scale protests taking place in the city. Disappointment, anger and frustration with the government prevailed, as the Brazilian people cited endless lists of promised improvements that were either unfinished, excessively expensive, or abandoned altogether. In Fortaleza, the opening of the FIFA fan fest itself was successful, despite the complete absence of tourists and many middle- and upper-class families, who stayed away due to a mixture of legitimate fear and prejudice towards a “free” concert filled with favelados (the urban poor). Nevertheless, the approach of the opening ceremony was accompanied by a sense of foreboding and anxiety, born from the widespread forecast that a Brazilian defeat would be followed by chaos, violence and vandalism on the streets. It quickly became clear that the destiny of the nation had become intimately tied up with the result of the football match, and it is to the credit of the football players and the revered Brazilian coach Felipão that they were able, throughout this time, to distance themselves from social and political issues and concentrate on the football.

On the day of the opening ceremony, it was as if the city had been transformed. The population had decorated themselves, their houses and the various public spaces in yellow, blue and green, and the noise was incredible. The opening ceremony – a terrible attempt to capture the history and the culture of the Brazilian people, scarred by an offensive and soulless performance of two American artists who obviously have no understanding of Brazilian music – was practically ignored by the Brazilian people and the local media, who chose instead to create their own party, of which the best example was provided by the musicians on the Pelourinho in Salvador da Bahia. Drums, energy, song and dance filled the air in a way that could only be captured by those who were present. All of a sudden, tourists and locals magically filled the streets and the venues, bringing the football World Cup to life in a way that the bureaucrats, whether at the corporate headquarters of FIFA in Switzerland or at the Brazilian government offices in Brasília, will never be able to comprehend. The fans from Uruguay, already gathering in Fortaleza before their first match against Costa Rica, banged out fabulous rhythms on their drums, danced and chanted for hours on end, interrupted at regular intervals by the more numerous Brazilians, who joined them in a grand celebration of Latin American camaraderie by trying to outperform them in their chanting and their jumping. Laughing and teasing ensued, and the two groups cheered for a repeat of the final of the 1950 World Cup, which took place at the Maracanã stadium and was won by Uruguay, with the Brazilians in particular praying for revenge. There is no doubt at all among the local fans that the final will be a Latin American affair, with either Uruguay or Argentina joining Brazil at the Maracanã in Rio de Janeiro, which brings me, at last, to the opening game itself, which seems to have been interpreted entirely differently on either side of the Atlantic.

Here in Brazil, football has traditionally been seen as a way for people to compete with the Europeans, the former colonial powers, on a level playing field. When Uruguay, Brazil and Argentina conquered their first titles, they were all seen as underdeveloped countries, whose average income per capita was far below that of their European counterparts. Football was, and to some extent still is, a sport in which the common man could assert his value and try to right the wrongs of the past. I believe that this principle underlies the overwhelming support given by the Brazilian people to their national team on the 12th of June, despite the conflict and the controversy leading up to the tournament. ‘Yes’, they seemed to say, ‘we have our problems and our difficulties, but this is football, we are united, and we will support our team until the end’. The difficulties to be surmounted in a football match, however, are unparalleled and unappreciated by the European media. The enormous pressure felt by the Brazilian team, for example, was encapsulated in the single tear shed by Thiago Silva prior to kick-off. As if to make things worse, FIFA decided to cut short the Brazilian national anthem, but the fans in São Paulo were able to mitigate this by singing a capella, as their counterparts in Fortaleza had done during the Confederations Cup. The nervousness of the team as a whole culminated in the own-goal by Marcelo, who nonetheless demonstrated his peace of mind and his happiness in an interview after the match, by thanking his teammates and the fans for supporting him regardless of the mistake. Brazil pressured a confident and talented Croatian team throughout the game, and was rewarded with many chances and a dubious penalty, which nevertheless did them justice. The beauty of the Brazilian game shone through in the dribbles of Neymar and Oscar and the tenacity of David Luís. The Croatians, on the other hand, played with flair, audacity and persistence, paying homage to the beautiful game invented by Pelé and Maradona, and perfected by several of their own stars, like Luca Modric. The entertainment, the excitement and the glamour brought everyone together, regardless of nationality, providing a fitting start to a tournament that will be remembered for decades to come.

I am grateful for the FIFA World Cup because it has shed light on the problems that have plagued Brazil over the past decades, in spite of the sycophantic European coverage of Brazilian economic growth and opportunity. Millions have been spent on stadia and in lining the pockets of the politicians, but if the World Cup had not taken place in Brazil, the spotlight would not have been shone on these issues, and Dilma Rousseff would almost certainly have won re-election. The World Cup is an opportunity for the Brazilian people to unite and to express their dissatisfaction with the current administration, whilst simultaneously maintaining their pride and patriotism through the enjoyment of wonderful football matches. In São Paulo, before, during and after the match, the fans at the stadium chanted insults directed at the Brazilian president. They were funny, they were rude, but most importantly, they were right. It is precisely for this reason that Brazilians should be supporting their team in this quest for a sixth title, because a victory in July would be symbolic of a victory in October, and because the national team represents an idea and a dream that is currently being obstructed, not by the players, but by the politicians.

Featured Image Credit: Fotograpfik33, Flickr CC. License available here.