“Ele está jogando feijão com arroz!” muttered the Brazilian sitting next to me during the slow-moving match against Mexico, which stalled at 0-0. The player he was exasperated with for “playing rice and beans” was just going through the motions, lacking the energy, creativity, and improvisation that Brazilian footballers are famous for. Costly and divisive as the run-up to the World Cup was, now that it’s here, Brazilians are vibrando for their team to earn a sixth title at home. With one win and one draw under their belts, they crushed Cameroon 4-1 during Monday’s game. And when Fernandinho scored in the final minutes—the ball flying with conviction into the corner of the net—there were no more complaints; the city exploded with cheers, horns, and fireworks.
I’ve been told that in past years, Rio was decked out well in advance of the World Cup. This time around, people’s mixed emotions about hosting the games, and continuing anger with FIFA and governmental corruption, also manifested themselves through tamer street decorations. Up until a week beforehand, it was hard to believe that the tournament was starting, there were so few overt signs of anticipation. But then, at the last minute, Brazilian flags were hung from eaves, stone steps painted alternating bands of green and yellow, streets chalked with stars and soccer balls, and colorful layers of bunting strung up and fluttering in the tropical winter breeze.
It’s already day fifteen of the tournament, and given that tickets ran from US$90 up to US$2,000, I’ve opted, like many cariocas, to skip Maracanã Stadium in favor of watching the matches with friends at bars, at home, or inside the FIFA fan fest—an enormous walled-off section of Copacabana beach that features a giant viewing screen. But even when I’m trying to do something else, like running errands at an odd hour of the day, I end up passing by hole-in-the-wall botecos with clusters of people sitting in plastic chairs around small TVs; writing from home with the window open, I can hear the TV announcers from neighbors’ apartments and follow the game’s progress by the various exclamations of happiness or frustration (Caraca! Escroto! Opa! Gooool!); when I’m procrastinating on an article, my Facebook newsfeed is filled with Copa-related status updates and photos. Like it or not, there’s no escape.
Every game day at Maracanã Stadium has been declared a holiday, so businesses and schools are all closed. Students have an extended “winter” vacation to accommodate the games, too, which stretches their two-weeks or so of July break into closer to a month off. If possible, many locals have fled the city, or even left the country, for part of the tournament. So the streets are actually quieter than usual, and the atmosphere more relaxed, in most residential neighborhoods.
As the locals have retreated, though, the gringos have poured in. According to Brazil’s Tourism Ministry, the World Cup has brought in some 600,000 tourists from 186 different countries. It was already common to see foreigners along the beaches in South Zone, and to regularly hear American English. However, the accents have diversified since the Copa began; walking around, you can make out more Australian and British English, as well as people from various European countries such as Germany and France using the Copa’s lingua franca in lieu of knowing Portuguese. And Spanish—whether Argentinian, Chilean, Colombian, or Mexican-inflected—is everywhere. Depending on who’s playing that day, the streets are filled with Brazilian fans in Neymar jerseys blowing the slightly-less-eardrum-shattering-than-a-vuvuzela brazuka horn, rowdy Argentinian fans wrapped in blue and white flags, or Chilean fans (white stars painted on their cheeks) chanting Chi! Chi! Chi! Le! Le! Le! Viva Chile!
I was impressed at how many football fans (many of whom had never been to Brazil before) were undeterred by the terrifying coverage in the international press, which included warnings about everything from disease-carrying mosquitoes to unfinished stadiums, drug gang-related violence, and widespread social unrest. Over the past month, signs were posted on the metro with a list of suggestions visitors should follow to stay safe (although the guidelines were all in Portuguese). The metro train cars were transformed into PSAs about Dengue Fever, with a list of symptoms and Dengue Mata (Dengue Kills) painted dramatically across the doors. Riot police appeared throughout the city, sporting specially designed Darth Vader-esque outfits. And although the energy in Rio has been more subdued than anticipated, there has still been plenty of drama: the 2,000+ Argentinian “hooligans” banned from entering the country, the 85 Chileans who charged into Maracanã Stadium without tickets and were arrested en masse, the Uruguayan who can’t stop biting other players, and Brazil’s official World Cup instrument—a plastic rattle with finger holes called the caxirola—that was outlawed from the stadiums not for its ear-deafening sound but for its potential as a weapon, after spectators chucked it on the pitch during a local match when they didn’t like the referee’s call.
Whether or not the World Cup is ultimately viewed as a success or a disaster (and how that will in turn affect the presidential election results this coming October) remains to be seen. For now, politics aside, Brazilians seem to feel confident in their team, and expectations are high for this Saturday’s match against Chile. Hopefully it will be another afternoon filled with cheers, horns, and fireworks.