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The Brazilian paradox that the World Cup presents

June 18, 2014 5:11 AM
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The Brazilian paradox that the World Cup presents

A World Cup emerges fully formed after a lengthy gestation - in this case, almost a decade.

It has a character, a disposition, a soul; but it evolves constantly during its short but dramatic life.

Like some butterfly that emerges in all its splendour from a chrysalis, Brazil's World Cup has, in its early stages, flitted across the country through hot and humid conditions in the Amazon and the north, down to the cool of Porto Alegre in the Rio Grande do Sul region.

The first is of dazzling colour and splendour on the pitch, where some of the biggest names in the global game have performed from the first moment and delighted jubilant supporters thronging stadiums and watching in bars, clubs and fan-fest sites around the nation.

The other is of sullen resentment, anger and protest by an underclass (with support from plenty of their more advantaged countrymen) against a government it believes is frittering away the country's short-term future on nothing more than a global party that ordinary Brazilians, nursing a hangover, will have to spend the next few years clearing up.

The Jogo Bonito is happening out on the field, where goals are raining in at an average of more than three a game and where it wasn't until the 13th match of the competition - the stalemate between Nigeria and Iran - that a match finished in a draw.

While all are happy at the joy and emotion the soccer is generating, the feeling that so much of this tournament may leave a legacy of white elephant stadiums and civic debt persists.

Every day, journalists receive - often from the security guides their companies have hired to ensure their wellbeing - details of more protests planned or organised for the major cities.

While these seem not to have degenerated into riots or the kind of insurgency that some feared - due mainly to the heavy police and military presence - there remains a concern that somewhere, for some reason, things could go off.

The Brazilians smile a lot and are unfailingly polite. They want the World Cup to be a massive success and want their team - the Selecao - to win, and they want the world to come to Rio and Sao Paulo, Manaus and Recife, Porto Alegre and Salvador and enjoy themselves and get a real taste of Brazilian life and culture.

But they also want their government to address the very real problems of infrastructure, poverty, homelessness, and want to exist in a resource rich nation that has all the essentials to be one of the great economic powers of the 21st century.

Not for nothing does the B in the acronym BRIC - denoting four of the countries with enormous economic potential - stand for Brazil. (The others are Russia, India and China and, like their South American counterpart, have a number of political and infrastructure issues they also must confront and improve.)

Travelling to and from stadiums, it's hard not to have sympathy for the calls of the demonstrators for more efficiency in the way public money is spent, and for the flow to be routed more towards social causes than vanity projects.

The one in Cuiaba certainly didn't seem completely finished as fans and media trooped in for that first game, with wiring exposed and a general sense of slight disorganisation as FIFA volunteers shrugged their shoulders with rueful smiles when they tried, with unfailing politeness, to answer queries.

Is that nit picking? Perhaps, but then this is a country where soccer is king - if you hear it is a religion once a day you hear it 100 times. Brazil had nearly 10 years to get it right. It is impossible not to see half-finished train stations, roads still under construction, a freeway overpass half complete, and not think about the opportunities wasted.

The Brazilian people are caught in the middle of this dual set of desires while the World Cup goes on. They want to use the glare of the international spotlight to put pressure on their government, while at the same time they can't help themselves loving soccer, and so they want to watch and enjoy the games. Here, futebol, as it is said in Portuguese, is the opiate of the masses.

If it has replaced religion (although the imagery and presence of a Gothic Catholicism, iconography and statues abounds in the myriad churches in every town) then the Brazilian players truly are the high priests.

Boarding a flight to Porto Alegre, I received a warm smile from a young man checking my boarding pass. He was wearing a bright yellow polo shirt supplied by the airline TAM, with the word Selecao on the back.

I returned his grin, gave him a thumbs up - a popular gesture of affirmation in Brazil - and said ''Selecao'' back as a form of exhortation, as the host nation was due to play Mexico later that day. His eyes sparkled, but he put his hands together in supplication and, smiling, looked heavenward as if in prayer.

That is what the game and the national team means to ordinary men and women here, and the prayer may just have been intended not just for the players, but the country itself.

The game and the nation, and its problems are - at least for this month - so intertwined as to be virtually inseparable.


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