tip off

Brazilians would be protesting against the Cup — but there’s soccer to watch

When Brazilians watch soccer, they are not individuals watching sport. They are a heaving, unified glorious mass with a single mind — and who can protest when that sort of thing is going on? Crikey’s man on the ground Django Merope Synge reports from Rio.

One year ago world football fans were watching in slack-jawed horror as 1 million Brazilians turned out to protest against hosting the 2014 World Cup — this World Cup. Surely in Brazil — the land where the average washing line boasts three, four or maybe even five football jerseys, because that’s just what most people wear most days of the week — surely in Brazil football was above politics.

But the protests were serious. The government had spent, wasted and in some cases quite blatantly stolen billions of dollars on this Cup while wages stagnated and systems of transport, health and education crumbled underfoot. So the protesters stood their ground against the Brazilian Policia Milìtar (a brutish mob even by world military police standards), displaying a courage that springs only from deeply held conviction. One million people: heads high, gazes stern, voices strong and steady. And when the protests finished, they swore they would return in 2014 to ocupa a Copa.

Sputtering suits convened countless crisis meetings searching — at first rationally and then with increasing desperation — for some sort of plan to stop the protests. In the end everyone (FIFA, the Brazilian government, football fans who just want to enjoy the World Cup in peace, is that too much to ask, Brazil?) came up with the same plan, which was no plan at all: just hope that when it actually starts Brazilians get so enraptured with the excitement of it all that they just kind of forget about all that money. Cynical, disrespectful and unsophisticated, classic FIFA. But strangely, it seems to be working.

There’s been some action in Sao Paulo, sure, and a police strike in Recife. But mostly it’s been dead calm so far. And what’s reported in the international press is almost inevitably exaggerated by the million or so journalists here with nothing to do. You do see some anti-Cup people about, but they’re few and far between. The truth is most Brazilians just aren’t up for it. They’re thinking, “We paid for this bloody thing, we may as well enjoy it”.

Football’s never just sport in Brazil, and right now it’s football on steroids. It’s nationalism, but it’s not the kind of nationalism you can express by waving flags and shouting slogans. It’s more the kind that wedges a lump deep in your throat so you can’t shout even if you want to. Brazilians know they’ve got something special and unique, and they know that the whole world covets it.

That’s why the strange peace here at World Cup 2014 is so dependent on the fate of the Brazilian national team. Some people say the whole place will explode if Brazil gets eliminated. Everyone keeps asking me if that’s true, and I just don’t know. No one knows. I’d treat the predictions of self-appointed experts about as seriously as a psychic octopus or whatever they’ve come up with this time round. What I do know is that if Brazil gets eliminated, it will be devastating for these people. The best way to understand why the promised protests haven’t eventuated is to understand what Brazilians go through every time their team plays in this Cup, and that doesn’t make it to ABC News’ one-a-half minutes of coverage of a night.

The home-job fireworks start up at 7am, kids running, giggling, followed by a loud explosion somewhere close. About an hour later the funk kicks in. It’s boom-cha-cha-BOOM-cha, and it’s loud. People are drinking and dancing. A gentle breeze flutters the green-and-yellow bunting that adorns every street in every city in Brazil right now. If you’re in the right place at the right time you’ll see a circle of drummers. No leaders in this band. Just one furious rhythm, every bit as terrifying, captivating, mesmerising as a predator coming in for the kill. This is not in the guidebook, folks. They’re summoning some kind of demon-monster, a demon to strike fear into the opposition hearts, to make Neymar’s kicks fly true.

Half-an-hour to kickoff and it’s like everyone is arriving everywhere, from every direction. There’s some kind of human instinct that kicks in when you’re about to see something important. The shops are all closed because the shopkeepers are here, too, and it’s not like anyone’s buying anything for the next 90 minutes.

By the time the match starts you can’t see anything except a vast ocean of humanity on all sides. You scream when the crowd screams and cheer when the crowd cheers. Someone could game this system, but no one’s thinking meta enough to try. Everyone’s here, now. All in the moment. There’s guys drumming here, too. Fast, loud and for the whole 90 minutes.

Of course when there’s a goal the whole place goes wild. Even if they missed it, no one’s craning their necks or standing on tippy-toes to catch the replay. They’re too busy hugging and singing, looking backwards to smile at the sea of smooth and glowing faces. Breathing in great gulps of heaving atmosphere.

During the last 10 minutes no one makes a sound. It’s close — pretty much all of Brazil’s games have been close. But when the final whistle sounds and Brazil wins the fireworks start up again, about one every five seconds. A deep and throaty roar rises up into the sky. It is happiness, yes, but mostly it’s relief. Brazil has survived another game, advanced to the next round of the competition. Defeat is unimaginable, but victory is far from assured.

Early Saturday morning (AEST) Brazil will play Colombia in the quarter finals. At the moment, Colombia is looking sharp. All the intensity, all the passion of game day will evaporate in an instant if Brazil loses. And then it’s into the unknown.

An hour or so after the game’s finished the fireworks have started to die away. More like one every couple of minutes or so now. The shopkeepers, still smiling, heave up their aluminium roller-doors, unlock their storefronts, turn on the lights. It’s 4:30pm Brazilian time, and the day finally can begin.

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