It was in early June when Gilberto, owner of a Flamengo boteco (similar to the bare-minimum Udupi-style bars that you find by Mumbai’s railways stations) decided to order 60 tubelights. He had calculated that it takes exactly ten light-sticks to design one two-dimensional star. And in the vacant space above his boteco’s awning, Gilberto placed six stars.
One star for each of Brazil’s five World Cup trophies in the distant past, and one for the Selecao’s soon-to-be-won Copa in the near future. For a good part of the days gone by, Gilberto’s representation of a nation’s collective prayers for the Hexa, the sixth title, was a raucous hit. Every time Brazil won a match, the inhabitants of the shore-side Flamengo collected in the hundreds outside Gilberto’s bar, drinking his cerveja (beer) and chanting the night away in rapturous celebrations. In the backdrop, the green stars — filled with an equal share of neon and hope — kept the revellers bright company.
On Saturday morning though, just hours before Brazil’s final match of this campaign and just a day before the World Cup final, a solemn Gilberto stood high on his toes to dismantle his shiny creation. “Six is an unlucky number,” he said, as he peeled off the lights one at a time. “The Selecao lost its sixth match of the World Cup and even Germany beat us by a difference of six goals. We never did earn our sixth star.” Once removed, the starless edifice bore an ugly gap.
For nearly a month, all of Brazil, a most benevolent and manic host nation of the 20th edition of the FIFA World Cup, personified its expectations with such symbols and saturnalia. But once tragedy struck with the 7-1 loss to Germany in the semifinals, the revelry choked on its misery. Now, until either Argentina or Germany hoist the trophy on Sunday evening at the Maracana, the country will continue to host a World Cup within its shores. But it could be a cricket World Cup for all the locals care.
Like the vacancy above the boteco’s awning, the void is amply visible all over Brazil. At the high-end shopping district of Savassi in Belo Horizonte, the locals choose to ignore the unappealing collection of scotch-tape plasters stuck on shop windows. Those sticky pieces of plastic once held posters of Brazil’s darling footballers within their framework. Now the posterboys have been removed from their pedestal, in apparent haste.
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Inside the mall, a headless cut-out of what was once David Luiz (Brazil’s central defender and captain during the soul-crushing loss that occurred in this very city) points at a SIM card in his right palm. “Vandals,” said the steward at the mobile-store, with a simple shrug.
Take a walk down Avenida Paulista, Sao Paulo’s Manhattan-like cluster of skyscrapers, and several giant edifices miss flags on their flagpoles. Thirty-two of these bare-bodied shafts stick out of the front facade of Trianon MASP, the city’s largest museum, like nails waiting to be hammered into a coffin. “They once held the flags of the participating nations in this World Cup,” said one of the museum’s curator, Demetrius. “But once Brazil lost, our World Cup ended. So we rolled them down.”
Back in Rio, a taxi bearing the repulsive scar of a half-torn sticker on its bonnet stands outside a hotel in Copacabana. When the sticker had seen better days, it took the shape of a golden trophy. “We should never host a World Cup again, because we end up putting too much pressure on our boys,” said the taxi’s chauffeur, Felix. “We won five Copas when not playing at home. But here, in 1950 and 2014, we have caused two Maracana Tragedies.”
How, we ask, when the Selecao didn’t play a single match of their campaign at the Maracana this time around? “That is a tragedy in itself, don’t you think?” replied Felix, before driving into the central market of Lapa. Looking yearningly at the empty square, he said: “On the day of a Selecao game, I would avoid this route due to congestion. Today, when Brazil plays Holland, there is no congestion. It just doesn’t feel the same.”
Hosting a World Cup had given all of Brazil the licence to halt and hope. But when hope was halted in its tracks, even fast-moving life felt like it had come to a standstill.