All roads did not point towards Arena Corinthians, the venue for the World Cup opener between hosts Brazil and Croatia, on Thursday. They led there the previous night, where the circumference of the estadio was bathed in a glow of yellow long before the sun peeped over the Sao Paulo horizon this morning.
Draped in their jerseys and in the tens of thousands, a good portion of the city’s football-loving patrons had arrived on Wednesday evening itself to witness the Selecao, their Selecao, exit the stadium’s premises in the team bus after their final training session leading up to the World Cup. Their World Cup.
Poking out of their camps and tents lacing every pavement in Itaquera (the district that holds Arena Corinthians in its womb), the fans thrust beer cans in the air as the bus screeched past them, simultaneously screaming in loop, “Ole! Ole ole ole! Brasil, Brasil!” From behind the curved glass windows, Neymar Jr was seen poking his thumb up in the air, making eye contact with his beloved supporters with a wink.
That right eyelid of Neymar’s must be fluttering now, for he winked a long, long time. And that thumb stayed up right through the 32 kilometre journey from Itaquera to the heart of the city.
Capturing Neymar’s every wink and thumb lift was a low flying chopper, beaming the cavalcade’s journey live to television screens across Sao Paulo. But plenty of Paulista’s caught the ‘action’ on the streets itself, lining the entire stretch of the bus’s path to the team hotel. They were soon joined by the non-moving traffic, parking their cars mid-avenue and joining in the flag-waving and merry making. By 7 in the evening, the city came to a grinding halt.
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Static, though, has been Sao Paulo’s default state in the week leading to the kick-off, marred by a plethora of protests. The most crippling of which has been the greve (strike) by the city’s metro rail workers. On Wednesday evening, however, as the bus passed Ana Rosa Station — one of the key protesting areas over the last few days — its on-strike workers dropped their collective guard and waved back at the players.
The greve ended a couple of hours later.
“It was not our aim to hold the city at ransom,” says Emario, a 40 something member of the Metro union. “We just wanted to be paid our dues. And now, although the ministry hasn’t answered our calls, we have called off the strike.” Why? “Because we do not want to be the reason for coming in the way of the people enjoying Brasil’s Hexta.”
The quest for the Hexta, an unprecedented sixth title, has been an ongoing one for the last 12 years, ever since Cafu’s men hoisted the trophy in Yokohoma, 2002. Since then, the Selecao have been knocked out in the quarterfinals on both occasions, in Germany ‘06 and South Africa ‘10.
“It didn’t happen anywhere else because they were saving a special moment for their home World Cup,” says Luiz Andre Barratta, a market researcher who cancelled his meeting with a British company to catch the opening game live in one of the numerous giant screens raised around the city. “The Brits understood of course. Not everyday do we get to watch the opening match of a World Cup in Brazil.”
According to a statistic, the last time the Cup was hosted in Brazil, only 7.3 per cent of the country’s current population were alive.
The remaining 92.7 per cent, anyone younger than 64 today, weren’t around to witness the Maracanazo — or the Maracana Tragedy. “My father and my grandfather used to tell me tales of that 2-1 defeat to Uruguay in Rio. And how people committed mass suicide,” says Barratta. “Just to avoid that, I hope (Luiz Felipe) Scolari’s boys can win it for us.”
If they do win at the Maracana on July 13, a country known to party hard will party like never before — tearing at its seams.
“It will be the Cup of Cups, the Mother Carnival. I cannot wait,” adds Barratta. Few can. But before Rio next month, there’s the small matter of six preceding matches, starting with the opening match of the group stages at the Arena Corinthians on Thursday.
And here, every Paulista worth his yellow jersey already lay in eager wait.