The wispy-haired David Luiz, Brazil’s central defender, tells you which airline to fly at the arrival lounge of Guarulhos International Airport. On another billboard a few yards away, Oscar, Brazil’s key playmaker, lets you know which car to rent on your drive into the city. And not far from the saida, the exit, striker and Brazil’s latest pin-up boy, Neymar Jr, tempts you with two dollops of his favourite ice cream.
None of them, however, care to inform you that their futebol-obsessed country is gearing up for the game’s most globally anticipated show — a World Cup in Brazil.
Apart from a solitary and unmanned pick-up booth for FIFA officials, packed away on the fourth floor of a five-storey terminal, there is no World Cup paraphernalia to festoon the gateway to Sao Paulo, where hosts and five-time champions Brazil kick off the 20th edition in less than a week. Not even a courtesy “Welcome — 2014 Copa do Mundo”, leave alone anything suggesting that a few billion eyes (a viewership of 1.1 billion is expected for just the final on July 13) will focus on its shores over the following month.
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Outside, it gets a whole lot worse.
“Queremos hospitais, padrao FIFA (which loosely translates as ‘need hospitals, not FIFA’),” reads one graffiti wall on Rodovia Ayrton Senna, the city’s central vein named after the legendary Formula 1 driver. The other messages aren’t as polite. “F**k Pele. F**k World Cup,” says one. “FIFA go back,” shouts another, clearly unhappy that the organisers are said to walk away with as much as $4 billion from their Brazilian venture. Punching furiously into the Google translator on his smart phone, the taxi driver takes the opportunity of a long signal to say: “Football is evil necessary”.
Evil necessary or necessary evil, the game has only ever caused such disquiet in its spiritual home on two distinct occasions in the past. The first when a Briton named Charles Miller arrived at a dock in Santos (not far from here) in 1894, with a leather bladder in each hand — introducing the sport to the locals.
“He can hardly have imagined the role his spherical baggage would have in the country’s destiny,” writes Alex Bellos in Futebol: The Brazilian Way of Life. “The two footballs would later turn him into a national hero, immortalised in a street name in central Sao Paulo.” In football-crazed Sao Paulo, this is the only footballer to be honoured in such regard.
The second instance, when football etched itself in Brazil’s history, was a little more recent, when Brazil last hosted the World Cup in 1950. For us Indians, it will be remembered as the only time our national team qualified for a World Cup but was denied entry after the players refused to play with boots on. For the rest of the world and especially for Brazilians, Copa 1950 will forever be remembered as the year of the Maracanazo. Or the Maracana Tragedy. Brazil lost 2-1 to Uruguay in the decider and bodies rained out of edificios in Rio de Janeiro.
Staring at a modern art structure of five pantheons (one for each World Cup win) raised inside the Conjunto Nacional on the plush Avenida Paulista, curator and artist Carlos Dias Filho says: “We can exorcise the ghosts of 1950 by winning it at home this time around. I truly believe so.” His thought is personified by a street artist on a graffiti-friendly street called Beco do Batman in the suburb of Vila Madalena. Here, Neymar is seen symbolically pouting his lips at a ghost in Uruguay’s colours, kissing Maracanazo goodbye.
“But that can only happen and be witnessed if we allow the paying public to reach the stadiums in the first place,” says Jefferson, owner of Marxoqo, a pub in the suburb of Paraiso. On Friday morning, the day of Brazil’s final warm-up game before the World Cup, one that was played in Sao Paulo, the city’s Metro rail workers decided to go on an indefinite strike, holding the smooth running of the Cup to ransom for a pay hike.
“They will pay up. Their precious World Cup is at stake,” says a steward at Ana Rosa Station, where he and his colleagues’ protests were met with rubber bullets and tear gas. The lack of transport crippled Sao Paulo, bringing it to its knees. Yet, the fans crawled in the tens of thousands to Estadio do Morumbi, where Brazil beat Serbia 1-0 to end their build-up on a winning note. One of those crawlers was bar-owner Jefferson.
“It’s amazing how things work in Brazil. When nothing good happened in this country for the last 30 years, no one complained. But now, when the greatest sporting event has come to our land and when the world’s eyes are on us, we begin protesting,” sighs Jefferson.
But doesn’t he feel that new stadiums in places such as the Amazonian city of Manaus serve little purpose once the circus packs up by July? Especially considering that the state of Amazonas doesn’t even boast of a provincial football team? He spits in disgust. “It may be elefante brancos. But an elephant is better than no elephant at all.”
These elephants trumpet their arrival on June 12. But you wouldn’t have known that at Guarulhos International.