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.
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 continued…