World Cup Diary: Brazil reinventing, redefining itself one step at a time

July 1st, 2014

SALVADOR, Brazil —

Brazil wasn’t what I had expected. I’ve been here three weeks now, covering the United States men’s national team across this vast and diverse country, and I’m still not quite sure what to make of it.

The image was strikingly similar to that of the country where I covered the last World Cup, South Africa: A shambolic government that couldn’t get anything done by a deadline, inflicting crippling poverty lived in rambling shantytowns, in a country ruled only by lawlessness. But as it was in South Africa, most construction in Brazil has been completed, or at least looked the part, and I’ve never once felt unsafe.

Sao Paulo, where the United States and its press corps have been based, is a confusing place. There is no containing its sprawl, all of it infested with boxy apartment towers — invariably with terraces adorned with flapping Brazilian flags — pricking the blue sky. The traffic is soul-crushing. On a bad day, you can average less than five miles an hour in your cab or bus. Some days, early in our stay, the subway workers were on strike and it was worse still and you just stood there, thousands of running cars frozen in place.

But in our neighborhood, Barra Funda, the towers aren’t quite so austere. They are maintained well, painted and don’t have ancient air-conditioners dangling from the windows, threatening to fall out and crush someone at any time. There is a mall, not far from our hotel, where a pair of Nikes will cost you $1,000. It’s busy in there. Plenty of Brazilians seem to be able to afford a place that would be out of reach to most Americans, and certainly out of mine. In this part of town, it’s impossible to have a half-decent meal — with a reduced risk of troubling your stomach — for less than $30.

There is more than one Brazil. There are no favelas in our neighborhood, hardly any ugliness on show. Homeless people are shooed away in fairly short order. And between those good hotels in good neighborhoods and the endless ferrying to practice facilities, airports and stadiums, you wind up seeing very little of how the ordinary Brazilian lives. Just like any mega-event, FIFA inflates a bubble around the World Cup that doesn’t let in any person or corporation that didn’t pay a hefty fee for the privilege. You have to work hard at seeing anything else, and between the traffic and the tournament’s frantic pace, there is hardly the time.

The people seem conflicted too, about this World Cup and perhaps about the foreigners that have come to it. In South Africa, there was an unambiguous delight about our presence there, a boisterousness about the World Cup having finally begun after all that anticipation. But Brazil, as evidenced by the million-man protests last summer, still sits on the fence.

Sure, it was cool to have the World Cup back and with it the chance to finally win it on their home soil. But they have known for some time that once this World Cup is over, the billions spent on it will haunt this country’s ability to develop. Some of the stadiums will be used and some will not. And the improvements to infrastructure that were promised — but never fulfilled — remain a pipe dream. The schools, the hospitals, the transit network badly in need of an upgrade — they’ll have to wait, at least until all the bills are paid and until this tournament and the 2016 Summer Games in Rio de Janeiro have come and gone. FIFA and the International Olympic Committee will be feasting on some other people’s naiveté by then.

And so, while most locals are friendly and wonderfully welcoming, plenty are aloof. They’re unsure and perhaps resentful of this whole thing, or just plain disgusted by it. In a pizza place we ate at in Sao Paulo, a large family was celebrating its matriarch’s birthday. She was turning 88. She came over to introduce herself — most of the family did — and kicked each leg in the air to give it a good slap with the palm of her hand. “Eight years in each leg!” she said triumphantly.

The family invited us to join their feast, for no other reason than that we were visitors and it seemed like the right thing to do to them. They were glad we had come and hoped Brazil would win. “But whether they win it or not, we’ll have to pay for this World Cup,” the birthday girl’s husband said with a deep sigh.

There is stunning beauty here that nobody questions. The grandeur of the Amazon rainforest is stupefying. Natal has a lovely Mediterranean feel to it. Recife’s coast line is gorgeous, even if signs warn you about dipping a toe in the water because of the sharks. Salvador, Brazil’s original colony, has a stunning town square and a pleasing placement along South America’s largest bay.

I’ve had fun here. I took a boat ride up the Amazon, went to an actual Soccer Museum — something cultural, Mom! — and played beach soccer on an actual Brazilian beach. And there are the fun local quirks, of course. Like the pillowy seats installed on every toilet in Salvador. Or the inability of any Brazilian elevator to stop at more than one floor on its way down. Not to mention the total and blind devotion of the locals to their terminally untasty cheese — whether cold, melted or fried.

Like most of the American press corps, I’ll leave here just as soon as the United States concludes its World Cup campaign. But I’ll come away feeling like I haven’t seen the real Brazil. I’m not sure there is a real Brazil, like there is no real America, just lots of regions with their own cultures, priorities and beliefs.

It could just as easily be a glitch in my own cultural barometer. Or perhaps I never managed to figure out Brazil because Brazil is reinventing and redefining itself, as all countries must, as it marches from developing to developed country.

I’ve probably also come at a strange time. They say the only thing that every Brazilian has in common is the national soccer team. Right now, however, it plays in a tournament unloved by many. Universal truths are hard to come by when a place is held hostage by an all-encompassing event like this, and arguing about its utility. Coming here, I didn’t know what to expect. But Brazil itself probably didn’t either.

Photos provided by Getty Images.

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