Brazilians usually welcome the World Cup with great fanfare and festivity. But now that the tournament’s on their home turf, it’s also competing with social issues off the field.
RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil — Near the entrance to Rocinha, one of Rio de Janeiro’s largest slums, or favelas, July Anjinha, outfitted in a yellow and green national shirt, blends in with the T-shirts hanging in the simple stands set up where she works. Small banners wave softly behind her as mototaxis roar up and down the endless spiral of dirt roads in a synchronized beat of pick-ups and drop-offs during the evening rush hour.
Anjinha looks a bit weary, but she still manages to smile amid the influx of traffic on one of Rocinha’s busiest streets, Via Ápia, as she politely answers a long list of price questions from eager tourists. She pauses every so often to point out little pieces of white paper etched in red — many of them denoting sale items meant to entice gringos — over the loud cheers and the play-by-plays echoing from televisions airing Brazil’s friendly pre-tournament match against Serbia on Friday.
For the 90-minute matches, everyone tries to steal as much time in front of the game as possible.
Televisions in every bar and juice kiosk in the favela flash the nation’s favorite pastime as locals wander about, hoping to catch a bit of the 90-minute matches. Some carry beers and small plastic cups and gather around wooden tables. They inch their chairs closer to the TVs in open-door bars, while others choose to stand at countertops, eating their pastels — deep-fried pastries with various fillings — or grabbing a glass of fresh juice, eyes glued to the screen.
The mototaxi drivers seem to organize their customers between the whistles heard throughout the steep hillside favela tucked between Rio’s wealthiest neighborhoods of Gávea and São Conrado.
A local street vendor with a display cart full of Brazilian souvenirs helps a little girl with a vuvuzela. He shrugs at the suggestion that there’s been any increase in sales recently. He rubs his thumb and pointer finger together to motion that the “money” is in Rio’s Zona Sul — wealthier areas in the south of the city that include the famed Copacabana.
His face lights up, however, at the mention of soccer, and he is quick to hold up six fingers to indicate his hopes for a sixth Brazilian World Cup win. His eyes twinkle and he erupts with laughter when he brings up Brazil’s main rival, Argentina, as an ideal match for his country in the final.
“Everything is all broken”
But for Anjinha, a 24-year-old shop worker from Rocinha, her smile is simply a facade.
“We are not happy,” she said when asked about the World Cup. Her face deepens as she talks about the health and education systems that she says have failed her and her family.
“We are spending a lot of money to make the Cup here in Brazil and there are a lot of people dying in hospitals — here, everything is all broken.”
Residents like Anjinha feel a sense of betrayal in their government staging the World Cup. Amid the controversy over missed deadlines, deaths resulting from construction and growing discontent among Brazilians, there’s also the $11.5 billion that the country has spent to host soccer’s golden event. It’s no small wonder that World Cup fever hasn’t exactly reached Brazil.
“What good is having money to make things better [for the stadiums] if they don’t do anything [for us]?” she asked.
During last year’s Confederations Cup, this same question prompted the biggest display of protests since the 1992 demonstrations against former President Fernando Collor de Mello. Bus fare hikes ignited furor over investments funneled into high-profile events, such as the World Cup, as many believed that public services were taking a back seat to government spending.
News of violent clashes between demonstrators and police overshadowed the Confederations Cup, an event seen as a precursor to the World Cup. Ripples of demonstrations followed, but none compared to what happened on June 20, when over two million people in over 100 Brazilian cities rallied to protest.
Pew Research Center, a Washington-based think tank, released a new survey last week reflecting a “sharp uptick in Brazilian dissatisfaction.” Reporting that 72 percent of Brazilians were dissatisfied with the current state of affairs, the results signaled a jump from last year’s survey, which found that just weeks ahead of the June protests, only 55 percent of Brazilians were unhappy.
On Tuesday, less than 48 hours before kickoff of the World Cup, Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff continued to defend the costs to her critics, saying the infrastructure projects would leave a lasting legacy for Brazilians.
“We did this, first and foremost, for Brazilians,” Rousseff said during a nationally televised address.
While Rousseff pledged to fight corruption, she said World Cup spending is being “meticulously scrutinized by the country’s auditing institutions.”
In what is believed to be the most expensive World Cup in the tournament’s 84-year history, soccer’s governing body, FIFA, also fired back at critics on Tuesday.
In a statement titled “Setting the record straight,” FIFA laid out perceived “misconceptions,” refuting accusations like that it is responsible for forced evictions, while also making it clear that FIFA — not the Brazilian taxpayers — has “footed the bill” for the $2 billion in operational costs for soccer’s premier event.
The organization also called out Brazil’s decision to have 12 stadiums.
“FIFA neither demands that a country has to build 12 stadiums, nor how they are to be designed,” according to the statement.
“We’re not excited”
Green and yellow dots mark the ramshackle homes surrounding Anjinha, the store worker from Rocinha. Even though the World Cup is starting soon, the banners that usually dress the narrow roads for soccer’s golden event are missing.
The large flags that Brazilians proudly showcase on their doors and windows are mostly limited to vendors and shops geared toward tourists.
“Only some streets have the courage [with their decorations],” said 25-year-old Rocinha resident Liziane Alves, a local bank worker.
Sipping on a fruit drink at a local juice kiosk at the base of the favela, Alves is just a few meters away from the Oscar Niemeyer-designed white footbridge that extends into the Rocinha Sports Complex.
The Tulip Hotel in São Conrado, the home base for England’s team for the duration of the World Cup, is also not too far away. Hit with controversy for its close proximity to the favela during an upsurge of violence in the months leading up to the event, Rocinha is also part of the government’s 2008 “pacification” program. Meant to drive out violent drug gangs, it was designed as a security scheme carried out ahead of the World Cup and the 2016 Olympics.
Alves motions slightly to the right of the juice kiosk, pointing to nearby streets up the hillside, off Via Ápia. Streamers there sway across the tight corridors from one shanty home to another. Those two are the only streets that are truly festive, she says.
As she scans the area, juice in hand, she gestures to show that the decorations aren’t like those seen in years past, adding that she lives on the “less” decorative of the two streets.
A few streamers swing off the ceiling of the juice kiosk and there is no sign of the World Cup mascot, Fuleco the Armadillo, or even any mention of the tournament on any advertisements or fliers.
A local worker behind the juice stand says she probably won’t add any more decorations.
“The people are unhappy, the streets don’t have the decorations, we’re not excited,” Alves’ co-worker, 22-year-old Alberto Trajano, said. “To do [these decorations on the streets here], people have to pay. A lot of Cups have decorations, but not this one.”
People were animated, streets were festive and decorated in the past, Trajano says. “It was pure excitement, but this is different.”
The feeling, he says, is just not the same as for past World Cups, when he and his friends would gather on porches to watch the tournament play out.
“Maybe it will be better once it begins”
Meanwhile, paintings of soccer balls and cartoon figures line the walls of Traversa Liberdade, a street that Alves singled out. A 14-year-old boy is nearly done filling in the green “1” that is part of the “2014” painted below a parrot in Brazil’s national colors on the outer wall of a shanty home.
Traversa Liberdade seems to be home to more music and activity, but the narrow road can barely accommodate two mototaxis riding side-by-side. As night falls, the Brazil banners take on an iridescent glow, welcoming workers returning home from their day of work.
The boy’s father, a mototaxi driver waiting between customers, slows down past the painting to check on the boy and his sister.
The energy on the street is palpable, with the children and the bossa nova sounds coming from a nearby bar creating a lighthearted mood, but there is also a sense that they are keeping in spirit with their paintings. At least for them, the problems seem to exist only behind the brick walls.
Barbara Olivi, a 53-year-old Italian who runs a local educational NGO for children on Traversa Liberdade, says the street always gets decorated for the World Cup.
She explains that a neighbor named Marcela organizes the decorations and collects what residents are able to pay. She buys the supplies and then rounds up the neighborhood children to add their own World Cup flare to the street.
“(But) we are fed up, we are tired of injustice from the government,” Olivi, a resident of Rocinha for 15 years, said. “We don’t feel in the World Cup mood yet. Maybe it will be better once it begins.”
Olivi had hung up a Brazilian flag at her house higher up on the hillside, but it was quickly stolen by a mototaxi driver. A neighbor later spotted the driver trying to sell it on Via Ápia, she says.
In keeping with the Brazilian adage that things happen last minute, slowly but surely, the dots of yellow and green are becoming more dense in Rocinha. The mood is not what it has been in past years, but “little by little,” decorations are coming out and the spirit picks up with each passing day, says Olivi. After all, it’s the passion for what Brazilians call the “jogo bonito,” or “the beautiful game,” that awaits them.
But as Anjinha looks wistfully about at the evening commuters, an intensity grows in her eyes. It’s obvious that she’s lost some of her love of the game.