Sunday June 29th, 2014

Simon Bruty/SI

BELO HORIZONTE, Brazil – Spend enough time in this country, talk to enough people, visit enough cities, and it becomes clearer that few people here see the World Cup as a catalyst for change. They see it more as a diversion, a way to showcase the best of Brazil and forget, momentarily, the reasons for all the protests before the soccer started.

That should not be mistaken for a grand pronouncement, just an unscientific sentiment expressed over and over from the mouth of the Amazon to the splendor of Rio’s beaches to the poorest favela in Sao Paulo. There are two notions involved here that may seem contradictory to outsiders but not to actual Brazilians. They’re able to separate how they feel about being able to host the World Cup (thrilled) and how they feel about the politicians that secured it (the opposite of thrilled). They still want more hospitals, improved transportation, updated infrastructure, better schools. They do not expect the World Cup to deliver much, if any, of that. But they smile and dance and drink because the World Cup is here, and because that alone seems to make them happy.

We spent three weeks traversing Brazil, from Manaus up in the rainforest to the beaches of Natal to the party scene in Salvador and down the coast, to Rio and Sao Paulo and inside to Belo Horizonte. We fished for piranha and interviewed prostitutes and visited a religious fortuneteller and spent one afternoon with a soccer hopeful in a favela.

We talked to maybe 100 people – literature teachers and civilian policemen and vendors and restaurateurs. We met a man named Fabio, the owner of a custom motorcycle shop, who looked exactly like … a man named Fabio; long hair, white V-neck T-shirt, black boots. We saw Chilean fans storm the famous Maracana in Rio, up close, as they knocked down temporary walls inside the media center. We witnessed Mexicans parade through Natal, singing and chanting and boozing, everyone draped in flags. We went to a shrine where the faithful wished for soccer triumphs – and returned, to drop off jerseys and cleats and trophies, to recognize promises that had been fulfilled.

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Brazil is a complicated place – and an uncomplicated one. Nothing seems to happen as planned. Signs, traffic lanes, appointments, store hours – they’re all suggestions. Life just happens. There’s beauty – mountains; rivers; lakes; beaches, exotic animals; the, ahem, scenery, so many bikinis and speedos and mini-skirts and bodies tanned and sculpted – all around. There’s rhythm. There’s joy. There’s spontaneity. But there’s also poverty, extreme poverty, always close. Crime. Drugs. Gangs.

We met a family of seven that lived in a dilapidated shack above Rio, the roof slanted, the walls cracked, the whole structure in danger of sliding down the mountain in a heavy rainstorm. A soccer hopeful lived there, a 20-year-old named Lucas Rodrigues, and while playing for a team in the second division netted him only 1,000 reais (about $445) a season, it did earn him the privilege of his own bed.

After nearly three weeks immersed in everything but soccer, I asked Chris Hunt, a longtime Sports Illustrated editor who has traveled to Brazil every year for the last two decades, to assemble a roundtable of journalists. I wanted to see how their opinions matched my own observations.

The panel: Amaury Ribeiro Jr., Helcio Zolini, Ivan Drummond, Rodrigo Lopez and Alexandre Simoes. Some of them are investigative reporters. Ribeiro, for instance, once exposed the murders of minors working in the drug trade, a story for which he won numerous awards. One day he went to meet a source and ended up with a bullet that entered near his abdomen and exited near his leg. He was depressed for months.

We met at a bar in Belo. Hunt translated over the din. Beers covered the table, an unending supply, as if the table marked the end of a conveyor belt. Midnight neared. Thursday, the final day of World Cup group play, loomed.

“I believed the minute the Cup began, the protests would end,” said Drummond, an investigative reporter. “And they did.”

Simon Bruty/SI

But …  “This Cup has been the robbery of the century,” Ribeiro said. “All the governments, federal, state, municipal, they’ve all got their hand in, and are stealing through the Cup. There’s been overcharging for the construction and renovations. The builders of the stadiums are using the money to finance candidates. There’s no explanation or excuse for the delays. They had eight years.”

Ribeiro continued to harp on the process. He said that rules existed for the stadium construction bidding process but that once the companies fell behind, the rules were suspended, and the companies could charge whatever they wanted. That, he said, led to deliberate delays.

In Belo, for instance, he and Drummond said that powerful bus companies blocked the construction of a subway system. The subway would have cost less and benefited the city more.

But … “Soccer is stronger than everything else,” Drummond said. “Especially if Brazil wins.”

All the men admitted that they watched the futbol, that they cheered their nation’s team. A full 99 percent of the people that we met said the same thing. Still, several Brazilians, including our guy Fabio, said they wondered if it was not better for Brazil to lose at some point. They wondered if a sixth World Cup title would further mask the issues that will remain here, that do remain here. They wondered if a loss would bring the protests back.

“If Brazil loses, the president loses the election,” Drummond said. Everyone at the table sighed. It seemed they did not agree. “Maybe loses,” Drummond said, his stance softened.

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As glasses filled with beer and filled with more beer and filled with more beer, all the journalists began to talk over one another. There was five minutes of Portuguese for every one sentence of translated English. Drummond switched to English, which actually complicated matters. He believed the World Cup benefited a city like Belo in particular, in that it highlighted a place known less as a tourist destination and more as a stop en route to somewhere else.

Drummond expected a tourist bump throughout Brazil. But … “The problem is the country comes to a standstill during soccer,” he said. “When there’s soccer, there’s only soccer.”

But … “You have to consider the World Cup a great success,” said Zolini, a TV news executive. “When the Cup started, it wasn’t just that Brazil started winning, it’s that everything was OK. The tourists were fine. Transportation worked. People were making money. You had this apoplectic vision, but it did not come true. Everybody’s happy. It took the wind out of the sails from the protest.”

They started to argue, a friendly debate. Ribeiro fell asleep at the table, arms folded, the buttons on his dress shirt strained.

“All of this can come back, with greater or lesser intensity,” Zolini said. “All of what was going on before can come back.”

But … “We’re still well aware of what the problems are,” he continued. “We know the Cup is still going to end, and the problems are still going to be there. Our daily lives are ones of insecurity on the street, because that police presence isn’t there. And worrying about being assaulted. Worrying about being robbed.”

For a minute after he said that everyone sat silent. Then the conversation resumed.

The topic: Brazil’s chances against Chile in the Round of 16, naturally. The hospitals, the schools, the protests, the elections this fall – all that could wait until July 14.

This is the final piece in a series throughout the opening weeks of the World Cup in which SI senior writer Greg Bishop and photographer Simon Bruty chronicle their travel to offer a taste of the cultural side of Brazil.

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