NATAL, Brazil – Away from the beaches and tourists, on a street in the Potilandia neighborhood, 11 men and one woman gathered around a small television that rested on top of a storage bin.
They sat outside, amid bottles of cachaça sugarcane liquor and a green-and-yellow spray-painted tree and a matching spray-painted curb. They used boxes and hollowed out speakers and even a lone brick for seats.
Their group included a man named Geraldo. He treated this Thursday afternoon like a costume party. He wore a Dr. Seuss-style top hat and green plastic sunglasses shaped like intertwined guns, and he carried both a horn he blasted every few seconds and a plastic bag full of beer. His house sat nearby, every television turned to the only channel that mattered in this country Thursday, even though no one was inside.
Shortly after 5 p.m. here, Geraldo rose from his seat and screamed at the television. That, of course, only meant one thing: that the World Cup had started, and Brazil’s journey as both host and championship contender had begun.
Geraldo went to get more beer.
Others gathered at a bar/restaurant down the street, where ribbons hung from the ceiling and smoke rose from the grill. A man outside sold bracelets, flags, horns and so many trinkets, at least until the game started, when he also sat down. There was no one left to sell to.
Fireworks exploded in the distance. Horns honked. Locals sang Brazil’s national anthem. On this night, for two hours, no one here talked about the government or politics or the poor or all the reasons that Brazil should have declined to host the world’s biggest sporting event and put that money elsewhere, into roads and schools and hospitals. The concerns had not abated – a stop sign in Natal read F**k FIFA in black spray paint – but they were shelved momentarily in favor of fútbol, the country’s uniting force.
Patrons stood and screamed at the projection screen hanging from the wall. Rich, poor, young, old, they all gestured and swore at the referees. Then, Croatia scored the first goal of the tournament, after the ball hit one of Brazil’s defenders in the leg. It was only 5:12 p.m. local time, and Brazil found itself behind. Reaction ranged from shrugs that said mere setback to furious hand motions meant for impending doom.
The street between the bar and the outdoor party stood empty. Trees swayed in the breeze. Cars sat, parked.
The home team attacked and attacked and sent shots at Croatia’s goalie. None found the net, and each attempt was met with a louder collective groan. The men who sat outside sat in near silence, locked in. Brazil had a shot on goal and everyone jumped up and screamed again. Blocked. Another shot, another scream, another save.
The rest of Natal, the rest of Brazil, must have felt the same way – nervous but not overly so, angry but hopeful, too. We climbed inside the car of our interpreter. You could hear the roar that resulted from Brazil’s first goal for miles.
On the ride back into town, the car passed a handful of other vehicles, with hardly a human being in sight. This was like the Philippines during a Manny Pacquiao boxing match, when the crime rate supposedly drops to zero because no one is outside.
A full moon hung overhead. Strange happenings, perhaps? The car passed houses with families crowded around televisions, bars with families crowded around televisions, restaurants with families crowded around televisions. The streets? Crickets. A restaurant with a wait an hour long the night before, Camaroes, was dark, the curtains shut.
The car stopped in the Treme Terra, a neighborhood known for having a penchant for violence. Dozens crowded outside the house of a man named Qanin De, who said he purchased the new 50-inch television outside just for these three guaranteed World Cup occasions. Behind the chairs, the road opened enough for cars to pass, but behind that, more neighbors sat in chairs, an overflow crowd.
De hooked up lights as darkness closed in. Then he handed out fireworks, which the children blasted off at halftime, the score locked at 1-1. Brazilian fireworks are no joke. The ones that lit up the night sky sounded like gunshots. The ones that detonated in the nearby dirt park sounded like bombs. So many horns blasted that ear plugs seemed like a plausible alternative to hearing damage.
“It should be 3-1,” De said. “But we’re going to win.”
A horn sounded. Another. Another. Locals lit fires in the middle of the nearest streets, as part of the St. John festival held here each June.
The car took off again.
It parked in front of Jugos Dupla Grenal, a bar closer toward the touristy Ponta Negra section of Natal. This is where the Mexican and American tourists spent their time in northeast Brazil, by blue water that glowed underneath the afternoon sun, nearby palm trees and coconuts with straws.
Condominium towers rose in the distance behind the bar, a reminder of the distance – both great and short – between rich and poor. The referees seemed to gift Brazil with a penalty, which set up a penalty kick for Neymar, its star forward. He scored, and the bar erupted like Brazil had won the World Cup and not simply taken a lead in its first game.
One woman wore only a mini-skirt and a bedazzled green-and-yellow-and-blue bikini, and she jumped from her seat and danced back and forth, all the while holding a meat skewer in her hand like a national pom-pom. It was the most Brazilian thing ever.
One last stop. On the way back to the hotel, the car barely stopped before the locals began to run forward, chanting, screaming, everyone drunk on beer and World Cup promise. They handed over plastic green glasses and flags. They wanted to take pictures with the Americans, and they snapped away. “For my Facebook page,” one said. “For my Instagram,” said another. “Bra-zil! Bra-zil! Bra-zil!” they chanted.
The home team scored again and everyone ran into the streets. They cracked open a champagne bottle and doled out shots of that sugarcane liquor that burned as it ran down throats. There would be no national crisis, no protests. Not on Thursday.
Not when Brazil secured its first victory of this 2014 World Cup and the locals promised not one, not two, but six more.
This is the fourth piece in a series throughout 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. They continue their trip in Natal, the capital of the Rio Grande do Norte.