Sunday June 15th, 2014

Simon Bruty/SI

NATAL, Brazil – The Arena das Dunas is surrounded by shops and car dealerships and roads normally choked with traffic.

But not on Friday.

On Friday, the stadium dominated the landscape, its white, curved exterior designed to resemble the local sand dunes. Under a Noah’s Ark-downpour, thousands of soccer fans, mostly foreigners, packed inside. A host of corporate signage greeted them. Makeshift fences and orange cones extended the perimeter, deeper into this city by the beach. They formed a World Cup bubble – sponsored by Coca-Cola and Pringles and others, an homage to sponsorship and revenue generation, and as antiseptic as hand sanitizer (FIFA probably has a sponsor for that, too).

Then there was everything else, everyone outside the bubble, half a mile beyond the empty roads. For all the celebration that encompassed Natal and the rest of this soccer-mad nation Thursday, when Brazil won the World Cup opener, the day afterward the world’s most popular sporting event hardly seemed to exist. The locals could see the stadium, but that only made so many of them angry, disillusioned. Cafes featured empty tables. There were no horns, no flags.

There was, instead, a bus stop. Dozens crowded underneath an awning. Others stood in the rain, clutching umbrellas, hoods pulled over heads. The reason so many of them stood there is that bus drivers went on strike the day before. In a city where schedules and traffic lanes already seem like mere suggestions, this added two to three hours to hundreds, even thousands, of commutes.

Spectators were not immune to the rain in Mexico's soggy 1-0 victory over Cameroon.
Photos: Simon Bruty/SI

“I don’t like the World Cup here,” said a woman named Heliane who worked at the hostel down the street, as she waited for a bus. “Everyone is using the World Cup to press the government. Health and security, transportation, education, it’s a mess.”

She was asked if she thinks anything will change, if the strike will result in what the drivers want, which is more of 'all of the above.' She shook her head. She said, “It’s going to get worse.”

She was asked, then, if she preferred that Brazil had not signed up to host the World Cup at all, that FIFA had selected another country to build so many stadiums likely to sit empty for years to come. She shook her head again.

That’s an interesting take shared by many of the dozens of Brazilians interviewed over the past week in Natal and Manaus. They welcomed the World Cup and all the tourists that came to watch it, but remained skeptical that it would lead to any real, lasting improvement, despite all the protest over the billions – almost $12 billion, according to some estimates – the government has spent on preparing for the World Cup events.

If that sentiment mostly disappeared when Brazil took the field in Sao Paulo, it returned on Friday, the reaction all but unanimous outside the bubble’s corporate warmth.

Our fixer, Juarez Chaves Camera, says it rains roughly six days a year in Natal and yet he also said that rain always seems to occur on days when the city is most packed with tourists. The rain Friday started early in the morning and remained heavy as the day wore on. Streets flooded. Traffic stalled. The parking lot at the stadium, which had not been finished, looked a bit like the original Woodstock, everything caked in mud. Water ran like rivers down the stairs inside.

Mexico and Cameroon faced off at 1 p.m., sponsored by Pringles and Coke ( of course). The rain did little to dampen the mood of the assembled, a pro-Mexico crowd that alternately sang and roared. Referees questionably waved off two Mexico goals in the first half, which only added to the manner in which Natal’s World Cup opener unfolded – poor officiating, torrential rain and a bus strike.

Chaves Camera is also a civilian police officer, and the station he works at, is close to the World Cup bubble but outside it. He stopped in Friday and pointed at white walls stained dark, scuffed, paint absent. There was no water, only a slow drip from the facet. The sink was brown, the chairs in the waiting room ripped. Sometimes, Chaves Camera said, the officers do not have paper to print reports. They must buy their own handcuffs. He said they had planned to strike during the World Cup – but a judge, or actually the person above a judge in Brazil’s judicial system – ruled it was a crime for civilian police to strike.

Planet Futbol
Viagem Brazil: Going inside the world’s largest cashew tree in Natal

While the second half unfolded, Chaves Camera’s colleague, Assis, manned the simple front desk with two computers by himself. Their station specializes in auto theft, and only two people had come in to report crimes and both those – a car jacked at gunpoint and another incident where the driver offered a stranger a ride and came to regret it – had taken place the day before. Both officers said the increased police presence here had driven down crime in recent days, a trend they did not expect to last. Assis noted there had been more than 700 homicides this year in this state, the Rio Grande do Norte, alone. He estimated 100 had been solved.

Assis did not watch the game, though, even as the stadium that looked like sand dunes sat half a mile down the street. He did not know that Mexico won, 1-0. He did not see any corporate signage, or connect with any fans.

“With the amount of money invested here, they could invest in basic services, public services,” he said. “Instead, the roads look pretty.”

This is the sixth 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.

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