RIO DE JANEIRO – Outside the World Cup, on the beaches, in the streets, away from the games, life unfolds in snapshots.
It’s nearly sunrise on Copacabana Beach. It’s Friday, late in the second week of soccer’s world tournament. The sand is mostly empty, except for footprints. A handful of folks stumble toward the waves, an odd mixture of those who woke up early and those who never slept.
A lone surfer drags his board into the ocean.
The lights on the beach turn off. They’re no longer needed. Joggers jog and walkers walk and men with tans that look like orange peels perform Pilates in the sand. The surfer paddles deeper into the ocean. The waves get bigger – and bigger – and bigger, swelling into frothy white tunnels until they crash into the beach. A lime wedge is swept away, probably from last night’s Caipirinha – Brazil’s national booze. Tourists gawk at the female posteriors carved into the sand like castles.
The sun comes up, and that means the soccer is nearby, always. An employee of one of the beachfront restaurants lines a sand pitch with Brazilian flags, 10 in all, the blue circle on each shaped like a futbol ready to be kicked. The employee hangs the nets.
The sun peaks over the clouds above Sugarloaf Mountain.
The pickup soccer games start soon.
The fans from Argentina call their recreational vehicle a van. Its grill bears the Mercedes emblem, although it’s the kind of vehicle Mercedes would probably pay to disassociate from. The van is dirty, old, rickety, rusted, caked in mud and dust, held together by tape, its windows cracked, its exhaust pipe shooting black smoke down Rio’s streets.
It’s a miracle the van arrived here, from Cordoba, Argentina, where it carried 10 fans, 10 die-hards, to a World Cup held in the country of their archrival. The trip took three days.
Most of the men sit there Friday morning, drinking coffee, behind the table, or between the bedroom and the stove. Two sleep. No one cooks. Some smoke cigarettes. One grabs candy from the box atop the stove.
The van is parked outside a magazine stand, maybe 100 feet from FIFA’s Fan Fest, a fake corporate fan environment constructed for sponsors to throw up a few hundred more signs. This is real fandom, drive 3,000-kilometer (about 1,865 miles, their estimate) fandom, endure taunts from drunken Brazilians fandom, endure-an-uncle-and-brother-and-friend-for-three-weeks fandom.
All 10 gather for a photograph, Javier Pla in charge. They planned to drive to Belo Horizonte, however long it takes. Argentina is scheduled to play there Saturday, against Iran. They should have made it. They hope to pick up any hitchhikers that might be headed that way, to make some friends.
They wave a flag as they drive off.
From the beach, the road points upward, toward Pavao-Pavaozinho, a favela home to a gym where champions come to train. Construction sounds all around the building, hammers and drills and banter from the workers, the streets lined with flags for the World Cup.
This is where the dancer died.
His name was Douglas Rafael da Silva Pereira. News accounts said he was 26. He didn’t live in the favela, according to the locals, but he felt at home there and had a child there and spent much time there. When police shot him during a drug raid, the neighborhood responded with a flurry of gunfire and smoke. Some set cars on fire, according to news accounts. Others marched to the local police station.
All this in late April, so close to the Cup.
The dancer also trained at the gym, alongside all the champions, past the old men playing dominoes and the computer library, down the stairs.
The walls to the gym are lined with pictures. George St. Pierre, the mixed martial artist champion, inside. Mike Tyson, the heavyweight demon, with the gym’s owner in Las Vegas. Muhammad Ali standing over Sonny Liston, just because. The names of dozens, even hundreds of champions who trained here are listed on the wall, including many members of the Gracie family, known jiu-jitsu practitioners, many MMA stars.
The owner is Claudio Coelho, and on Friday, he explains how the gym started, what it means. He grew up in this favela, surrounded by drugs and guns and prostitution, shootouts and stabbings, abandoned police barracks. A friend introduced him to Muay Thai fighting and that led him to the gym and that gym led him into boxing. He learned from a trainer who left for the United States and left him in charge of their stable. He opened Academia de Boxe Nobre Arte in 1990, to give children like him that same kind of option, something other than the streets.
Now, he says he teaches a combination of boxing and jiu-jitsu, that his charges put the “mixed” in mixed martial arts.
Rubeno Alevato came to Coelho at age 16. He had a temper and was on drugs. Now, he works as Coelho’s assistant. He’s married and the father of two children.
Now, combatants from all over the world make the same trek up the hill to the gym. They come from the United States and Canada, from all over Europe, from Asia and every corner of Brazil. Coelho charges nothing to those who can’t afford it, the gym part of a social project here. Those who can, pay, but that’s the point, everyone together, rich and poor and strong and weaker, everybody mixed.
Coelho does not believe the World Cup will have that kind of impact. It’s too removed from the ground level, too far from the grassroots. He says he wishes he had that $12 billion to invest, to start programs for those who need them. He says he told that to the politicians.
Not that anybody listened.
Then the dancer died.
“Everybody got so sad,” he says. “He was so happy. He helped everyone. He taught children how to dance.”
A wall nearby the gym is spray-painted. It says: we miss you Douglas.
One of the fighters, a Brazilian Muay Thai champion named Valmir Alves, leads visitors to a tram that cuts up the mountain. Locals pack inside. Green and yellow ribbons, the national colors, line the walls.
Then, the climb. Then, the mud. Then, the last treacherous steps that lead to a field thousands of feet above the Rio from the postcards, a grass area lined with a fence. Children play soccer there, alongside visitors, above the wooden houses perched perilously nearby. One teenager, maybe 14 years old, pulls from a Budweiser – soccer in Brazil apparently sponsored until the end. No one looks down at the water or the tourists who came to watch the Cup.
This is the twelfth 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.