Unique World Cup host Recife, site of U.S.-Germany, mired in turmoil

Thousands turn out for the Galo da Madrugada, carnival parade in Recife, Pernambuco, Brazil, this past March.
Agencia Estado/AP

May has not been a good month for the World Cup host city of Recife, where the U.S. men's national team will play Germany in its final, and possibly decisive, group game on June 26th. Three weeks ago, after the Santa Cruz vs. Parana Serie B game, three fans linked to the Santa Cruz torcida organizada (organized fan club or hooligan gang, depending on your point of view) Inferno Coral, dropped a toilet from the top deck of the Arruda stadium onto the street below, where it struck and killed a supporter of Santa's city rivals Sport.

It was the latest in a series of violent incidents involving the organizadas of the city's three professional clubs, Santa Cruz, Sport and Nautico, and made negative headlines around the world.

Then two weeks ago the city's military police went on strike, seeking a salty 50 percent wage increase. Large parts of Recife descended into lawlessness, with widespread looting in the suburbs and a total of 27 murders in 48 hours. The Brazilian government sent in the army to restore calm, and soon there were tanks and armored cars patrolling the streets. The strike has now been called off, and some kind of peace has returned to the city.

"I told my friends back home it was like the O.K. Corral," says Stacey De Melo, a 33-year-old English teacher from New Bedford, Massachusetts, who has lived in Recife for two years. Then she laughs and sheepishly apologizes, explaining that she doesn't want to give too negative an impression of the city.

"It's not an easy place to live. You get all the inconveniences of living in a huge city, without too many of the benefits. But the people are very friendly, and the beaches are wonderful," she says.

What advice would she give U.S. fans coming here for the World Cup tie against Germany? "Be careful. It can be a dangerous place."

Statistically speaking, De Melo is right. Brazil's extreme social inequality is all too visible in Recife, where the expensive apartment buildings of beachfront neighborhoods such as Boa Viagem are a stone's throw from the wooden shacks of the Coelhos favela along the river and the huge urban sprawl of neglected suburbs such as Ibura on the outskirts of the city.

Throughout Brazil, this disparity inevitably results in high levels of crime - according to official figures there were 50,000 murders in the country in 2012. But Recife, at least, is not as violent as it used to be. A recent study by the Mexican think tank Citizens' Council for Public Security and Criminal Justice found that the city is the 39th most dangerous in the world. It has 36.82 murders per 100,000 inhabitants, making it slightly less lethal than Baltimore, and slightly more than St. Louis.

That represents a considerable step forward from just a few years ago, when there were so many murders in Pernambuco (the state of which Recife is capital) that a group of journalists installed an electronic clock called "PE Body count" on a central street to count the number of deaths. A large part of the improvement is down a local government security initiative entitled "Pacto Pela Vida" ("Pact for Life") involving integrated community policing and social projects. The success of the scheme has been recognized by both the UN and the Inter-American Development Bank.

There are other reasons why U.S. fans should not cancel their trips to Recife just yet. Firstly, Recife's urban crime problems are unlikely to affect tourists, especially in heavily policed World Cup areas -- tragically, the vast majority of murders in the city, as in all Brazilian urban areas, occur in just such deprived neighborhoods as Coelhos and Ibura, and invariably involve the poor killing the poor, be it because of drugs gang feuds, grubby love triangles gone wrong, or petty street crime.

Secondly, because aside from the issue of urban violence, Recife is a city unlike any other in Brazil. Perhaps it is because of its turbulent history -- much of the city was constructed during the Dutch occupation of the region in the 17th century, before the "invaders" were defeated by the Portuguese/nascent Brazilians at the Battle of Guararapes in 1649.

Or perhaps it is because of the fact that the city, and the nordeste in general, has long suffered from a lack of local and national government investment (some would say a lack of interest), meaning the region's citizens learned to fend for themselves. Whatever the reason, Recife, perhaps more than anywhere else in Brazil, is a city of the people.

"I came back to Recife," sang local songwriter Alceu Valença, "it was homesickness that dragged me by the arm." Anyone who has lived in the city for long will understand exactly what he means.

Arena Pernambuco in Recife will host USA-Germany, the two teams' final match in World Cup group play.
Ana Arajuo/Portal da Copa/AP

From its enormous carnaval (1.5 million people flood to the Galo da Madrugada street party every year to frolic beneath a giant, multi-colored rooster statue, while just as many flock to the simultaneous festivities in the steep cobbled lanes of Recife's more picturesque sister city of Olinda), to the fanatical support enjoyed by the local soccer teams and the garrulous, at times raucous nature of the locals, Recife has an organic, street driven energy that is hard to top.

"If festivity, hospitality, and music is the criteria, then this city rocks. We have the best folk music in Brazil, and the most enthusiastic soccer fans on the planet, with three local teams passionately, sometimes dangerously dividing the city," says Daniel Hickey, who was born in Texas but grew up in the city from 1964 to 1975, before returning to live there in 2000.

The best example of such passion is perhaps Santa Cruz FC -- terminally unsuccessful, the team recently spent six years in the bottom two divisions of the Brazilian championship, yet in 2011, when in Serie D, pulled in average crowds of 40,000, the highest in Brazil. And 60,000 watched the victory over Betim last December that hauled the team back into Serie B.

Music too, is everywhere in Recife and the surrounding state of Pernambuco -- there is the forro (traditional Brazilian folk music) of the late Luiz Gonzaga, the parasol twirling, manic jazz stylings of frevo, and the pounding drums of maracatu. Tragically, the city's most loved recent musical hero, Chico Science, whose band Nação Zumbi mixed maracatu, hip-hop and growling rock to create mangue ("swamp" -- Recife is built on marshy wetlands) beat, died in a car crash in 1997. The singer's most famous line "a beer before lunch really helps you think" neatly captures the spirit of Recife.

As in every host city, the World Cup has inspired fierce debate here. The new $240 million Arena Pernambuco, built in the town of Sao Lourenco da Mata that is some 20 kilometers from downtown Recife, has not inspired much love among local fans, many of whom are of limited financial means and used to walking or taking the bus to see their teams play, not drive (or take a rather erratic metro system) to an out-of-town stadium.

Nautico has taken up residence in the new Arena, but it has taken considerable persuasion (some would say bullying) on the part of the Pernambuco state government to get Santa and Sport, both of whom have their own grounds, to play more than a few games a year there. The stadium attracted average crowds of just 12,500 in 2013, and of the 200,000 tickets available for the five World Cup games in the city, only 20% have been bought by locals, according to Cassio Zirpoli, a journalist at the local Diario de Pernambuco, the oldest newspaper in South America still in circulation today.

"Recife should be excited about the World Cup, but the political background has affected things," states Zirpoli, referring to the decision of former state governor Eduardo Campos to run for president of Brazil, strategically distancing himself from the tournament. The fact that Recife is the only World Cup city to refuse to host a FIFA Fan Fest has also dampened enthusiasm, according to Zirpoli.

"The Fan Fest is the only opportunity for people without tickets to take part in the World Cup festivities," he says.

There are World Cup concerns too over the city's often chaotic traffic, which can grind to a standstill when it rains (which it often does in June) and the roads flood.

"If transportation infrastructure is a criteria Recife never should have been made a host city," says Hickey. "The Confederations Cup was a disaster for the Uruguayan national team, for example, who couldn't practice because heavy rain flooded their training pitch, and the traffic meant it took three hours to get there and back. Other than a few cosmetic changes, no substantial efforts have been made to improve things since then. Fans will be forced to gather at a bus stop 20 kilometers away from the stadium and embark on a journey that will severely test their bladders."

Infrastructure and security worries aside, both Hickey and De Melo can hardly wait for the game against Germany. De Melo has bought nine tickets for American friends and family, and Hickey says he will have eight visiting fans staying at his house for the game.

"God knows the USA will need all the help they can get!" he says.

Whatever the result on the field, American fans who immerse themselves in the culture and lifestyle of this unique city -- whether it is sampling fresh oysters on the beach at Boa Viagem, wandering the lively, bohemian streets of Recife Antigo ("Old Recife") at night, or watching the sun set over Recife in a blaze of ochre and crimson from the heights of the picturesque Alta da Sé square in Olinda (with, as Chico Science might say, a cold beer in hand to help one think better) -- will not regret it.

James Young is a Brazil-based contributor to SI.com. He can be followed on Twitter @seeadarkness.

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