Fear and loathing in Brazil?

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Brazil has its problems and it’s entitled to deal with them as it sees fit. But the rest of the world using it to scaremonger potential World Cup travelers does the country and its efforts a huge injustice, writes Ewan MacKenna. 

Even at this distant juncture, it’s best you only whisper it around here because after 63 years it’s still a barbed and violent memory. On 16 July, 1950, with a full four hours until kick-off, around 200,000 people crushed their way into the newly-built Maracana to watch Brazil win the World Cup. The 280 or so Uruguayans who were merely taking up much-needed space at an oversold party knew as much as well. With the final stage of the tournament being a round-robin between four teams, and with the home side on full points, just a draw was required and presumption and arrogance were already winning out the day. All that was left was Brazil to win out too.

That morning, the newspaper O Mundo had printed a photo of their team beneath a headline that translates as, “These are the World Champions”. Meanwhile before kick-off, the mayor of Rio de Janeiro, Angelo Mendes de Moraes, is said to have bellowed at the side over the public address system: “You, players, who in less than a few hours will be hailed as champions by millions of your compatriots; you, who have no rivals in the entire hemisphere; you, who will overcome any other competitor; you, who I already salute as victors.” It was little wonder as the seleção had won its previous two games by 11 goals yet by the finish, the unforgettable and unthinkable happened.

Brazil lost that game 2-1 and lost their great moment forever to the past. But much of the talk of this nation’s passion for football goes back to it. In its aftermath, across the country, tens reportedly took their lives while at least one person is said to have committed suicide there and then, as the glorious Maracana initially became a graveyard for the Brazilian dream rather than an altar to their religion. Because of that, there’s now a silent fear that after waiting so long to make amends, it could all happen again. And just because it’s unspeakable doesn’t mean it’s unthinkable.

The problem with this tournament though is that it’s not the only fear as that’s the primary emotion that has enveloped almost every aspect of the build-up. And, worldwide, it’s been talked about to the point it’s entrenched in the casual onlooker’s mind. But a bigger, less explored problem is lumping all of this World Cup’s headaches in together and not differentiating between internal and external issues, between what are valid and invalid concerns, and just who they are dilemmas for.

Look at it this way. On 11 December, another worker died during the construction of a stadium as fear for their lives grew amongst builders being pushed too hard to make Fifa’s false deadlines. On 13 Demember, police removed protesters from an indigenous museum next to the Maracana amidst fear over the future of a site that had previously been earmarked for destruction. Meanwhile, every day since being awarded the World Cup in 2007, there’s been fear from the masses over their future education, health and transport as €11.2bn of mostly public money has now been spent on what many view as a passing circus. All in all, this is a nation that’s perfectly entitled to engage in its own disputes and protest its own politics given the way this has all been shunted upon them.

But while all should try and be aware and conscious of such tragic issues, that doesn’t mean for a split-second any of that will directly affect those travelling and alter their experiences in any way, even if to listen to some media you might think differently. In recent months, the Daily Mail had an article lambasting the five-star England team hotel in Rio De Janeiro that cited anonymous TripAdvisor reviews. The Sun has run a couple of stories branding both that hotel and England’s still-under-construction training ground as “dumps”. The Daily Express meanwhile told its readers that all the talk at the World Cup draw was of “violence, massed robberies and rapes”. It makes you wonder why they didn’t air their views on the dangers of the London Olympics amid the brutal riots that swept the city just before those Games.

The truth about this World Cup for those coming however is that any negatives will be more about inconveniences rather than actual problems. In terms of both the people and this country, it’s a very special place and those who look to promote an alternate reality are at best engaging in uneducated scaremongering and at worst demonstrating flashes of mild xenophobia. It’s not a utopia but Brazil is spectacular and welcoming and unlike for those who live here, any major and unpleasant issues tend to be kept away from tourists. During a World Cup, that’ll be the case more than ever.

While many locals say the tournament is too big for Brazil at this point in time, some foreigners have suggested Brazil is too big for the World Cup at this point in its development. Consider this: the distance from Cuiába in the west to Recife in the east is over 1,500 miles and for some perspective, that’s like from Dublin to Kiev. Yet that’s the easy part. The southern-most venue Porto Alegre to Manaus in the north is around 2,000 miles, which in relation to home is Cork to Istanbul with a few drops of jet fuel left to spare. That’s what those hoping to see it all come summer are faced with.

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But that’s the first and most common mistake those forking out will make. Think of this as just another country and you’ll be overwhelmed. Instead, in terms of what people are used to, you need to see this as a continent. That by extension means that if you try to do and see too much, you’ll end up doing and seeing less. You wouldn’t discover all of Europe’s sights and sounds in a month and in a country as diverse as Brazil, you wouldn’t manage it if you had a year.  So don’t even try.

The second mistake though is to think distance equals money. Early last month, the Brazilian government decided that it wouldn’t open its skies to foreign carriers during the tournament, instead saying it could handle the loads with 600,000 foreigners and more than three million Brazilians expected to head to matches. That’s because in recent years, the airline sector has gone through a mini-revolution and an industry once dominated by TAM has been joined by relatively low-cost companies like Gol, Azul and Webjet. It’s driven prices down across the board and while it’s never going to be cheap getting here from Europe (from Dublin via a European city will be around €1,500, while a 30-hour haul via the States will come in at around €1,200) getting around Brazil isn’t actually that bad so long as you don’t leave it too late.

Take those following England as an average example. Travelling from the international hub in Sao Paulo to their opening game against Italy in Manaus is, as of now, just €113. Getting back for the game against Uruguay is roughly the same. And with their final game in Belo Horizonte against Costa Rica, buses are a possibility but flights are just €50. The distances may be daunting but large countries deserve their chance at hosting such an event, especially when prices aren’t prohibitive.

For the most part, despite in a few instances it being a necessary worry for both organisers and supporters, even hotels aren’t that bad. The biggest game of the first round between Spain and Netherlands takes place in Salvador on 13 June, and a quick search finds a double room in a three-star hotel for €78. The biggest first-round game in Fortaleza is Brazil-Mexico yet that night a four-star room is only €78. When England and Uruguay meet in Sao Paulo, there’s a three-star room for €81, despite it being the 10th most expensive city in the world. The only problematic place right now is Rio de Janeiro and that’s not a huge surprise. The locals known as cariocas are renowned for their money-making techniques and add in demand and the fact the place has the most expensive land in the southern hemisphere and there was a certain inevitability about the rip-off that’s happening.

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But while having your wallet robbed metaphorically has been mentioned, having it robbed literally has been forced down tourist’s throats in their respective countries. Too often, Brazil has been touted as dangerous and violent. Indeed the scenes at the recent Atletico Paranaense-Vasco Da Gama clash were brutal, shocking and deserved international attention. The only problem was the desperation to turn it into a World Cup story when there’s little link. That game took place in a venue that won’t be used, in a state that sees top-flight football as a private event and thus won’t allow police, and between a couple of teams with a history. It was a wake-up call, not an alarm bell.

Even the protests that will take place over the cost and funding of this World Cup shouldn’t really be a concern, if for all the wrong reasons. Last year there were 1,890 police killings and, while to describe Brazilian police actions as heavy-handed would be to describe the Irish banking sector as an inconvenience, Fifa has still given the go-ahead to use even more lethal force in order to keep football venues and their surrounds neat and tidy. So, while there will be political-based trouble it’ll be kept clear of games.

Instead, the real danger to fans is their own lack of common sense. Rather than the mass violence which plagued European games in the 1980s, it’s more likely that incidents involving foreigners will revolve around ones and twos talking to the wrong person or taking the wrong turn on a night out. In that sense, this isn’t a forgiving country and not a place for stupidity. Check your change, emphasise the note you hand over in a taxi, watch your drink and carry just enough to hand over in a mugging – basically be aware of all the usual trappings of travel to anywhere in the world.

But if negativity is an emotion that comes easy given the blown-out-of-proportion incidents here, then positivity comes fast with the physical surroundings. Of course a World Cup in Brazil more than most places is going to be about hysterical fanaticism and football and even with club games, you see it everywhere. Just last month, as Atletico Mineiro got ready to play Raja Casablanca in the World Club Cup, fireworks started across Belo Horizonte at 7am and didn’t stop for 12 hours. From apartment blocks, people shrieked hysterically while neighbours who follow the rival Cruzeiro club shrieked back as the game ebbed and flowed. This summer will dwarf such passion and madness.

Yet even during a World Cup here, this is a place that cannot be just about the football as there’s simply too much else. There’s Manaus surrounded by the Amazon,  Rio with its stunning views and fascinating favelas, Salvador with its ancient heritage and mysterious religion, Fortaleza with its dwarfing dunes, Cuiabá with its remarkable wildlife, Belo Horizonte with its bar life amidst coffee country, Porto Alegre with its meat eating amidst wine country, Natal with its deserted beaches just outside of town…

In fact if the geography is wide-ranging beyond comprehension, from deserts, through jungle, into farmland and onto the snow-capped mountains of winter in the south, then the people are just as fascinatingly diverse. The north-east is steeped in African heritage and traditions, the north-west contains some of the most ancient and unknown tribes on the planet, Sao Paulo has the biggest Japanese community outside of Japan, and a couple of hours outside of Porto Alegre is an area distinctly German right down to the dress, food, beer festivals and even the language.

What all those people have in common though is an urge to please and show off their good side, be it through their food, dance and hospitality, all despite a lack of English. And if the host nation can do what they failed to do against Uruguay all those years ago, those strands will be united and the place will turn into the biggest party the planet has ever seen. But once it’s all over, the only real loser will be those here that have footed the bill. Brazil is paying a heavy price for this just so you can enjoy yourself, and it’d be wise for the world to remember that before engaging in hyperbole about the negatives and putting people and their nation down all in the name of scaremongering.

After all, nothing is more frightening than a fear you cannot name.

GO AND SEE
1. Rio De Janeiro
So it’s the rip-off capital of the country when it comes to tourists. So hotels are outrageously overpriced already and that’s if you can even get one. So it has a reputation for being dodgy. So it’s a stereotypical choice and it’ll be the most congested with foreign fans. So what? It’s one of the most striking, iconic and beautiful cities on the planet as you’ll see from a trip up the Cristo Redentor. The Copacabana is the most famous beach but Ipanema is thronged with restaurants and Leblon is probably the most luxurious. As for nightlife, don’t skip Lapa. You can even turn the supposed negative of the favelas into the most fascinating experience on your trip via a tour (make sure it’s guided and official) of the biggest of them all, Rocinha. And of course, given you’re primarily here for the World Cup, there’s the Maracana in the midst of it all, the home of Brazilian soccer and the home of the final of this tournament. Enough said.

2. Manaus
Even the flight in will blow away lofty perceptions as you cruise for hours over nothing but dense, green jungle. The city itself is located at the meeting of the Rio Negro and Solimões, with their contrasting dark and light-brown waters not mixing for six kilometres in a spectacular natural phenomenon. And speaking of which, you’ll be surrounded by such in every single direction. The Amazon river and jungle are not even once-in-a-lifetime experiences for most, but make sure to bring your bug spray, heavy boots, and for your own sake, pop into your GP and get your jabs well in advance as it’s an experience that could quickly turn nasty otherwise. The truth is, more so than any other city, if you’re heading this far out of the way, the football is just an excuse for some exploring.

3. Salvador
Perhaps the most cultural city of them all In Brazil, this is a place that has it all. Not far from where the Portuguese originally landed, it’s also where they originally brought in their African slaves (a quick history lesson – when they were freed, and with no money and nowhere to go, it was they who initially set up the favelas in cities across the country). Thus it’s a place today of contrasts, with everything from food to music to religion having a distinctly African flavour while in the midst of some of the best colonial architecture on the continent. A former capital and third biggest city, it also has some amazing beaches and is home to Brazil’s best carnival. Indeed it’ll be putting on a scaled-down version of this during the World Cup. The only real problem might be the weather as, much like all the cities south of it, given the time of year, it might well rain a lot and temperatures might well be in the low-20s as opposed to mid-30s. But we think you’ll survive that.

GIVE IT A MISS
1. Sao Paulo
It’ll be pretty hard to miss given this is likely where you’ll fly into on your arrival along with the fact there’ll be four group games at the Itaquerao as well as a second-round clash and a semi-final. But the major problem in the world’s third-largest metropolitan area of close to 18 million is getting around. Even with an overcrowded subway and a rule that you can only drive on certain days depending on your car registration number, it’s manic. Just last month a world-record 192-mile traffic jam was recorded here. On top of that there’s the price, with food and drink coming in closer to European levels than South American norms and compared to other cities, there’s limited rural attractions within easy reach. A business city for the most part, and we presume you’ve seen plenty of those before.

2. Porto Alegre.
The south of the country is more European in its culture, architecture and thinking. And let’s be fair, you didn’t come all the way to Brazil to get a slice of home. The weather might make you feel like you’re back in Ireland as well and with June being winter here, a trip to near the Uruguayan border will involve really stuffing your suitcase with plenty of layers and possibly even a woolly jumper, God forbid. Fair enough, temperatures can get into the 20s, but they can get as low as five degrees as well and if you’re unlucky, wine country becomes indoor country. On top of all that, it hasn’t gotten the most attractive fixtures and given the above, and the fact it’s quite out of the way and isolated as a host city, it comes well down the list of things to do and places and games to see.

3. Curitiba
Keep it quiet for the minute, but there are some here suggesting that out of all the stadiums, it’s this one that won’t be ready and it’s four group games will be moved most likely to Rio de Janeiro. But even if that doesn’t happen, would you even cross the road to watch Iran-Nigeria or Ecuador-Honduras. It’s not that the city isn’t nice, indeed the local motto is ‘our beaches are our parks’ and it’s famous throughout the country for its transport, green-ethic, sustainability and open food markets. It’s just that it can’t compete with some of the other attractions dotted about.

1 January, 2014
Irish Examiner


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