My first contribution to this blog requires a short preamble. Thanks to the generous support of the Pulitzer Center, I am spending the next month in Brazil documenting the World Cup for the Goal Posts blog. But there is a twist. I am not going to enter any of the stadiums during my frantic run around the country. Instead I am seeking out how the majority of Brazilians are actually going to experience the tournament. Especially those who cannot afford the exorbitant ticket prices. I want to capture just as much of what is happening off the field as on the field during one of the most widely viewed spectacles on the planet. During every match I will be with locals on the streets, in bars and cafes, in large commercial FIFA viewing sites, in homes with families and friends, anywhere with a screen where people are gathered to watch the beautiful game. It's time to pull back the veil on the pomp and largesse. This is the real World Cup.
I arrived in Sao Paulo this Monday just as the municipal government reached a temporary deal with both the metro workers and homeless workers unions to suspend their strikes. An underlying current of anxiety was running through the city. There was a big push to get everything swept under the rug before the opening match between Brazil and Croatia yesterday. Although the protests this month were nowhere near the size of those last year during the Confederations Cup, people were still displeased. Nobody felt President Dilma Rousseff was delivering on her promises. Nobody was putting up decorations. Nobody was sure if the stadiums were even ready. Everybody was holding their breath.
I feel it also my duty to mention that I ran into one of the uglier sides of Sao Paulo on my second night in the city. I was robbed. My camera was stolen from me while traveling home in a taxi late at night. I lost all my photographs from the first few days of my visit. In all I was lucky to escape bodily harm, but it put me on my heels, especially after experiencing the best of Brazilian hospitality with my Airbnb host, who insisted on preparing me delicious breakfasts and dinners throughout my stay. Sao Paulo has quite an array of tricks up its sleeve. I learned the hard way. For those who are coming to Brazil from afar, keep your eyes open and travel in groups at night. This should be common sense for any traveler, but for all the conviviality of the games, remain vigilant.
Fortunately there is nothing like tear gas to get you going after a material loss. Although the metro workers union called off the strike that was crippling the city, they did plan one more protest for good measure before the big opening match. A few hundred people gathered near a metro stop conveniently located on the way to the stadium yesterday morning. The media was waiting with great anticipation. After the first tear gas grenades were lobbed into the crowd, only a handful of protesters hung around for the photography frenzy that ensued. Who doesn't like a shotgun pulled on a citizen for the opening of the World Cup? Personally I was taken back by the aggressive tactics used by the Sao Paulo police, especially in the face of such a small gathering. They were rather brutal when they got their hands on anyone who actually stood in their way. I guess no risks were to be taken on the first day of the World Cup.
After a morning of civil unrest, it was time to head to the real spectacle and explore the neighborhoods surrounding the gleaming Corinthians stadium where twelve heads of state and other VIPs were gathering. The sun was out and futebol fanatics started cracking beers and firing up the grills on every street corner. The crowds at the World Cup are infectious. It's hard not to get swept up in the atmosphere, even if the new infrastructure around the stadium did not reach into the impoverished corners of the surrounding communities. It is impossible to get close to the stadium either. I could only gaze upon it with some boisterous locals from a nearby hilltop. Cordoned off by fences, highways, and the metro, it is in no way integrated with its neighbors.
It is very hard to separate politics from the national team in Brazil, but when it comes to down to it, Brazilians just want to see their team take home the trophy. The anxiety began to break when Neymar scored his second goal from the penalty spot to put Brazil up against the Croatians. By this point in the match, I had traversed the entire city and was walking through Jardins Paulista, trying to find a bar to meet my friends for the end of the game. The eerily quiet neighborhood suddenly burst into cheering. Shouts of joy echoed between the apartment buildings while children ran onto the street with horns. It was an extraordinary canyon of sound. Sao Paulo exhaled as victory seemed in reach. So much is still riding on the performance of the Brazilian team. An early exit from the tournament would compound the anger felt toward the government, but with a win in the finals in Rio next month, almost anything could be forgiven.