I’m a diehard Carlton supporter and our form is awful. The Australian Sports Anti-Doping Authority (ASADA) has just hit one of our biggest rivals, Essendon with 34 ‘show cause’ notices in relation to the supplements scandal. Normally this would be some consolation. However this season I don’t care about any of it. I’m not interested in the debate around umpires, runners or rolling mauls because this season I’m in Brazil and it is World Cup time.
Melburnians like to brag, me included, about being passionate supporters and barrackers living in the sporting capital of the world. We do this even more than we brag about living in the “cultural capital’ of Australia.
We attend matches and events every weekend if possible. Sport, footy in particular, dominates conversation around the water cooler all year round. However even in the Melbourne football fishbowl there are moments of escape. It’s possible to go for walk down the street or catch up with friends and avoid the subject of sports, even during the finals in September.
This is not the case in Rio. I don’t think I knew what sports passion was until I set foot in Rio de Janeiro a couple of weeks ago. Rio and Brazil might not cover the breadth of sports Melbourne and Australia does but its devotion to football runs far deeper than my self-proclaimed sports capital. Football takes precedence over everything for most Brazilians. Conversations begin and end with teams, players and predictions for the tournament.
From back alleys to main streets the roads are draped in green and yellow streamers with Brazilian flags hanging from each and every shop front. The decorations are not government encouraged or subsidised, but are simply how the average Brazilian demonstrates passion for their national team. Showing support is a serious business for the Brazilians. Old men and women scrupulously supervise their younger relatives and arguments erupt in the streets over the proper placement of each piece of supportive paraphernalia. Not even the truly footy obsessed, face paint wearing, toothless Collingwood cheer squad members in Melbourne would go to such extremes.
At almost every intersection in Copacabana and Ipanema there are men and women selling illegal knock-offs of official Brazilian merchandise. Police intermittently descend and the merchants frantically pack up their belongings and bolt down the street Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels style. Daywear for most Brazilians appears to be super tight upper-thigh length shorts and a Brazilian jersey with Neymar Jr on the back. And that’s just the men.
In the Brazilian churrascarias, popular restaurants that only serve beer and slow cooked coal roasted meats, multiple televisions play classic matches and/or inconsequential friendlies between relative football minnows such as USA vs Nigeria. The wide range of meats are offered and carved off giant skewers ‘rodizio’ style, right at the table. But just try asking for more when your waiter’s eyes wander to the screen in a World Cup induced trance.
There are soccer matches being played along every spare patch of sand on all the beaches. My football skills are being severely shown up by locals and tourists from across South America aged from five to 70. Every one of them is a superstar. I was in Rio for the beginning of the construction of the ‘FIFA fan fest’. This mammoth construction stretches for about five hundred metres along Copacabana Beach. The idea was initiated in Germany in 2006 and was described by Brazilian legend Ronaldo as “the most exciting part of football and the FIFA World Cup: thousands of fans gathered to watch a match together and celebrate.” There is one in every host city, twelve in total. The one in Rio puts our public viewing space in Melbourne’s Federation Square to shame.
Melburnians who disagree with the Victorian government’s lavish spending on events such as the Grand Prix and Australian Open tennis tournament voice their concerns through the media. The minority of Brazilians who disagree with the $11 billion spent on the World Cup have taken to the streets.
Daily protests — some violent, some peaceful– in the major cities and workers’ strikes have led to slow progress and a last-minute rush to have the stadiums ready. There is plenty of street art denouncing the World Cup: “FIFA go home” is spray painted around Rio streets and all the way up to see Christ the Redeemer. For these Brazilians it’s difficult to justify its government spending when in Rio’s favelas entire families share one bed, exposed electric wires lining the streets, and emaciated children beg for food and money. A friend from Perth was robbed by a group of men wielding knives and rocks, showing how desperate Brazilians are to take advantage of wealthier tourists descending on their turf. The problem is compounded when you realise that FIFA takes the $4 billion dollars of profits expected to be generated by the World Cup.
FIFA does not only leave their mark on the Brazilian bank balance, they are also changing the law in order to appease their sponsors. Alcohol consumption in stadiums has been banned in Brazil since 2003 as a result of the high death rate amongst fans. However one of FIFA’s major sponsors, Budweiser, needed their interests protected. FIFA secretary general Jérôme Valcke went to the Brazilian government and said, “I’m sorry to say, and maybe I look a bit arrogant, but that is something we’ll not negotiate. I mean there will be and there must be as part of the law, the fact that we have the right to sell beer.” As a result Brazil passed the “Budweiser Bill” re-allowing beer sales in the grounds. Arrogant does not even begin to describe this perfect example of how FIFA are only interested in lining their own pockets.
Despite all of the money spent it is clear that Brazil are still not ready for the Cup. On my way in to the ground to watch Uruguay versus Costa Rica I got my first view of the half-built train line that was meant to take thousands of fans right to the stadium entrance. Instead spectators are crammed in to sweltering hot buses like clowns in a small car and are taken to within a few kilometres of the ground. We were then required to walk the rest of the way on a brand spanking new road. The disorganisation is personified and summed up beautifully by the image Brazilian bands, set up along the street to the ground, facing the wrong way and playing their music to no one, their backs facing us.
It is difficult not to wonder if the whole exercise is worthwhile. Part of me thinks: sure it is. I’ve seen the excitement of the locals and experienced the wild atmosphere in the stadiums. In any case, won’t the World Cup will improve infrastructure, stimulate the economy and create jobs? That at least is the party line mainly trotted out by Brazilian politicians and FIFA.
It’s unclear when exactly the Brazilian citizens will see the benefits. Millions are without education, healthcare and/or housing. I’m having a lot of fun as a visitor, and I love football, but I can’t help but think the billions spent on the ‘beautiful game’ could have been better invested on the people who need it the most.
But the benefit of the World Cup can’t be measured in numbers alone. The all- singing, all-dancing Brazilian football fanatics find hope and optimism in events like the World Cup. This is difficult for me to comprehend. Melbourne might be sports mad but is not not our be all and end all. If Carlton loses I mope around for a few hours, but if the Brazilian national side loses there are tears and fights as a sadness, even grief envelops the nation. Even the victories of their greatest rival, Argentina, prompt mob mentality and chanting in the streets. Not even Collingwood fans go that far.