One of the popular phrases that came out of the protests in the run up to the Cup was, “Copa pra quem”? On the third and fourth days of the Cup, I’ve been darting around to different neighborhoods in Rio during the matches — from favelas to wealthy beach front neighborhoods, and from street corner botecos to corporate events — trying to get a sense of the answer to that question.
What I’ve observed is that tourists are out in full force, waking the city out of a sort of mid-winter slumber that we had been experiencing. I visited Lapa Friday night and it was at Carnival levels of busy. The city’s newly arrived visitors are friendly, but definitely in vacation mode, and that means they come with all the strange behavior which that entails. This includes plenty of small groups of men stalking around the now full beaches, a common occurence no doubt, however in an event where several people have already remarked to me about the disproportionate number of male visitors, this can become quite disconcerting. In the four days since the cup started I’ve heard the word brothel mentioned more often than in all of the four months I’ve lived here.
Talking with cab drivers has been informative. Almost every time a cab driver hears I speak English they’ll try to get in as much practice as they can during the ride. One guy said, “I don’t speak English, but I do speak money!” I asked him if he had met a lot of English speakers and he said Argentinians seem to be the most frequent customers and that they like to haggle prices. And it’s true, Argentinians are everywhere here. Fittingly so, as their team is playing against Bosnia-Herzegovina at Maracanã this evening.
Colombian fans also are making their presence known in its trans-amazonic neighbor. If you watched their match in Belo Horizonte against Greece on TV, you saw that almost the entire stadium was yellow with Colombia jerseys. I went down to the fan fest in Rio to watch the match with some Colombian friends, and their countryfolk were out in full force there as well. Since this match wasn’t as packed as the Brazil-Croatia opener, we were able to get into the official FIFA-sponsored screening venue without a problem. The crowd was joyful as Colombia dominated the match, but I actually enjoyed the experience at the overflow screen just outside the official FIFA venue more. There, informal vendors hawked cold local beers and Capirinha variations, while locals mixed with visitors in an open-beach atmosphere. Inside the highly securitized fan fest there were over the top multimedia displays, corporate sponsored booths, foreign ‘official-sponsor’ beverage companies, live music acts, an hype-man MC, video cameras galore, and carnival ride distractions. I personally preferred the experience of just a screen and the people.
I was also able to visit some Brazilian friends who are against the Cup this weekend, and was able to discuss a little their feelings about the tournament now that it’s kicked off. I asked one friend if he in his heart was cheering for Brazil when they hit the field, even after all the problems with the hosting. He said no, that he was cheering for Brazil to lose. He actually felt that Thursday’s win was cheap, that the ref had unfairly helped the Brazilian side with a couple of blown calls — including the penalty kick that put them ahead. I told him that when you spend $11 Billion dollars to host the World Cup, the home team is gonna get a few calls thrown their way. And my friend’s sentiment isn’t uncommon amongst Brazilians. The New York Times published a survey before the tournament asking people in various countries what their cheering preferences were. Brazil, the U.S., and Russia all had a significant percentage saying they were cheering against their own national squads. In the U.S., I chalk it up to the large immigrant population, as I am one of those who often roots for other sides according to a complex web of multi-national allegiances. In Brazil it is definitely related to people feeling defeated about their government’s acquiescence to global capital and FIFA (a feeling that Jon Oliver explains so well.)
I get the sense that there’s a general feeling of fatigue amongst those who participated in the protests, disillusioned by the lack of response to their demands by their government. What’s more, the police response to the protests last year was extremely harsh, and many people who are more moderate in their direct action techniques have been coerced into staying off the streets. This time, on top of the normal riot police, the Army is involved, and private firms like Blackwater have been flown in. More than one person has told me that while they were involved in the protests last year, they’d be quietly opposing the cup in the safety of their homes during the tournament. Cheering against the Seleçao is an appropriate, and probably cathartic form of personal protest.
So, in light of all this, I asked my friend who he’d been cheering for, and we both agreed that any African team playing would be our choice. I like to expand that include the African diaspora, and for many reasons was very excited when Costa Rica dominated Uruguay yesterday. It actually brought me back to that infamous Uruguay-Ghana quarter final during the last World Cup, giving me a bit of redemption for that painful Ghana loss. Incidentally, I had watched that match four years ago while in Bolivia, alongside a group of Brazilians living there. When I found out one of them was cheering for Ghana, I asked why he would cheer for an African team, and not his southern neighbor. He looked at me and said, “look at my skin, this is in my blood.”
As far as for me, yesterday my day was capped with an agonizingly delayed triumph by my team Cote d’Ivoire. I celebrated enthusiastically, in a friend’s apartment, and perhaps a few thousand Brazilians did as well.