World Cup 2014: Games can begin in Brazil – but at what cost?

As the football world descends on Brazil, Tom Peck finds the fans in Rio in upbeat mood, but the hosts divided on the tournament’s impact

Rio de Janeiro

The outstretched arms are meant to say “I love you”, not “I give up”, but you can almost tell that Jesus – all 100 concrete feet of him – knows he’s not the biggest thing in town anymore.

If football is a religion, this is a hostile takeover. With kick-off time finally approaching, the two-and-a-half golden miles of Copacabana beach are now a Wembley Way on Cup Final day – except this time all the world is playing.

Between the goals and over the volleyball nets, balls bounce between the hands and feet of men and women in the green of Mexico, the yellow of Colombia, the orange of the Netherlands, the red and white squares of Croatia, and of course the lillywhite English.

“I sold my grandmother for this,” one Mexican fan told me, from beneath his towering sombrero, causing his mates to erupt with laughter, and mock him mercilessly in Spanish. “Ah, no, no, sorry, I sold my grandmother HOUSE for this. No my grandmother. She died.”

“It’s the World Cup in Brazil,” said Edith Marquez, one of a trio of young Colombian women whose own, heavily customised take on their national team’s shirts have not gone unnoticed. “We said to each other seven years ago, ‘We will come after university. The three of us.’ We were only 16 then. And we are here.”

Just as Cristo Redentor looks out from his mountain perch and sees a dichotomised land – the glistening beaches, alongside a sea of sprawling favelas – so it cannot be ignored that the world’s most fervently anticipated party will take place against its own varied sea of troubles.

The reputation of Fifa, the clique of lawyers and administrators who have tried to kidnap the game, has never been more tarnished.

A salesman offers Brazilian national team shirts on the Ponta Negra beach in Natal (EPA) A salesman offers Brazilian national team shirts on the Ponta Negra beach in Natal (EPA)
“We don’t care,” says Nadan Kert, one of a group of nine Croats, sitting drinking beer from cans as dusk sets. “We just love the sport. If these people are paying bribes, taking bribes, what does it matter? It’s not our money.”

Within his bleak assessment lies a deeper truth. The world fell in love with football, and the World Cup, in a simpler age, and those yellow shirts of Brazil did so much of the seducing. Now their most fabled wearer, Pele, prefers to pull on the cheap, corporate-branded garments of whatever corporation will pay him to spout their lines.

But if your wife or your husband were kidnapped and put to work as a prostitute, as has been attempted with the World Cup, you wouldn’t love her any less, nor would it cloud the misting memories of how you came to capitulate so hopelessly at the feet of perfection. Of Jairzinho lolloping round and round in circles in the grainy Mexico sun. Or the dink of the Bergkamp instep, the drag back, the outside of the boot.

In all likelihood, there are more such memories to come in the next few weeks. And if, as it appears, the tipping point has been crossed, such memories may in fact harden resolve against Fifa, not push the tides of discontent back again.

And then there are the problems of its host nation, now very much dragged out in to the glare of the international spotlight. “The World Cup in a country of misery, financed by public money, is a moral problem” reads the banner in front of a large scale art-installation-style protest at the centre of Copacabana.

Already this week there have been metro-worker strikes stringing 100-mile-long traffic jams right through Sao Paulo and out the other side, where the tournament kicks off. Another construction worker was killed on the monorail that won’t be finished. Several of the promised infrastructure projects were never started. Around £7bn has been the total cost to the Brazilian taxpayer. How can that be justified when the misfortune of so many is so plainly visible?

Local children play football on a beach in Santa Cruz Cabralia near Porto Seguro (AP) Local children play football on a beach in Santa Cruz Cabralia near Porto Seguro (AP)
But it’s worth noting that if something similar had happened 20 or 30 years ago, such protests would have been unlikely. Brazil’s economy is growing. More and more people are paying tax, opening bank accounts, living within the state. That poor people should care what the government wastes its money on is transformational in itself.

There are signs that more widespread protests, of the kind that almost destroyed last year’s Confederations Cup, may not materialise with such dramatic force.

The most repeated line about the magic of this World Cup in Brazil, of football’s gleaming jewel finally being set in the crown that has given it the most, is that football has come home.

But the cornucopia of colours sat around the tables of Rio’s many packed churrascarias confirm that that is not the case. Brazil is no more the home of football than the streets of Tom Finney’s Preston, or the Spanish piazzas where so much has been celebrated of late. Football is just as at home in the sun baked clearing in the South African township as it is, yes, even on the desert lawns of Dubai’s academies.

“We are here now. Then we will go to Salvador, to Porto Alegre, to Sao Paulo” said Jan de Ruiter, one of a large table turned entirely orange with Netherlands fans, eating Rodizio in a restaurant where Copacabana meets Ipanema. “We will sew our orange thread across Brazil. You will go to Manaus, and wherever else you go, and you will sew yours.

A worker paints flags of the countries taking part in the World Cup outside the Arena Amazonia stadium in Manaus (Reuters) A worker paints flags of the countries taking part in the World Cup outside the Arena Amazonia stadium in Manaus (Reuters)
“Maybe our threads, they will be sewn together in the end, maybe they won’t. But these little threads, these little stories, each country sews their own. You have 1966. We have Cruyff and Neeskens. These things, they are really important.”

In London’s case, such was the joy of the Olympics that on the whole, the conclusion has been that it was probably worth it, but our problems are less. It may well be that in a month’s time, when Fifa and the world departs, and the flags are off the cars – yes, they do that here too – the party over, that Brazil will conclude that it wasn’t.

“It’s a lot of money,” says a rather down at heel Brazilian man in shorts, sat on the steps down to the beach,  who repeatedly insists, despite protestations, that his name is “Ronaldo Pele”. “We don’t have the money you know. But, you know, what if we win?”

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