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Train in Vain

Tracking back in Rio, through history, and calculating the cost of the Cup

The trains run every half-hour up the green slope of Corcovado, the Hunchback, through a forest whose branches scrape against the windows of the cars. They climb a mountainside where howler monkeys live, and also ocelots, and birds the color of imaginary jewels. Twenty minutes after setting out from the leafy station on the Rua Cosme Velho, they deposit tourists at the base of a long escalator, which rises to the feet of Christ the Redeemer, Cristo Redentor, the white colossus whose open arms embrace the crescent sliver of Rio de Janeiro more than 2,000 feet below. From the peak you can stand and look down on the marvelous city, a cidade maravilhosa, Rio, a bright thread curling between the mountains and the sea.

I had been thinking about trains for three days when I rode out to the Rua Cosme Velho on a city bus filled with soccer fans. I had been thinking about trains, on and off, for months, since I decided to come to Brazil to see what I could of the 2014 World Cup. The connection is not as abstract as it may appear. In the middle of the 19th century, the great economic problem facing the Brazilian upper class was how to transport the wealth of the interior to the coast. Sugar from the sugar plantations and coffee from the coffee plantations and rubber from the rubber plantations had to be carried to the ports on the backs of donkeys or on barges down unpredictable rivers, leaving huge fortunes vulnerable to floods, rock slides, bandits, and storms. Under the Second Empire, the government began subsidizing the building of railroads; the ensuing construction effort was one of those titanic expressions of capitalist will that have to be called heroic because their immediate effects are so tragic. Tens of thousands of workers died carving tracks across jungles and over mountains. They died of tropical fever and they died from heat and they died by violence. Along the rapids of the Madeira River, in the jungle beyond Porto Velho, so many thousands died that what they built became known as the “Devil’s Rail-road.” When it later became a passenger line, a legend spread that a body was buried under every tie.

It being the 19th century, many of the companies that oversaw the construction of the railways were English. English overseers and English engineers imported English workers, and the English brought their games: It was among the railway workers that the Brazilians first learned to play soccer, years before FIFA was even an idea. In 1894, Charles William Miller, the son of a Scottish railroad engineer and a Brazilian English mother, returned from his Southampton boarding school with two soccer balls and a copy of an early rulebook. He helped establish the first league in Brazil, the Liga Paulista, still the country’s top division, and he introduced the sport to São Paulo Athletic Club, which won the first three championships.

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The railroad and the rulebook: That is why I was thinking about trains. In this World Cup cycle of mass protests, when corruption and poverty have been uncomfortably juxtaposed with soccer’s ability to spread joy, it seemed worth remembering that those have always been the terms under which the sport has lived in this country. It was born amid struggle. It was born amid exploitation. Something about soccer or something about Brazil meant it could take root in those conditions and become a consolation. But I do not think you can understand the role the game has played in Brazilian culture purely with reference to samba and yellow shirts and the Nike-approved vocabulary of happiness. The stereotyped image of little boys playing on dusty squares in the favelas: It sounds obvious, but there is pain in this. You could even describe it as a way of talking about pain, though I doubt whether any of the fans waiting with me for a ticket to Cristo Redentor would have agreed with me.


There were 30 or 40 of us, in half a dozen different national-team jerseys, and we smelled of sunscreen and sweat, and two of us had red, white, and blue Chilean flags draped across our backs as capes. We pushed up to the bilheteria, the ticket counter, in a kind of drove, past a grave old man who was holding up a sign and trying to tell us something. When he spoke, he rested his chin on his chest and deflated his torso like an accordion bellows. But he produced almost no sound, so we ignored him. It turned out he was trying to sell us seats in a car. We talked to each other in Spanish and German and English. All around, in the neighborhood, people were honking horns and letting off fireworks, because Brazil was going to play Mexico in a few hours and Rio was on holiday. Two days before, the riot police had tear-gassed a demonstration that tried to march on the Maracanã, and there were protests in São Paulo and strikes across the country. But in most of Rio, the only signs of unrest were the black “FUCK FIFA” stencils spray-painted on the pillars under bank marquees. Already it seemed clear the protesters had lost. Once the games started, the world’s vast fascination with soccer simply swallowed up everything else.

At the front of the line, the bilheteria lady explained to our surprise that the next time for which we could buy a ticket was six o’clock, four hours away. It was the World Cup, she insinuated apologetically. There were too many people. It was Rio, she said with a shrug. Three South African men ahead of me in line were incensed: “Seex? Seex?” they kept asking. “’S rideeculous.” But we had games to watch. There was nothing to be done. We fanned back toward the bus stop. We had tried to get to Jesus, but there was no room on the trains.


That night, Tuesday night, I stood near a juice cart on the beach at Ipanema, behind a quintet of policemen in bright yellow Guarda Municipal vests. We were watching Brazil play Mexico on the cart’s little TV. A big group had gathered on the promenade, under shaggy palms and streetlamps; no one was even pretending to want juice. It was the 85th minute, the score level at 0-0. Anxiety around the cart was intense. Luiz Gustavo won a foul in the left corner. The free kick sailed in to Thiago Silva in the area, where he was unmarked — a tinny shriek from the stadium crowd through the TV’s overworked speakers. Silva got his head to the ball, up close, on target, but Mexico goalkeeper Guillermo Ochoa, who’d been brilliant all night, managed to lurch his arms for the block just in time. The cops were standing shoulder to shoulder, and when the free kick went up, they swayed unsteadily into each other; after the save they were groaning and shaking their heads like everyone else. A skinny, shirtless man in Havaianas started cursing and beating his fists on the seat of a stool, but the group only chuckled at this. Along the beach, the juice carts were spaced out one every 200 yards or so. If you walked down the promenade, you’d see the same scene over and over again, like a history that kept repeating itself.

There is no time in Rio. Hours fall away in tracts, like trees disappearing in the Amazon. They fall away when you are lying on the beach at Ipanema, eating doce you bought from a shirtless little boy with a cigar box. They fall away when you are standing on the beach at Copacabana, in the purple glow of the FIFA Fan Fest, watching drunk fans slow-motion zip-line toward the blinding yellow figure of Fuleco, the cartoon armadillo who is the World Cup’s official mascot. The uniformed guards behind the Fan Fest’s metal detectors, while not requiring you to open your bag, grope it hard along the edges. “Para grenadas,” one said to me. For grenades.

The rhythm of the World Cup here is a strange alternation between hypnosis and sudden alarm. Loud, glittering fireworks go off on the beach without warning. One vuvuzela on the street sets off 10. A stone’s throw from the 18th-century Candelária Church, in the Centro district, there is a store called Casa da Armada, where you can buy riot gear, and also tiny World Cup flags. A quiet subway train will suddenly be invaded by a happy army of Argentina fans, who pound the ceiling and shout-sing and jump up and down. There are these sudden, ambiguous shocks, as though life were a soccer match and you never noticed the clock until a goal punctuated a period of listless play.


The clock in soccer counts upward. Have you ever thought about that? It struck me while I was in the Fan Fest watching the United States play Ghana on the enormous FIFA screen. I was with a friend. It was dark out. We stood surrounded by thousands of fellow Americans. The screen would have made a nice TV for Christ the Redeemer.

Clint Dempsey had already scored that dreamlike opening goal, and now he’d been kicked in the face and was on the ground — was he bleeding? We were joking that for a guy from Nacogdoches, Texas, this was actually a pretty tame workday, and for some reason it hit me right then as bizarre that so many Americans were watching a clock on which the seconds ticked up. Even in hockey, where in Europe the clock resembles soccer’s, North America chooses to count down; it’s one of those tiny distinctions that imply a completely different attitude toward sports. When you look at the clock in football or basketball, you see how much time is left, how many seconds to the end. You see the future. In soccer, you see how much game has already elapsed, the weight of history standing behind the current moment. You see the past.

I realize a little of this kind of thing goes a long way, but is it much of a stretch to see that as symbolic? To think that American football, say, is temperamentally apocalyptic, where soccer is about something slower and deeper and more backward-facing? Soccer has a tragic sense: This is what American conservatives who see the sport as fundamentally alien perceive in it, and why they aren’t totally wrong, given the rest of their outlook, to recoil from it.

This is also why I love it so much. Think of it this way: Almost every other sport tries to be exciting by augmenting human capability in some way (football pads, baseball bats, tennis rackets) or at least by perfecting it (agile giants flying toward an NBA rim). Soccer diminishes capability. Instead of making athletes superhuman, it gives them an extra problem to contend with: no hands. When a soccer player scores, she’s overcoming not just her opponents but also the absurd demand of the game itself, which tells her to be agile and then takes away the tools of her agility.

If you think of it that way, can you understand the appeal that soccer has offered to billions of people? It exploded among the poor in so many colonized countries in part, of course, because it required so little equipment. But that can’t be the only reason. A soccer player is essentially belittled by the universe. But he outwits the universe. He grins at his ridiculous problem and overcomes it through grace and guile. Soccer is the beautiful game partly because it makes beauty seem so unlikely, seem virtually impossible, and then gives players just enough freedom to do something beautiful anyway. In its best moments — which don’t happen often, which don’t occur even in every match, and which are therefore to be savored — soccer is ballet breaking out of an enforced clumsiness.

This is one reason, I think, why the clashes between the World Cup and the Brazilian protesters have been so disquieting, even disorienting. At the FIFA Fan Fest at Copacabana there are Coca-Coca logos on Coca-Cola booths and Sony logos on the zip-lining tower and a glassed-in Hyundai pavilion where fans who have been checked para grenadas can interact with actual Hyundais. The beer is sold by the sponsor that paid FIFA to sell beer, and the broadcast is aired by the media company that paid FIFA to air the broadcast. I am not simply talking about commercialism. I am talking about a sense that soccer has been translated out of its natural language, that it is meant to speak precisely to the people FIFA has turned it against. If you’ve been displaced from the favela, what do you have to turn to but soccer? But it was soccer that displaced you from the favela! This is not a new phenomenon, of course, but watching it unfold in Brazil has hurt a little, even as the early games have been some of the most spectacular in the history of the World Cup. In the interest of profit, FIFA is sanitizing a part of the emotional depth that made soccer so profitable in the first place.

Brazilian fans react as they watch a live broadcast of the 2014 FIFA World Cup group A football match between Brazil and Mexico in Rocinha, the largest favela in Rio de Janeiro, on June 17, 2014. AFP PHOTO / YASUYOSHI CHIBA (Photo credit should read YASUYOSHI CHIBA/AFP/Getty Images)

In Rio it sometimes seems that everything that looks old is really new and everything that looks new is ancient. Consider: The rain forest surrounding Corcovado had been obliterated to make room for coffee plantations by the middle of the 19th century, long before the statue of Christ appeared atop the mountain. The forest through which the trains run now was replanted by hand, almost within living memory. The favela in the forest is still inhabited mostly by the descendants of the planters.

Or consider this: One of the influential groups orchestrating the anti–World Cup protests in 2013 was the Movimento Passe Livre, the Free Pass Movement, a quasi-revolutionary group that advocates social change through free public transport. The idea sounds absurd until you grasp its import, at which point you might have to sit down for a second: Poor workers in Rio can easily spend a sixth of their income on transportation. There were fare hikes across the country before the World Cup. In February, protesters from the movement seized control of the Central do Brasil train station, demolished the ticket gates, and let commuters enter for free. Police attacked them with tear gas and flash grenades and finally drove them away. This will be on hardly anyone’s mind during the World Cup, but it looks directly back to the beginning of soccer in Brazil. It’s often been difficult to reduce the protests to one message, to say exactly what the protesters want. But in this case, there is no ambiguity. They want the trains back. 

Filed Under: 2014 World Cup, Brian Phillips, Soccer, Brazil

Brian Phillips is a staff writer for Grantland.

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