It appears to be true, what everyone keeps saying. Last year’s massive civic unrest protesting the Brazilian government’s prodigious World Cup spending — which erupted during the Confederations Cup, and saw a million people throughout the country take to the streets — has left Rio de Janeiro working through a bit of a hangover.
The pre-Cup festivities were muted: Any of these beautifully scruffy Rio streets might feature a rippling mini-flag canopy, but for every bit of street art depicting David Luiz as an ethereal sun god, there was another with hasty graffiti reading, “FIFA GO HOME.” Still: No one told the seventysomething dude bombing down Copacabana beach, stunting out his limousine sunroof with a bottle of champagne, slicked-back Calipari hair, and a technicolor dreamcoat while screaming, “CHILE! CHILE! CHILE!”
All week, at night, on the beach bars and soccer fields, more “CHILE!” type of people began showing up. Naturally, they self-organized into color-coded clusters: the Brazilians in yellow, shouting songs and pounding drums; the Mexicans in green, tricked out in flag-capes and lucha libre masks; the Croats in their distinctive checkered red-and-white, effortlessly carrying a fine air of Eastern European glumness. The locals who’d flashed their preposterous futevôlei chops during the day had transitioned into carefree pickup matches. They played skins and shirts, but bathing suits here lean toward the flesh-baring side of things, so it looked more like skins and Winnie the Poohs.
As late as Tuesday afternoon, the structure holding the giant screen that would show the opening match to hundreds on the beach still looked more like abstract sculpture art. But that seemed to be the vibe. The night before the opening of the Budweiser Hotel — InBev’s World Cup outpost among all the local Brahma (which, actually, it owns too) — construction workers were still pouring concrete for the base of a giant Bud bottle. By the time of the next morning’s introductory press conference, everything was tip-top and ready to go.
On hand were some World Cup retirees: Brazil’s Juliano Belletti, Croatia’s Davor Suker, and the Netherlands’ Pierre van Hooijdonk. Officially there to introduce the newly designed Man of the Match drunk-rhombus-esque statuette (I mean, yeah, but c’mon man, there weren’t any games on yet), the three opted to take the time to fuck around. Flashing back to the 1998 World Cup, in which the Netherlands lost to Croatia in the third-place match, van Hooijdonk told Suker, in a pretty good deadpan: “You killed my dream of bronze medal. I’ll never forgive you.” Asked about his country’s chances this time around, Suker shot back, “In PlayStation, Croatia win the World Cup.” That all the bantering was taking place in rough, broken English, the native tongue of none of them, added a nicely surreal touch to the whole thing.
In the weeks before the Cup — with the Brazilian government basically sending out missives on how not to get murdered — it was hard not to get paranoid about personal safety. It was so exhausting that arriving at the airport was already something of a relief. As our dude Noah Davis put it in an email, while still back home, “It will be nice to stop talking about the fact that everyone is going to get robbed — and just get robbed, you know?”
The second day I was in town, while walking by the alluringly pyramidal São Sebastião cathedral, I had myself a moment. A young kid, maybe 19 or 20 and slight, approached; he had fresh bruises, over the bridge of his nose and his upper cheeks, none of which appeared to have been tended to. He started snapping at me in Portuguese, repeating a phrase over and over. Making my native America proud, I responded by mumbling, “Sorry, dude, sorry, dude, sorry, dude,” then speed walking away.
He followed me, getting up in my face and shouting more, until I darted, in front of a passing truck, across the street. He didn’t bother following me. And so by the time I strolled by the unmanned military police shack on the corner, it dawned on me that he was probably just messing around, the same way I’ve been messed with in New York and Barnstable and rural Ohio and all kinds of other places no one ever tells you to fear for your life in.
The next morning, while loping around, I climbed a massive set of stairs into the favela that abuts the neighborhood. And the most terrifying thing I saw was that someone — who? who??? — had spray-painted the name of undistinguished former Milwaukee Bucks frontcourt man Dan Gadzuric.
Last night, the masses came out to Copacabana beach, to watch Brazil kick things off against Croatia. That big screen was now fully operational and sponsor-adorned.
Marcelo’s early own goal certainly wasn’t beneficial for the vibes, but there were enough Styrofoam coolers and ice-packed plastic bags full of cans of Antarctica and Itaipava floating around to keep everyone calm. And when Neymar equalized before the half, the cans and champagne bottles were dutifully shaken and sprayed all over the place. Along with the pops and cracks of amateur fireworks from the nearby roofs, it was a nice moment of temporary delirium.
Then, at one point, and terrifying suddenly, everyone scattered. I grabbed my bag and ran off, too, joining the panicked stampede, without any idea why. Seconds later, everyone caught their breath and tried to understand what the hell had just happened. A tall, skinny teenager in a baseball cap explained, pointing: manifestaçõ.
From a few streets over, where they’d been tussling with police in full-on armored riot gear, anti-Cup protesters had come swarming in. There was no danger, it turned out; they were just students and activists and anarchists — plus one Batman and Batgirl pairing — walking the street with signs and flags while chanting their slogan: Nao vai ter copa (“There will be no Cup”). But the fans, perhaps with the images of shattered bank windows from last year’s protests still fresh in their minds, reacted impulsively.
Quickly, we settled back down and migrated back into the spots we’d vacated, to celebrate and spray again, first on Neymar’s penalty kick, then Oscar’s goal.
In the middle of it, a young man approached me with a tray full of individually packaged and labeled desserts. “You’re selling brownies right now?” I asked. “Espaço cakes,” he said, grinning. “Espaço. Espaço. Space cakes!” Yes, things had gone back to normal.