First, the disclaimers: 1) I profess to know very little about Brazilian futebol or soccer in general. 2) Anything that I write here is merely observational; any opinions I might form and share come from my own experiences and hypotheses and should not be presumed to be factual. I am a storyteller. If I get it wrong, or if you have something to add, please leave a gentle comment below. Discourse is fun. Being trolled is not.
Everyone wants to know if Brazil is ready to host the World Cup. The short answer is Yes, of course they are. Brazil’s national sport is soccer, and there is already a network of stadiums all across the country. Brazil hosted the World Cup 60 years ago, and could have easily hosted it again without much fuss or fanfare if they weren’t so concerned about appearances and making wealthy people from foreign countries feel comfortable for a few short weeks.
A little back story: in 2003, FIFA, the governing body of international soccer, announced that the 2014 World Cup would take place in South America. Of the fifteen countries in South America, only two, Colombia and Brazil, threw their names into the hat in a bid to be the host. When Colombia withdrew for undisclosed reasons, Brazil’s bid was uncontested and they were awarded the games.
That was 11 years ago, and — sorry, Brazilians — no one seemed very concerned about how much work needed to be done, or to have any idea how quickly technological standards would change, or to understand how unprepared they were to welcome an influx of visitors accustomed to cushy accommodations, fast, reliable internet access, and the ease of traveling on smooth, multi-laned highways.
My surface impression of Brazilians is that they are a people very concerned with appearances. Perhaps overly concerned. Women here wear uncomfortable high heels everywhere they go. When we are here, One won’t leave the house wearing even the most high-quality plain t-shirt unless he is going fishing or to the gym or to visit the most intimate and oldest of his friends. This is a place where people iron their jeans. (Side note: It’s a lot of pressure to visit a place like this. I always feel as if I am being scrutinized for signs of wrinkles and shabbiness.)
So, because Brazil’s leaders were so concerned about showing a pretty face— and probably also because some wealthy and/or corrupt people speculated on how they could become even wealthier — the politicians decided that the most important thing they could do was to renovate their best stadiums and to build some new ones. They also thought that the airports could use a facelift. They didn’t consult the people, although — again, sorry Brazilians — if they had asked in 2003 if it was a good idea to host the World Cup, most of them probably would’ve been enthusiastic about the idea. The whole country was giddy with hope, and popular president Luiz Inácio “Lula” da Silva was only a few months into his first term.
Fast forward 10 years and hope had waned. Brazil’s first female president, Dilma Rousseff, was bearing the brunt of the criticism for decisions that were made before she took office. The people thought their reais (R$) would be better spent on improving education, health services, and the country’s aging infrastructure and highways instead of being funneled into stadium seats and relocating people by force from their ramshackle homes near the venues. Groups like São Paulo’s Black Bloc began to rise up last summer in response to a 20 cent increase in bus fares, and have now vowed to disrupt the games which start in four days. Brazil is a country on the edge of its seat, and the world stands by, shaking its head.
But here’s the thing. It’s my simplistic opinion. Much like baseball and basketball in the US, modern soccer originated in empty fields and alley ways. Soccer requires so little equipment that the poorest of children in the poorest of countries are able to play. It has never been a flashy, showy sport, although sometimes the footwork is dazzling, and a parade of memorable personalities have been its stars. The game does not need to put on a pretty face to be appreciated by its most authentic fans.
Before all of the renovations and new construction began, Brazil’s existing network of stadiums was fine. They were perfectly acceptable, safe places to play and watch a game — which leads me to my second surface impression of Brazilians. Without fail, and without exception, the Brazilians I know have been exceedingly hospitable. They are a people who share their very finest things without hesitation, even when they know they are stretching their resources or overextending themselves. They are also a people who, without actually saying so, expect reciprocation and appreciation. They want to impress, but they want also to be valued highly enough that others make an effort to impress them in return. It is a complicated emotional bartering system, and I am afraid that the Brazilians will be sorely disappointed at the end of these games. The dignitaries, international superstars, and camera crews they are trying to impress are more prone to issuing complaints than praise.
The world is always in flux; today information and ideas flow at a never-before-known pace. The collective psyche of Brazil seems to be shifting from that of the playful, carefree grasshopper to that of the hardworking ant who understands that true prosperity begins with a plan and a foundation. There is more to Brazil than soccer and samba, and Brazilians are ready to show it.
The rest of the world would do well to remember that when we travel, we go to be invigorated and enlightened, to have experiences beyond what our daily lives offer, but more than anything, to accept and welcome — and sometimes be mesmerized by — the differences we encounter. The world would have done well to make Brazil feel comfortable to offer its modest finest, instead of making it feel as if it needed to over-extend itself at the expense of the welfare of its citizens.
The question has never been whether Brazil is ready for the World Cup, but rather “Are its guests ready to accept the accommodations they are offered with grace and gratitude?”