Rio violence has left its mark
For much of Sunday in Rio de Janeiro, televisions in bars and restaurants were all showing the massive operation of security forces and their invasion of the Alemao group of favelas. By late afternoon, though, they had switched to coverage of the penultimate round of the Brazilian Championship. Viewers were transfixed by both.
It is fair to assume that there is a link between sport and Rio's latest outbreak of social violence. Last week, the drug lords staged a show of strength, setting fire to vehicles all over the city. It is conceivable that this action was planned to coincide with Rio's staging of the Soccerex conference and trade fair, which aimed to give a kick-start to Brazil's hosting of the 2014 World Cup and the Rio Olympics two years later.
With the global focus on Rio and Brazil, the scenes of widespread disorder were an embarrassment for the local authorities, who hit back with a show of strength of their own, one which may have been stronger than the drug lords had bargained for.
The huge and strategically important Alemao group of favelas were wrested from the control of the drug lords, although all concerned are aware it will take more than one operation to combat a problem that has been allowed to fester in Rio for decades.
The football fan who thinks of coming to Brazil for the 2014 World Cup may well be having second thoughts. He or she might be wondering whether this place is safe. The obvious answer is no.
In big city Brazil - and certainly in Rio - most residents have their own nightmare story. Mine is celebrating its 10th anniversary.
I was coming away from a big match at Vasco da Gama's stadium. It was nearly one o'clock at night, the match had finished some time ago and the crowds were dwindling. I went to catch a bus aware that, relatively well dressed and carrying a bag, I was offering a target yet not feeling unduly worried. It was something I had done many times.
On this occasion, though, a couple of buses refused to stop. Stupidly, I sat down - with my back open to the area behind me. What followed seemed to take place in slow motion.
I first felt a tug from behind. I remember thinking that it was probably someone wanting to know the time and being rude about it. I turned to face the truth. Two men in balaclavas.
Soldiers on alert in Rio after the outbreak of recent violence. Photo: Getty Images
For some reason, I still thought I could get away. I tried to pull myself forward as they dragged me back. I turned to some people close by and cried for help. They ran away. It was the correct thing to do - they had seen the gun.
The two of them then pushed me forward and I fell to the ground. One of them cracked his fist against my nose and I turned round to see that the other was pointing a huge pistol at my head.
"You're going to die," he said. Hand it over time. Watch, wallet, bag - small, bigger, biggest. I did not give him my mobile phone - they were new and expensive at the time. A foolish risk but I got away with it.
"Stand up, don't look back, cross the road," he said. I did as I was told and wandered away in the knowledge that I had been lucky, although things would never be quite the same again.
It is one thing to know on a theoretical basis that you are in a place where life is cheap. It is another to look into the eyes of your assailant and receive total conviction that for him pulling the trigger has no more moral complications that ripping the lid off a can of beer.
Of course, all cities have problems. And going through one bad moment, plus a couple of minor ones, is not unreasonable given the fact that I have been here for 16 years. But what sets this place apart is the degree of brutality, the lack of respect for life. Social inequality, family breakdown and wars between rival drug factions have produced a society that can be brutal and brutalising.
This, of course, is a huge problem for the city's population. However, I do not necessarily think it will be so for the fans who visit for the 2014 World Cup or the 2016 Olympics.
A bus goes up in flames in Rio. Photo: Reuters
"We are great at events," wrote Brazilian security specialist Luiz Eduardo Soares in his blog. "In these moments, there is money available, the spirit of co-operation prevails and rational, planned steps are taken. Our Achilles heel is the routine. The World Cup and the Olympics will be a success. The problem is the day by day."
He is surely correct. Indeed, it could even be that success in combating the drug traffic will lead to more of the kind of random street crime that I suffered. A drug dealer pushed out of business is unlikely to look for work as an office boy.
But when it comes to mega events such as 2014 or 2016, the authorities will put on a massive show of strength and the visitor will be protected.
Some of the images from Rio over the past few days are striking, shocking and scary. But, for what it is worth, my view is this: the drug traffickers may have tried to transmit the opposite message but no-one should be put off coming to the 2014 World Cup for fear of social violence.
Comments on the piece in the space below. Questions on South American football to email@example.com, and I'll pick out a couple for next week.
From last week's postbag:
Q) I have a question that I have been thinking about since the 2014 World Cup stadiums were named. Could a team possibly play a match at Porto Alegre then another match in Manaus just a few days later? I have spent a fair bit of my life in Manaus. Temperatures are nearly always in the 30s and the main problem there is the humidity. As Manaus is equatorial, there is no real summer or winter as we know it but, during the tournament, Porto Alegre in the south will be in winter. I have watched games on TV where the fans are wearing hats and scarves. Has it been addressed how it would be unreasonable to expect a team to possibly play in cool temperatures in the south, then have to acclimatise to hot and humid temperatures for a match a few days later, or vice versa?
A) I don't think it has been addressed and I share the view that this could be a real problem, especially as we are almost certain to go back to the old system where teams play all their group matches in one region. Those teams based in the south - Porto Alegre and Curitiba - may well be at a disadvantage. Temperatures will be low, so teams may experience a 30 degree difference up north - and not just to Manaus - for their first knockout game.
Q) I came across the wonderful story of Jack Greenwell the other day. What an amazing story and probably one of the most unheralded characters of the beautiful game. He had quite a career in South America, so I was wondering how he is regarded in that part of the world. I know he was around way before your time but is he still spoken about in South America? If not, that would be a great shame.
A) This is the tale of the English coach who, after working extensively in Spain, led Peru to triumph in the 1939 Copa America. To be honest, the South Americans seem a little embarrassed by the success of an Englishman in their midst.
The official history of the Copa America includes a small photo of Greenwell but the caption claims that the 1939 team was actually picked by a Peruvian director - a clear attempt to belittle the contribution of the coach. Given the success that Greenwell had already achieved both in Spain and Peru, I am unconvinced by this claim.