Brazilian relief masks underlying tensions
- 29 June 2014
- From the section Latin America & Caribbean
Brazil is today breathing a huge, collective sigh of relief after the World Cup favourites scraped into the quarterfinals of the tournament by the skin of their teeth and the thickness of a goal post.
They're putting a brave face on it but everyone in this country of 200 million people knows that, despite the hype and expectation, Chile came very close to kicking the hosts out of their own party.
Had it happened, it would have ranked alongside the famous "Maracanazo" when equally unfancied Uruguay beat Brazil to win the 1950 World Cup at Rio's then newly built Maracana stadium.
I watched yesterday's match from a vantage point overlooking the Maracana - rebuilt for this World Cup but occupying the same physical space and the same revered place in Brazil's illustrious footballing history.
Here in Rio's Mangueira favela, or shanty-town, children while away the hours flying home-made kites high above the modest shacks. Everyone here has dreams - a better life, a good education, a steady job.
The favela might happen to be right next door to one of the world's most famous football stadiums but it might as well be on the other side of the moon.
None of the children I saw playing football on a small well-worn court at the entrance to Mangueira had ever been to the Maracana, it is simply too expensive.
World Cup tickets are like gold dust.
Moreover, the financial impact of this billion-dollar tournament in these impoverished communities is almost negligible. In the early days, it is said, there were some labouring jobs in and around the stadium but most of that has stopped and whatever roles there are now, from security work to stewarding, are organised and distributed by Fifa's own contractors, not city hall or local employers.
The game itself was in Brazil's third city, Belo Horizonte, so with a group of locals we huddled around a television on the roof of the "Bar da Nem" in the highest part of the favela.
Rich and poor. Big and small, football is an all-consuming passion here and this was the biggest day of the World Cup so far. Despite the growing detachment between the higher echelons of the global game and these fans, for now everyone was in pursuit of the same goal.
Maite runs the bar by night. She also operates an ad hoc beauty and manicuring service in front of the establishment by day.
As she carefully painted the nails of a client in the gold, green and blue colours of Brazil she said nothing much had changed in the 29 years she'd lived here.
"I love football but we never go to games down there," she says. "I don't mind the World Cup, though, because it's been ok for business," she adds, smiling, as the latest happy customer admires the new patriotic artwork on her toenails.
Maite cares little for the big city beyond Mangueira but like everyone here she is passionate for the Brazilian team and their quest for glory on home soil.
"We have to get to the final. We have to win. That sixth [World Cup] title is already ours."
The months before the cup were dominated by stories of social division, anger about the cost of the tournament and public protests. This is still a deeply divided country and society but, pretty much since the first ball was kicked in Sao Paulo on 12 June, the focus has all been on the football.
As long as Brazil remain in the World Cup that illusion of national unity remains too.
As the game against Chile hung in the balance, thoughts turn to what might happen if, heaven forbid, Brazil are knocked out.
The tension on the bar roof was almost unbearable. Men and women, driven on by far too much "Dutch courage" screamed at the television, imploring a strangely lacklustre Brazilian team to put the game beyond doubt.
Stay of execution
As the match progressed to the lottery that is a penalty shootout, I began wondering if, with the national squad eliminated, all the divisions and disputes of the last year would somehow remerge.
Luckily, those of us who've revelled in the unity and relative stability the World Cup has brought to the streets of Brazil's cities were given a stay of execution.
Women actually prayed on our rooftop as the shootout went one way, then the next. Perhaps inevitably, the villain of the last World Cup, goalkeeper Julio Cesar, became the hero, saving two Chilean penalties.
The overwhelming feeling was relief.
The women screamed, their prayers answered. The kite-flying children let off extraordinarily loud firecrackers and the men topped up their beer glasses.
If Brazil are to return to Rio, and the Maracana Stadium below this modest little bar, for the World Cup final on 13 July they will have to play much better against much sterner opposition.
As long as everyone still believes and stays behind them, this country's many divisions and problems will remain to one side. But the weight of expectation is almost unbearable because, when it comes to football in Brazil, failure is not an option.