World Cup travelogue: In Recife, Brazil charms its guests even as it confuses them

RECIFE, Brazil —  For months, Brazilians have been saying that this was a World Cup for gringos – or foreigners – to see. Now the gringos are here and, with reservations, they seem to like what they see.

On Saturday, foreigners from all over the world gathered for this northeastern Brazilian city’s first World Cup game, between Japan and  Ivory Coast. They got what they came for: an evenly balanced, skillful, fast and at times thrilling game which started out as an Asian victory, but in which Africa finally triumphed.

Makoto Nagashima
Japan fan Makoto Nagashima (Dom Phillips/The Washington Post

Japan scored first, and led 1-0 at halftime. Thousands of Japanese fans were smiling as they ranged the stadium corridors. “It is very good here,” said Makoto Nagashima, 48, a marketing manager from Yokahama, Japan, on his first visit to Brazil. “Very clean,” he added politely, if, he qualified, “a little dangerous.”

Then in the second half the great Didier Drogba came on for the Ivory Coast and somehow, just by being there – an imposing, aristocratic presence who could light up his team with a simple back-heel – turned the game on its head. Wilfried Bony’s flying header made it 1-1. Less than two minutes later Gervinho scored another. And 20 minutes of thrilling football had the crowd on its feet in the rain as the Ivory Coast romped home, 2-1.

The whole world was here, it seemed: families from Japan or São Paulo’s enormous Japanese community in matching blue and orange kits; Brazilians, Mexicans, Australians; England supporters still smarting from their team’s 2-1 defeat to Italy in Manaus, which they salved with beer at an outdoor restaurant with giant screens; and a South African with a bushy beard who roared encouragement for the Ivory Coast while swigging beer.

In the stands dozens of orange-clad group of Ivorian fans sang and played percussion – setting up a hypnotic, pulsing soundtrack that could be happening at many games if FIFA hadn’t banned musical instruments. There weren’t many Ivory Coast fans. But they certainly stood out in their bright orange shirts.

fans Fabrice Tano and Jean-Louis Menann
Ivory Coast fans Fabrice Tano and Jean-Louis Menann (Dom Phillips/The Washington Post)

“It’s an opportunity for us to show our talent,” said Ivorian Fabrice Tano, 37, a banker. “It’s well organized. But it’s difficult, language-wise,” he added, because nobody spoke either English or French.

If the 12-mile journey from central Recife to the stadium was long and confusing, for many fans the football and eager charm of the Brazilians working on the match made up for it. “Organization is not perfect,” said Tano’s friend Marc Saraka, 37, another Ivorian banker. “I took three hours to get here from the airport. But people are very friendly.”

The Brazilian government has all but admitted it expected the natural charm and warmth of its population to win over where logistics lacked. In Recife, that strategy seemed to be working.

“My impression of the stadium experience is that it was cobbled together at the last minute. But it didn’t change the enjoyment of it,” said Dunstan Kamana, 37, a Zambian-British banker who had traveled from London for a week of World Cup games. “The football was great. And the Brazilians were great.”

Just getting there, to a stadium was confusing. Which taxi to which metro station to which bus station to which shuttle bus pickup point? Nobody seemed to know.

Japanese fans unfazed by their team's loss to Ivory Coast. (Dom Phillips/The Washington Post)
Japanese fans unfazed by their team’s loss to Ivory Coast. (Dom Phillips/The Washington Post)

Why did fans have to buy a metro ticket, then a wristband, and then another ticket to give to another person just beside the ticket office to then open a turnstile? Why did the shuttle buses stop a 10-minute walk from the stadium, meaning a long trudge up a hill in the pouring rain after the game? Why did helpers give wrong information to fans about which station was best for taxis to get out at on the way back?

This is Brazil, and this are imponderable questions that nobody can answer. It’s like God, death and taxes: A certain organizational chaos comes with the territory.

On the subject of rain, why did Recife spend $239 million on a stadium and not extend the roof to cover the lower seats by the pitch, where supporters sat in drenched in plastic ponchos, in a city whose annual rainfall peaks in June and July? But getting wet at soccer matches is nothing new for Brazilian fans. They forgot to put roofs on many of them. Again, it comes with the territory.

Thiago Ferreira, 32, who works for one of the World Cup sponsors, and his girlfriend Elaine Silva, 30, had huge smiles under their rain capes as the final whistle blew. “People are very excited,” Perreira said. The game had been “excellent,” Silva added. He had paid $27 for his ticket. She paid half of that, with a student’s discount.

There have been protests in Brazilian cities but in most cases hundreds, not thousands were involved, and Brazilian police were indiscriminate in their aggression – pepper-spraying a thousand or so Argentine fans for having the temerity to block Atlântica Avenue on Copacabana seafront on Saturday afternoon, just as they tear-gassed protestors outside São Paulo’s Carrão station for daring to turn up to a demonstration before Thursday’s opening game.

The bedraggled, drenched fans who braved a two-hour walk, metro and taxi journey back from the Pernambuco Arena to Recife’s tourist zone knew about the São Paulo protest and the massed demonstrations of a year ago when a million Brazilians took to the streets. But they were more concerned that social unrest could spoil the party, rather than interested in the reasons behind it.

A group of young English supporters had been moved by the crowd singing the national anthem before Brazil’s opening game, at a massed fan fest in Recife. A video of Germany’s midfield general Bastian Schweinsteiger and goalkeeper Neur wearing shirts for Salvador’s Bahia team and singing the club anthem has bounced around Brazilian social networks, and had almost 40,000 hits on youtube.

 As has John Oliver’s 13-minute diatribe on HBO’s “Last Week Tonight” in which he meticulously crucified FIFA for all many and myriad failings as an organization while nailing the problem for soccer fans worldwide: “The World Cup is one of my favorite things, but it’s organized by these guys.”

Inside Recife’s shiny concrete stadium, as the world mingled in the corridors emblazoned with the names of the international brands who sell beers and refreshments, this could have been any major arena or airport in the world. The only thing that distinguished nationalities was their football shirts – and even those were interchanged. This was no longer Brazil, this was FIFA-land. And if you like football, this is where you have to come to see it.

Brazil is now full of hundreds of thousands of football fans, and they have come to see football. And with games like the Netherlands’  5-1 thrashing of Spain and Costa Rica’s upset of Uruguay, the football has taken center stage.

 

Dom Phillips is The Post's correspondent in Rio de Janeiro. He has previously written for The Times, Guardian and Sunday Times.
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