Brazil’s haves and have nots unite behind men’s national team as World Cup begins

The Post's Dom Phillips takes in the first World Cup game with a family in a Sao Paulo favela, a poor neighborhood just miles from the lights of the stadium. (Kiratiana Freelon/The Washington Post)
June 12

– Seated outdoors on the roof of their home, Antonia da Silva and her family could not escape the non-stop buzz that threatened to shake the entire favela off the high hill. A chorus of car horns, firecrackers and noisemakers began hours before the opening World Cup match Thursday and continued long into the night.

As the sun inched closer to the horizon — and a ball was finally placed midfield at the newly-constructed Arena de Sao Paulo stadium across town — Brazil began to shine bright. From Sao Paulo’s lush garden quarters to its teeming favela quarters, a World Cup that had divided haves and have nots for months had finally united Brazilians behind a single cause: the men’s national soccer team.

The result – Brazil 3, Croatia 1 — was a noisy all-night celebration. It came on the heels of months of protests aimed at telling the world about the country’s persistent inequalities.

“It’s emotional to see Brazil playing at home and to have everyone here watching the game,” said da Silva, 51.

Six people live in da Silva’s modest two-bedroom home, but no one Thursday was focused on what he or she didn’t have. They sang the national anthem off-key, sipped cold Brahma beer and snacked on piping hot peanuts as they watched the game on television. They know Brazil is not a perfect nation, they said, but hope their beloved soccer team might be.

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“Right now we have to support the team, and going forward we have to solve the bigger problems the country has,” said Edemi Soares, 21.

Protests took place Thursday in at least three cities, including Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, to mark the opening match of the tournament. Some resulted in road closures and arrests, and in some areas police used tear gas to disperse protesters. Many people have been angry with the costs associated with hosting the World Cup – estimates range from $11 billion to $14 billion – while Brazil lags in areas like housing, education and healthcare.

Anger was evident at the stadium, as well, directed at both FIFA, the sport’s organizing body, and the Brazilian government. About an hour before kickoff, fans in the stadium chanted the name of Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff with an expletive attached.

Seventeen miles away, in the favela in the city’s Jaguare neighborhood that da Silva calls home, most residents knew for months they wouldn’t get near the opening match. Tickets to the sold-out game carried a face value of $220-$500, but sold for several times that on the secondary market. According to World Bank calculations, the average annual income in Brazil is less than $12,000. Those earning minimum wage bring home barely one-quarter of that, not nearly enough to keep pace with escalating rent prices in Sao Paulo, much less splurge on the World Cup.

Sao Paulo is Brazil’s largest city and the world’s seventh-largest. At least 13 percent of Sao Paulo 11.3 million people make their homes in favelas, makeshift neighborhoods on either private or public land that began as squatter settlements, according to 2010 census figures.

But rich and poor alike in this soccer-crazed country found ways to watch the game. Fans gathered at FIFA-organized viewing parties and some watched in cafes and bars. But most took in the game as they do any other, surrounded by family, crowded around a television, scared to blink and miss history.

Da Silva and her family live in a patchwork brick-and-cement building, units stacked atop each other like building blocks. They gathered in a makeshift rooftop patio, living and dying many times over the course of two halves.

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When Croatia scored the first goal — on a shot put into his own net by a Brazilian defender — the entire favela was briefly quiet, before erupting in frustration.

“I don’t believe this!” yelled Jaqueline da Silva, 30.

“It’s almost a crime,” Soares cried out.

Thursday was a national holiday, and for many, the party started long before the tournament’s opening match. The Moinho favela is near the middle of Sao Paulo and with thousands of residents, it’s a city all its own. Everything from small convenience stores to fully-stocked bars line the favela’s maze of muddy paths.

As the opening ceremony unfolded at the stadium across town, Jean Lima, a 25-year old barber in Moinho, cut hair on the bottom floor of his shack. A few dilapidated buildings away, 63-year old Tarciso Brandão, tended bar and played cards with a customer. “Most everybody here is happy,” he said of the excitement surrounding the day.

Hundreds wandered down to a dirt field near the center of the favela. The bumpy soccer field was barely 25 yards long and children spent the afternoon racing back and forth, firing a ball toward a pair of small goals. The game only stopped when the ball occasionally got lost in one of the dirt alleyways.

While other areas of Brazil have made progress on the housing gap, Sao Paulo still has a statewide shortage of more than 1 million dwellings, the greatest deficit in the country, according to the Institute for Applied Economic Research, a government research institute. In the city limits, a half-million are without permanent homes.

“I would say that 99.9 percent of the people who live in the favelas are what the average Brazilian considers another honest, hardworking Brazilian, someone who might be a maid or a waiter or a bus driver,” said Marcos Troyjo, a professor of international affairs at Columbia University. “People here have a lot of sympathy for those who live in the favelas.”

Unlike Rio, many of Sao Paulo’s favelas are newer and exist on the outskirts of town, growing in recent decades as migrant workers flocked to the city for jobs. Many favelas are unsafe and unsanitary, with little to no infrastructure, plumbing or electricity. Crime runs high and a bad storm can wipe out whole neighborhoods.

Construction related to the World Cup has displaced thousands of others from their homes. No one is certain of the exact number, but activists fear as many as 250,000 across the country have had to find new housing, sometimes with little or no notice.

“Sometimes you relocate people for a good reason: to open a road, infrastructure work, things like this,” said Atila Roque, director of Amnesty International Brazil. “We’re not against that, per se. We’re against when you don’t really respect the rights of people to be properly informed, to get proper compensation. This is their homes, near where they work, near their families, their friends. We just want some transparency.”

Da Silva’s family has lived in Jaguare for 13 years and has watched the neighborhood grow. They won’t be leaving any time soon. She was surrounded by family as the final seconds ticked off the game clock Thursday. The day’s constant buzz – the horns, the firecrackers – somehow had become louder.

The 62,103 who packed the stadium took home their ticket stubs and high-priced souvenirs. But for one night, da Silva felt like she had everything.

dom.phillips@washpost.com

Steven Goff contributed to this report.

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