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The streets in Brazil are full of colors, but not everything is pretty

People look at a mural painted in celebration of the 2014 soccer World Cup at Congonhas airport in Sao Paulo. (Reuters)

RIO DE JANEIRO -- As Brazil’s controversial World Cup inches closer, a country-wide campaign is underway to make sure that the population is on board. It includes presidential addresses, popular television presenters, and free paint.

“We are going to receive visitors from the whole world with the happiness and hospitality that are characteristics of Brazilians,” Brazil’s President Dilma Rousseff said on Monday on her radio program, ‘Café with the President,’ just after discussing her government’s dental health program, which is called, purely coincidentally, Smiling Brazil.

On Tuesday night the president took to Brazilian television to defend the cup and argue that Brazil had spent 212 times more on health and education from 2010 to 2013 than on stadiums. "Friends from the whole world, arrive in peace! Brazil, like Christ the Redeemer, has its arms open to welcome you all," Rousseff said.

In recent weeks the president has held intimate dinners for both Brazilian sports writers and foreign correspondents. At each dinner, she told the story of how, in 1970, while a prisoner of the military dictatorship, she and her fellow imprisoned members of Brazil’s left-wing armed resistance supported the national team during a World Cup campaign they went on to win.

The underlying message was this: politics and football are not linked. Brazilians should get behind their team. The comments had particular weight because Rousseff rarely if ever discusses her time in prison and the torture she suffered there.

Juca Kfouri, one of Brazil’s most popular football commentators and columnists, was at the sports writers' dinner in May where Rousseff told the story. He noted that a campaign by the Brazilian left against the national team in the 1970 World Cup lasted about as long as the first goal. “People held up until the moment Brazil scored,” he told The Post by phone.

Eduardo de Andrade, known in Brazil as Tostão, is another a respected football columnist. He was a player in that 1970 team. “At the time I was very against the dictatorship but I had a commitment,” he said by phone. “We were worried about winning the World Cup and assuming the responsibilities of playing well and winning.”

Kfouri said Brazil will host two cups: one inside the stadiums, to FIFA’s exacting standards, one outside, where more protests, he argued, are inevitable. But in a quintessentially Brazilian accommodation, both can coexist, just as they did at last year’s Confederations Cup Final, when the Brazilian team and fans sang the national anthem together before the game while demonstrators and riot police faced off outside in a cloud of tear gas.

“Those who were in the stadiums were Brazilians who wanted to be inside, but in some way they vocalized their solidarity to those who were outside by singing the national anthem. And the team felt this,” said Kfouri. Brazil beat World Champions Spain 3-0 in the game.

In previous World Cups, the population painted streets and houses in Brazil’s national colors of green and gold. So far, the street art in Brazilian cities has been resolutely anti-Cup. In May, one image, by São Paulo artist Paulo Ito, went viral around the world.

The Anti-Cup Decoration Movement facebook group has over 17,000 "likes" for its collection of dozens of images of anti-Cup and FIFA graffiti from all over Brazil.

When one foreign television network was looking for some pro-World Cup graffiti to film in Rio recently, it couldn’t find any and consequently resolved to pay a graffiti artist to paint some for it. Even then, of three street artists contacted, two refused the commission.

But over the last week or so, there are signs that the campaign may be bearing fruit. Slowly, flags, bunting and decorations are beginning to appear on Brazilian streets – led by shops, bars and restaurants. Venders are flooding Rio de Janeiro streets with cheap green and gold merchandise, just as World Cup tourists are beginning to crowd Rio streets.

Late – it’s only to be expected – and grumbling a little, Brazilians are overcoming their ambivalence over World Cup costs, delayed stadiums, Neymar’s salary and corruption, health, education and transport problems – to get behind their team in this World Cup.

“It is all last minute, because we were deciding whether to support Brazil,” said Rubens da Silva, 55, who was hanging up bunting outside the Good Bar in Cinelândia in central Rio on Tuesday in a grey drizzle. “But we are all Brazilians. We will support Brazil.”

In some cases, a little commercial assistance was required. The Santa Marta favela, in Botafogo in Rio, the first Rio favela to have an armed police base installed under a pacification program in 2008, accepted free paint from a paint company to decorate its narrow streets and houses last weekend in pro-Cup colors. The company had given free paint to the community on other occasions.

“People weren’t excited. It was getting closer. But a week ago, they decided to start painting,” said Salete Martins, 44, a Santa Marta resident and tour guide. “In truth, Brazilians never give up, ever,” she added. “Football is number one. It is last minute. But we support Brazil. We want Brazil to win.”

This new breeze of public opinion – the decorations, the talk of 1970, the free paint – was caught by presenter Fausto ‘Faustão’ Silva on his popular variety show Faustão’s Big Sunday.

“Brazil invited more than 600,000 foreigners to come here. Our problems have to be resolved between us,” the presenter said in unusually controversial comments on his show on June 1, in comments reported on the UOL website.

“As it’s all going to start inside this whole mess, these expensive stadiums, let’s try and do the best possible, because as my grandmother used to say, ‘Dirty laundry is washed at home,” he said. “It’s no good showing the whole world that we are the country of corruption and incompetence. Many people already know.”