Sitting outside the orange tent where he rents stand-up paddleboards on Copacabana beach, Jorge Soares was of two minds about Brazil’s World Cup, despite the extra money it is already bringing in as tourists arrive in town.
“As a businessman, it’s a good thing,” he said. “But as a citizen, I see the World Cup projects as futile for the population.”
Like many Brazilians, the beachgoers and vendors on Rio’s famous Copacabana beach have mixed feelings about the international soccer tournament, which begins here in three weeks. Strikes, protests against the Cup and the soaring costs of stadiums have dampened much of the country’s soccer fervor, and instead of the festive anticipation you might expect, the mood in Copacabana is one of doubt and insecurity.
But slowly, flags and bunting have begun to appear, and the government is betting that the population will get on board once the national team starts shooting for its sixth title.
“We want to see everyone get wild,” said Katie Cameron, 28, an American tourist from San Diego, who along with three friends had bought tickets for a domestic game just to see the famous Maracana stadium, where the World Cup final will be staged.
Many visiting soccer fans will stop in the bustling beachside neighborhood of Copacabana, which combines the extremes of this continent-size, soccer-crazy country. If Rio has a Times Square, this is it. An estimated 3 million people watched Pope Francis celebrate Mass here last year. A huge arena is being erected at one end of the beach where fans can watch World Cup games on huge screens.
Copacabana has wild nature and urban sophistication, luxury and sleaze, all in one bustling strip. Paddleboarders bounce waves not far from the world-famous Copacabana Palace, where Madonna stays when she is in town. Locals complain that a drug trade thrives in the shadows near multimillion-dollar apartments.
At dusk, impromptu soccer games break out along the beach.
“Will people forget all these strikes with the trophy if Brazil wins?” asked Soares’s girlfriend, Thereza Santos, 25, who had arrived to help pack up his paddleboard business for the night.
To her, the World Cup is a way for the government to distract Brazil from its bigger issues, such as health and education. “For years, they have smothered the problems with football, with samba, with beer,” she said of the government. “It is sad to criticize our country. But people have to wake up.”
At a clothes shop on a nearby street, official World Cup T-shirts were already selling well, said salesman Luís Carlos, 37. “I am very excited,” he said. Carlos has tickets for the final and expects Brazil to triumph. “They have everything to win.”
Not far away, the curbside Delirio Carioca Bar was decorated in Brazilian colors of green and gold. “The country of football. Football is happiness,” said bartender Pedro Bezerra, 35. “Brazil will win for sure.”
When Brazil played in the 2010 World Cup, which was held in South Africa, the entire country was gripped with excitement. But unlike then, flags and bunting have yet to appear in the winding alleyways of the Pavao-Pavaozinho favela, or slum, on a steep hillside above Copacabana. Protests exploded there after a man was killed in a shooting residents blame on police.
“Here, for now, nobody is getting organized, putting up a banner or painting a street. Maybe the week before. Brazilians like to do everything last-minute,” said Alexandre Salles, 38, from behind his desk in the cramped residents association offices. “I will watch, of course. I will support Brazil.”
Down the favela’s narrow main alleyway, Albeci dos Santos, 46, had not yet decorated his small bar. “People are less excited than last time,” he said, referring to the last World Cup, when Brazil was widely expected to win but was knocked out by the Netherlands in the quarterfinals.
Online, Brazilians have argued that much of what is quintessentially Brazilian has been extracted from the event. The samba drums that pulse and pound through soccer games have been banned from stadiums. The official World Cup song features two American Latinos, Pitbull — who raps a line in Spanish, not Brazil’s Portuguese — and Jennifer Lopez, but just one Brazilian, pop singer Claudia Leitte.
Deliveryman Roque Luíz, whose handcart was painted in the colors of his Rio team Vasco, said the shiny, revamped Maracana stadium had alienated fans who used to watch matches standing on crammed terraces. “The Maracana used to be for the people. They made it like Europe,” he said.
At the Rio Sul shopping mall in neighboring Botafogo, an Ellus clothing store was selling black T-shirts with the slogan “Down with this backward Brazil.”
Upstairs, a Levi’s store showcased its new World Cup collection of colorful T-shirts and jeans, inspired by Brazilian colors and designed by underprivileged students from a nonprofit organization called Spectaculu.
Like many Brazilians, store manager Aline Rodrigues, 32, said she refuses to pay to see a game and will watch on television.
“It is all a reason for a party. I’m not going to say I won’t be watching the games with friends, making that mess,” she said. “But paying $180 a ticket? No.”