“YOU won’t be going near any wildlife, will you?” This question, posed by a nurse pondering the need for a rabies vaccination booster prior to my departure for Brazil, flashed back into my head as I gingerly held in my hands a lively young crocodile with a set of teeth that threatened Luis Suarez-style damage.
We were sailing up an Amazon tributary, through a densely vegetated thicket known as the floating forest. While we moved further upstream, past wooden huts that, even in such a remote area, were draped with Brazilian flags in support of the national team’s efforts, I remembered, too, my answer to the nurse’s query that day. “I very much doubt it, I am off to cover a football tournament.”
Except it wasn’t just a football tournament I quickly learned, although I should have known this already. World Cups rarely are. They are cultural events that seep deep into the fissures of the host country and into the souls of those tasting new experiences. They are as much about learning the deliciousness of the acai fruit as thrilling at the sight of new stars such as James Rodriguez announcing themselves on the biggest stage of all.
The excitement about the host nation’s prospects was why the poor and mostly illiterate Caboclo people who live along the banks of the Amazon, and its tributaries, were caught up in the fever despite having no television on which to watch the games. They waved little Brazilian flags as we passed them on the river, 1500 kms from the mouth of the Amazon. Some rowed out to meet us in little canoes, on which were transported mainly-angry looking creatures for visitors to hold in exchange for a few Brazilian Reals.
Not everything they brought wanted to bite off parts of your body. One small boy wore something that was a deflating reminder of the fact we were not intrepid adventurers exploring virgin territory, as was the case in our heads. “C’mon England!” was written on a badge on his chest.
Seemingly over England’s 2-1 defeat to Italy a couple of days earlier, our young friend breezily dumped a cuddly, smiling sloth into our boat. Someone wondered whether it was the new England team mascot.
So much has happened since Manaus, the first port of call in a trip that took in nine games and six of 12 World Cup venues. The first game on the itinerary already seems like a long time ago. It is certainly many miles ago. The flight from Rio to Manaus alone is the equivalent of travelling from Moscow to London.
Already you fear what might – or might not be – happening in the city described as the gateway to the Amazon, although really it is in the middle of the rainforest, accessible only by boat or plane. It was three weeks ago today that it staged the last of four World Cup matches. The city has no football team of any note that can make use of a stadium with a 40,000 capacity.
The media centre where friendly volunteers escorted you home in taxis to make sure you were safely delivered to your hotel has long been decommissioned. Hundreds of journalists have moved on from Manaus and, now, on from Brazil. “Now you have found us, don’t forget us,” one volunteer in Manaus urged.
A laptop-wielding battalion has swept across the country in aeroplanes that coped more than adequately with the strain. Granted, there were worrying reports of planes shaking from side to when Brazil scored – one airline made itself popular with passengers by piping live football matches on to the television screen on the back of the chair in front. This development is to be applauded. Not so welcome are the television screens fixed to the dashboards of taxis and on which the driver tends to have one eye fixed as he – and it was always a he – darted crazily through the streets. The hazards of life on the road were underlined when an Argentinian journalist was killed when the taxi he was riding in collided with a stolen car that was being chased by police in Sao Paulo.
It was a sobering reminder that not everyone who arrived at passport control over four weeks ago, flushed by the prospect of what lay ahead, were destined to return home again.
Similarly, not everyone employed in the construction of the football stadiums were able to finish what they started. There has been a terrible cost paid, by society as well as individuals. While taking a walk along Copacabana beach on the first morning in Rio, prior to catching a connecting flight to Manaus, it was admittedly deflating to be met by the sight of several large footballs with blood-red crosses daubed on them. This was a protest at the public money funnelled into the World Cup effort at the expense of schools and hospitals. It was another reminder that World Cups are not only about football.
Despite the fears over the legacy, the Brazilians have been welcoming hosts. At half-time of Sunday’s final, one rose to his feet with a placard that read: “Hosting all of you was a great joy for us. You’ll be missed.” After experiencing Brazil’s diverse charms, the feeling is mutual.
Following the heat and exoticism of Manaus, it was a shock to land in Sao Paulo and see a seemingly never-ending horizon of skyscrapers. Curitiba, with its wide streets, Scandinavian-looking architecture and north European climate, was a pleasant antidote to the more dense cityscapes. It will not be remembered quite so fondly by Spain, who were based there and became the early story of an acclaimed tournament when crashing out at the group stage. One Spanish journalist complained to me that it was like they were already in Russia, the country where the next World Cup will take place and which now has such a difficult act to follow.
And what of the hosts? On the journey over I read a book by Fernando Duarte detailing nothing so obvious as Brazil’s five World Cup triumphs, but the ones where they fell short. Who would have imagined that on the last occasion I saw Duarte, in a café outside the Maracana stadium on the eve of the final between Argentina and Germany, he was preparing to embark on a hastily-written update to “Shocking Brazil: Six Games that Shook the World Cup”. The chapter needs only one title: Brazil 1 Germany 7.
We may never look upon Brazilian football in the same way again. They are fallible, prone to over-emoting and despairing at strikers who cannot score goals. Like nearly everyone else, really. One of the best banners spotted at these finals concerned itself with this theme: “Why is everyone so angry with Fred when he hasn’t done anything?”
But it’s now also possible to look upon the country with new eyes. Brazil is not simply about sun, sea and samba. It is more complex, and a richer place for that.
The Selecao broke a promise made to the people about winning it but the country kept a pledge to deliver a classic World Cup. Life must now go on, though. They were climbing up stepladders to take down the decorative footballs hanging from the ceiling in one hotel lobby yesterday.
Remarkably, the Brazilian championship re-starts tonight, with three games scheduled. Club shirts are already becoming more conspicuous.
But fans from other countries still drift along the front at Copacabana.
Recalling the cases of those Japanese soldiers found hiding in jungles decades after the end of the war, you want to nudge them and say: ‘it’s over, you can go home now’. We all can. It might call for a return visit to that nurse in Edinburgh: what’s the cure for the post-World Cup blues?