Brazil catches yellow fever in time for World Cup

It IS the type of yellow fever every visitor is looking to catch. The official Brazuca World Cup ball is described as the most colourful ever created by Adidas, so its every swerve becomes “a reflection of Brazilian culture”. The design of stadiums where workers have worked tirelessly, and often at grave peril, also aims to symbolise elements of local culture.

Graffiti of Brazils Hulk pulling a tram while fellow striker Neymar holds aloft the World Cup in Rio de Janeiro. Picture: Reuters
Graffiti of Brazils Hulk pulling a tram while fellow striker Neymar holds aloft the World Cup in Rio de Janeiro. Picture: Reuters

However, the true spirit, the Brazilian passion, exists in the streets, as the 20th edition of the World Cup finally kicks off this evening in Sao Paulo, where Brazil take on Croatia while burdened by enormous expectation. Not since 1950 has the country hosted a World Cup, which means all but the very elderly are experiencing something for the first time.

Not everyone is in favour, this much is abundantly clear, even after just a few days spent in the country. The volume of protest has been as high as the excitement levels.

For every taxi driver such as the one taking me through the streets of Manaus yesterday, whose number of yellow, green and blue flags sticking out of various parts of his vehicle rivalled the number of religious trinkets wedged into his dashboard, there have been those who question the amount of public money swallowed up by this vast operation.

They are suspicious of any attempt to repackage football and then sell it back to them at a vastly inflated price, as Fifa stand accused of doing.

Even the Croatian fans I sat next to on the flight from Rio to Sao Paulo on Tuesday were clearly still in shock at what they paid to attend the opening game, where they will be seated behind the goal: over 200 American dollars.

It is slightly ironic that the greatest sporting show on earth returns to the country renowned for being where football exists at its very purest form – witness the bare footed games on Copacabana – at a time when the games’s governing body is so mired in corruption. Brazil has not completely lost its heart to the competition.

The message “Fifa go home” has been daubed on the rocks at Ipanema beach in Rio de Janeiro. Graffiti has been employed elsewhere to illustrate the point.

In other places, however, including here, 1000 miles from the mouth of the Amazon river, you can sense the thrill that Manaus was selected as one of the host areas, however controversially.

The jungle city’s four major teams all play lower league football. There is little history of competitive football, as much because of geographical reasons as much as anything else.

However, many are relishing the thought of seeing Ronaldo, whose Portugal take on the United States in the city, and Wayne Rooney in action. Both were name checked at a press conference yesterday by the mayor of Manaus as he sought to douse fears about the stadium, the city’s infrastructure and, more specifically, the pitch. “We want to assure Rooney and Ronaldo that everything is safe,” smiled Arthur Neto. “We will show them that everything is safe.”

Neto’s words did not provide much comfort; the pitch looks as rutted and as poor as has been reported in what the mayor suggested were the more excitable areas of the English press. He advised visitors to expect the unexpected.

“I have told my friends abroad that if they come to Manaus do not expect to find Paris,” he said. “Expect to see the beauty of the rainforest, very friendly people, very enlightened.”

There is a very apparent excitement flooding out into the streets – like the Negro river, on the banks of which sits Manaus, has been threatening to do during recent days due to a recent 20-day burst of heavy rainfall.

This was just another concern for Brazilian authorities. They are perhaps not quite ready to enjoy the party, given the tightness with which several of the stadiums met their construction deadlines, as well as the continued unrest in the streets.

Outside the Arena da Amazonia, where England will kick off their World Cup campaign against Italy, those who had helped construct a ground that is designed to resemble a giant Amazon basket filled with tropical fruit. Some fear it is destined to become only a basket case and a drain on public resources.

On the Copacabana beach in Rio on Tuesday, Antonio Carlos Costa, the president of an organisation called Rio de Paz, which aims to reduce violence in the streets, told me that there had been “an inversion of values”.

The crosses that had been daubed on the huge footballs behind him represented the waste of public money.

A Brazil No 10 shirt hung from a washing line that had been draped from a mock-up of a favela dwelling.

“I love soccer,” said Costa. “I love the World Cup. I have to tell you I am sorry for the absence of Scotland. I played soccer, I have it in the blood. I love the World Cup, but World Cup with money that the government should invest in favelas, no thank you. I will not watch any games. It is a moral problem for me, no way.”

As far as the next few weeks go, everything, many clearly hope, will be all right on the day. However, it wasn’t in 1950, when Brazil only needed to draw against Uruguay to win the World Cup on their home turf, but instead contrived to lose 2-1 to their rivals from across the border.

The hold on the national psyche this appears to have to this day cannot be overestimated. On the flight over from London I sat next to a professor from Rio de Janeiro. She lent over and wondered what I was reading, which was a copy of Fernando Duarte’s excellent Shocking Brazil: Six games that shook the World Cup. And then she whispered: “Maracanazo”, which means Maracana blow. The episode forms the first chapter in the book.

Some wonder whether the fact Brazil cannot play at their spiritual home in this tournament unless they get to the final is down to trepidation rather than incompetence by organisers, as others suspect. But it’s clear that the Maracanazo shock still holds a charge and was given extra significance because Uruguay are neighbours from across the border – or at least one border.

The sheer size of the place is something that might become appreciated over the course of the next few weeks. The distance covered by flying from Rio to Manaus is the equivalent of travelling by air from London to Moscow; 1700 miles.

Many of those who have travelled from countries to watch games will see more of Brazil than the locals have; this is particularly true of those from the Manaus region, cut off from the prevailing trends, and protective, of course, of what they have.

They won’t be told by anyone that the stadium is set to become a white elephant, one that will be reliant on private money if it is not to suffer the expected fate of falling into disrepair.

So the spirit can be felt even here in Manaus, the outpost city once regarded as the most important trading post in the world due to its rubber industry. Its time in the sun pre-dates even the existence of the 
selacao, as the national team are known, who played their first match against Exeter City of all teams in 1914.

While the English side were not who you might have expected to form the opposition, it was the natural conclusion to a process some say was started when Charles Miller, the Brazilian-born son of a Scotsman, returned from boarding school in Southampton with ideas about dribbling football; under his guidance, the first official football match in Brazil took place in 1894 in Sao Paulo.

What Brazil have done with football since has given us all immense pleasure. It is time to sit back and enjoy the show. As one Manaus local explained to me yesterday: “just let it happen”.

He added: “The world will remember the World Cup in Brazil”.

The world is desperate to remember a World Cup held in Brazil.