The protests, strikes and general malaise ahead of the World Cup in Brazil have been all the more surprising given the country’s long-time love affair with football.
The winningest nation in World Cup history has the chance to win the tournament on home soil for the first time.
Yet Brazilians — the people who elevated the notion of the “beautiful game” to the level of art — have been visibly morose, spurning the green and yellow decorations that exploded into bloom during past World Cups.
Delays, overspending, corruption accusations, deadly construction accidents, protests, strikes, economic stagnation, shelved infrastructure projects, pre-election political wrangling — all have contributed to the country’s football malaise.
But after seven years of planning, the team is finally about to take the field.
And football-loving Brazilians are increasingly eager to set aside politics and unleash their pent-up excitement.
Maria de Lourdes Pereira da Silva strolled up Alzira Brandao Street in Rio de Janeiro’s Tijuca neighborhood dressed head-to-toe in green and yellow and carrying her pet rooster, Paquito Fred — who was wearing a Brazilian flag as a cape, his claws painted to match.
A die-hard fan of local club Fluminense known as “Three-Colored Granny,” she has swapped the team’s trademark red, white and green for the colors of the flag.
“I can’t wait for the Cup to start. It will be the seventh one I’ve seen. I want people to be joyous, not disruptive, which shows a lack of respect for the country I love,” said the retired nurse.
Ricardo Ferreira has been in charge of organizing the street’s famously festive World Cup decorations since 1978.
He said the middle-class neighborhood, which plans to set up a giant 28-square-meter (300-square-foot) screen to broadcast matches for tens of thousands of fans, is ready to party.
“After kick-off, we’re going to forget the protests and wait for the elections (in October) to send our message at the ballot box,” he said.
Anthropologist Alba Zaluar said the anti-World Cup movement is being driven mainly by university students and the upper-middle class.
Posh neighborhoods like her own beachside district, Leblon, have not broken out the green and yellow this year, said Zaluar, a professor at Rio de Janeiro State University.
But elsewhere, people are slowly getting into the spirit, she told AFP.
“Brazilians always do everything at the last minute. When it starts, they’ll get their flags out and get excited,” she said.
“Our love of football runs deep. It’s part of our social identity. The buzz is going to get bigger and bigger.”
– Fear of protesters –
In Sao Paulo, Ademir Pereira Amarau, who sells Brazilian flags in the street, said sales were finally starting to pick up.
“Normally, the streets are decorated two months before the Cup. This year, people aren’t putting flags in their windows because they’re afraid that protesters will break the glass,” he said.
Joel Rufino, a writer, football expert and historian at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, said the current lack of enthusiasm stems from the fact that Brazil’s best players all play overseas.
“The team looks like the foreign legion,” he said.
“Aside from Neymar and two or three others, the public doesn’t know the players because they play abroad. And the most basic thing for a fan is to know and follow the players.”
He said fans also see the government, the Brazilian Football Confederation (CBF) and FIFA as “cynical.”
“They present the Cup in a certain way, and people perceive that it’s something else, and an expensive spectacle to boot,” he said.
But he also predicted a last-minute change of mood.
“At kick-off, a lot of the people who did nothing but criticize are going to support the team,” he said.
“Me, I support Uruguay — until the tournament starts.”