A yellow and green mass of people heaved from a brand-new train station to a stadium that wasn’t quite done yet in a country that surely couldn’t pull this off. Combat helicopters scarred the blue sky. Arid squares of sod had shriveled back to reveal the pinkish dirt beneath the handsome Arena de Sao Paulo. A scalper demanded some $4,000 for tickets that may or may not have gotten you in. And a few other cracks would show in the veneer of the 2014 FIFA World Cup’s opening game.
Yesterday, there was no World Cup here. A few packs of foreign fans strolled through the nicer neighborhoods of Sao Paulo. But the city did not show any anticipation or partisanship. There were no flags, no buzz. But this morning, most every man, woman and child was wearing a Brazilian jersey – almost all of them with the No. 10 on the back – or at least waving or wearing a flag. Car and air horns awoke anybody sleeping past 8 a.m.
Brazil had seen years of angst and ambiguity, culminating in a year of strikes and million-man demonstrations. There is real anger over the misappropriated and misguided billions lost on this tournament. But while there had been promises by anarchists and protestors there would be no World Cup, today there was only singing and dancing, screaming and chanting on the way to the stadium. A subway strike had been called off at the last minute. Traffic was manageable, at least by Sao Paulo’s tortuous standards.
A few hundred protestors, well outside the “sanitary zones” that surround the Cup ground, were met with tear gas and stun grenades, noise bombs and rubber bullets. A heavy police presence swiftly (and harshly) put down any attempts to voice criticism. A couple journalists were reportedly injured in the crossfire. Rocks and bottles were thrown at the cops, shop owners in Rio de Janeiro boarded up their stores and some garbage was set on fire, but there was no such ugliness to be seen around the stadium. FIFA does many things poorly, but sanitizing the vicinity of its cash-cow tournament of dissent and rogue advertising isn’t one of them.
The 62,103 who had managed to finagle a precious ticket – after 1,376 seats didn’t get installed in time – saw only the glee and joy FIFA purports to own the exclusive rights to. A colorful and bouncy opening ceremony whipped up the rapt crowd. So what if the concession stands ran out of food an hour before the game? And who cared that the roof was never completed over the end-line stands, potentially drenching thousands of fans if it rained hard, or that the stadium had never been stress-tested at close to full capacity? There was still beer aplenty.
Brazil’s Seleção emerged here to a cacophony of cheers that could have destroyed your hearing. As each name was read out, the noise level ebbed and flowed, hitting a height when flamboyant boy wonder Neymar – sporting the hallowed No. 10 took the stage. When the anthems came, every Brazilian in the house sang his at the top of his lungs. The music stopped after the first verse as is custom, but the fans and players kept going for the second, a cappella. Three disoriented doves were released — grimly, two quickly crashed to their deaths in the stands — then Neymar raised his hands to the sky in prayer and the first game got underway.
For the first few minutes, fireworks went off outside the stadium. Each and every Brazilian half-chance was cheered as if the World Cup had already been won by the favorites. After they went a goal down early the stadium seethed. Night fell hard just then, and the lights didn’t come on in one quadrant of the stadium. Brazil of course would rebound – some will say with the help of Japanese referee Yuichi Nishimura – but a Brazilian victory always seemed preordained. In the end, they won out, 3-1, and the nation settled in to party the night away.
Brazil had lost their last World Cup game on home soil, the final game of the 1950 edition, an enduring national trauma. On Thursday that 64-year-old karmic injustice started to be righted. The day hadn’t gone perfectly for the Brazilians. But for one night at least, the World Cup was theirs to enjoy.