A cold coming I had of it. And it’s not just the chilly, overcast weather here in the city hosting the World Cup opener between Brazil and Croatia on Thursday.
It’s the chilly sense that Sao Paulo is neither ready nor fully invested. With multiple flights arriving from the United States on Wednesday morning, the airport staff were overwhelmed. It took more than an hour to get through Customs and Immigration, even with a visa for Brazil in-hand. The young man who examined my passport and credentials told me it was his second day on the job. He had to mosey over to a more senior colleague and nervously ask questions about my visa before letting me through.
There are few Brazil flags flying from cars or apartment balconies. Only in some posh hotels is there a pre-World Cup giddiness. Some people are adorned with Brazil’s team colours, and fans from multiple countries abound – the red of Spain, the orange of the Netherland, the red-and-white check of Croatia stand out in the grey weather.
Those are instant impressions. But here are hard facts. Subway workers who were on strike for days went back to work but bitterness lingers. As I write this, another strike is threatened for Thursday to coincide with the opening game here. The stadium isn’t really ready. I’m inside it typing this report and so much of it looks temporary. For the first time on Thursday, it will seat the full capacity crowd. If they can get here on time.
The dynamic is different here in part because the world imagined that the World Cup in Brazil would be wonderful – all joyous crowds and Brazil playing its samba soccer to both entertain and win it all. Now, of course, it’s not imaginary at all. It’s real and the vulgar, expensive, exploitive spectacle that is the World Cup is the issue for Brazil, the nation.
What needs to happen is for Brazil the team to play well, win and win gloriously on Thursday. Only a dose of samba soccer can shift the dynamic. Only sweeping, passionate play can sway attention from the bitterness about stadiums, infrastructure, FIFA’s arrogance and the smell of corruption.
Against Croatia, that won’t be easy. Too much rests upon the expectation that young Neymar will set the tournament on fire. If there’s a simmering expectation here in Sao Paulo it’s about this slim, fast and quick-thinking young striker. And yet, as the sports journalists here know, the worship is all very well, but it is unclear what position best suits Neymar in the Brazil team formation. If manager Luiz Felipe Scolari hasn’t figured it by kickoff on Thursday, there is no room to rethink and start again.
Croatia’s team is an odd mix of youngsters and veterans, and it goes into the opening game with one big advantage – it will be underestimated. There is every reason to believe it will be a close game. Croatia’s defence will not be easily overwhelmed.
The feeling here in Sao Paulo is that this World Cup just needs to get started. The game is what matters and the quality of it matters more than the spectacle. Brazil wants its rhythm back, the rhythm of soccer played with style and flair.
While Wednesday was overcast and chilly, Thursday is predicted to be a warm, sunny day, a perfect day for soccer. As in Rio, there is anti-World Cup graffiti here. On the long, long bus ride to the stadium, what I saw over and over was, FIFA Go Home. That’s fair, really. What the city, the country and the world want is the game, not the governing body. And everybody wants the game played the Brazil way. So much rests upon that. If it happens, everybody is invested in it.