Thirty-two days is a long time to maintain a consistently high level of excitement.
Five weeks after the Rapture, people will be stepping over the open pits leading down to hell and wondering, “When does Game of Thrones start again?”
On Day 3 or 4 here, there was a small media-centre stampede after Brazilian great Roberto Carlos was spotted lining up to get an espresso at the cafeteria. Chairs flung aside. At least one table knocked over. Screaming and elbowing. This was the march up to Golgotha, minus the dignity.
By Day 32, Ruud van Nistelrooy – maybe the best striker on Earth 10 years ago – was wandering around a breakfast buffet at the Copacabana Marriott, trying to find a Styrofoam cup for his coffee. Nobody bothered looking up. Wait staff ignored him. He stood there in affable bewilderment for a long, long time before a hostess streaked by and threw a stack of cups at him.
Yes, it was getting awfully late in the day.
The atmosphere doesn’t build at a World Cup. It slowly bleeds away. By the end, the hosts just want everyone to leave so they can take a crack at cleaning up the dishes before going to bed. All the guests just want to loll around on couches, hoping to sober up before facing the inevitable catastrophe awaiting them at the airport.
That’s what made this one different. The people throwing the party refused to let it flag. Brazilians kept their smiles long after they had good reason to stop caring.
I learned a lot of Portuguese before coming here. By “a lot,” I mean five words – all of them derivations of “beer.”
There’s no point preparing for this sort of road trip. You show up with some cash and throw yourself at the mercy of fate.
“Beer” failed me again and again. I couldn’t master the inflection at the end of cerveja. I mean, cerveja. How bad can you mangle that? Well, I managed.
Like most everyone in the world who isn’t Canadian or American, Brazilians have a frustratingly tin ear for anyone who attempts to speak their language poorly.
Also, they call draft beer chopp. That didn’t work either. We couldn’t help ourselves but order by miming Bruce Lee splitting cabbage. This meant nothing to Brazilian waiters, who regarded us as if we were having a co-ordinated seizure.
There were many of these small (and large) failures of communication. In one case, trying to be conversational, one Canadian media member inquired after a cabbie’s girlfriend. He drove us to a strip joint. In another, they X-rayed our bags whilst leaving a stadium, apparently because someone had stolen a bottle of whisky. Billions of dollars are theoretical. Twelve-year-old scotch is not.
These many wrong turns sparked a motto: It was the right thing to do, but it was a total failure.
There were many total failures. Inevitably, you spent a lot of time lost and confused.
But it always pulled short of true disaster. They shoot down helicopters here, but through some miracle, I remain in body whole. That’s down to Brazilians – shopkeepers, cab drivers, stadium volunteers and random passersby would not allow me to get myself killed.
In each case, as you wandered toward the edge, someone got hold of you and pulled you back. These people would just materialize, Virgil-like, to guide you.
They would sidle up, concerned, and say something in Portuguese. You stood there, gaping. They talked s-l-o-w-e-r and LOUDER. Eventually, they’re an inch from your nose and screaming at you like you’re an especially stupid donkey. It isn’t taking.
Finally, frustrated, they take hold of your arm and march you toward the place you’re supposed to be. For a month, Brazilians were the parents and we were their children.
There was only one proper way to respond to all this rough helpfulness – a thumbs up. That one gesture (not properly complete without a slight dangle of the pinky) solves all problems here. You could walk up to a Brazilian, stab him in the leg with a sharpened spoon, flash a thumbs up and he’d invite you to live in his house.
On that last day, Brazil was at its absolute best. They were in the majority at the Maracana, as they had been at every game, everywhere. They absorbed the taunts of the Argentine supporters with more good humour than the occasion called for.
Though their songbook is large, Argentina’s supporters couldn’t help themselves. Again and again, they went back to their new favourite, Decime Brasil.
“Brazil, tell me how it feels, / Having your Daddy there at home …”
If Americans came 10 feet over the border and started singing a song of similar, fire-starting intent, it’d be 1812 all over again.
God bless Argentina, but having lived here a little while, you were glad to see them lose. You’d become too much of a homer by that point.
And God bless Brazil for having the forbearance to trust that a wrathful but just deity wouldn’t stand for this sort of nonsense
That’s what happens after five weeks. The tingle of arrival and newness and “SWEET JESUS, IS THAT A MONKEY?” begins to dull. Things become familiar. Without ever really noticing, you start to think of this place as your own.
So you’re dragging yourself back to your apartment one last time very late on a work night after the final. The bars up the street are throbbing. As usual, Rio is out celebrating the chance to celebrate.
You are, in that moment, where you belong. It’s not home, but Brazil did a very able impression for five weeks.