You get off the plane at 6 a.m., a little wobbly and girded for total chaos. This is ever the way at any World Cup.
In the weeks of lead-up, the hooligans are going to run amok (as in France, Korea/Japan, Germany) or you’ll be stabbed as soon as you wander outside your rented bunker (South Africa).
In 2010, we flew over with a group of Dutch tourists who were accompanied on the plane by a dozen security guards.
Football is the meat of the World Cup. Panic is the seasoning. And so, if you arrived in Rio expecting disaster, you were disappointed.
The passport line works. The baggage arrives (eventually). Chunks are not coming off the ceiling and crushing people. Nothing is on fire in the arrivals lounge.
It’s all a bit shouty and disorienting. Straight out of the terminal, someone grabs your bags and runs off with them.
Bad news – we’re being robbed. Good news – we’ve found our news hook! But, sadly, no. He’s just carrying them to the cab rank.
They’ve built almost nothing they’d promised here in Rio – no dedicated bus lanes or light rail or new airport terminal. The subway line ends abruptly and becomes a bus line. That slow overland section is deliciously named the Superficial Metro.
After taking a PR beating for months in the lead-up, Rio has decided to give in and trust its visitors. If you’re coming, odds are you’re expecting something closer to authentic than opulent. Foreign supporters will have no choice other than to adapt themselves to the rhythms of Brazil’s ragged metropolises. Everything works, but not the way you’d hoped, and never anywhere close to as quickly.
The first thing anyone warns you about finding your way in Rio: the traffic. And it is bonkers. It combines the numbing polarities of a constant bottleneck with brief bursts of pandemonium.
The most jarring part is the dozens of suicidalists on motorcycles weaving through traffic while leaning steadily on their horns. This is meant as a warning, but instead serves as a sonic targeting system. After nearly killing one – and I’m pretty sure he was trying to – our cab driver gets the Rio version of the finger: one hand flapping languidly in disgust.
The airport is 22 kilometres from our apartment. The drive takes just over an hour.
“Oh, that is very quick,” says Thiago, the local who’s helping sort out our digs.
“The traffic is awful,” Thiago agrees mournfully.
Maybe we’ll take the subway?
“That is even more awful.”
Forget I said anything.
It could be worse. It could be Sao Paulo. The opener goes there on Thursday evening – Brazil versus Croatia. The stadium is slated to be finished about 15 minutes before kickoff. It has never before been filled to its new 70,000 capacity. A week ago, the question was, Who will take their life in their own hands and sit in seats that were only just vetted by safety officials?
From right now, the question is, Will anyone get the chance to make that decision?
The arena is located in an isolated corner of the city. The city’s metro workers are all out on strike. Having washed up on the shoals of legal threats, the local government has been reduced to begging. We’re still not sure how anyone (us included) will get to the arena on game day.
A half-empty stadium would be a colossal embarrassment to this venture, one that no amount of entertainment on the field could erase.
That would plainly please many who have yet to succumb to the allure of a big tournament. On the streets, they’re still supremely ticked off at the money spent on this thing. It was only one afternoon, but I couldn’t find a single person who was really stoked to get started. Most already seemed tired.
There were few ads or banners advertising the tournament. In any other World Cup year, this city would be awash in yellow and blue. But many have already checked out of a party they feel they’ve been coerced into hosting.
Activists who have roiled the cities since last year’s Confederations Cup continue to promise disruptions. The training ground for the Brazilian team has been besieged by protesters. When Eduardo Paes, the divisive mayor of Rio, joked recently that he would kill himself if Argentina won the championship, thousands signed up to a Facebook page openly rooting for their greatest rivals.
All this adds up to the very real potential for logistical Armageddon, but that’s just about every day in Brazil. And somehow, people muddle through. They get to work. They get home. They live.
If the world is willing to embrace that local spirit, there is very little that can really go wrong here.