Saturday 24 March 2018

Not even FIFA's grubbiness can ruin the moments of joy

FIFA President Sepp Blatter
FIFA President Sepp Blatter

Dion Fanning

You think you know a place, you think you know a World Cup. On Wednesday morning I flew from Sao Paulo to Rio’s Santos Dumont airport which must be the most spectacular workaday commuter flight in the world.

The flight path takes the plane away from the unknowable metropolis towards the Atlantic over the Serra do Mar. It then turns over the port of Santos with the tankers waiting in the ocean for a berth. Sometimes they can wait there for 10 days, a reminder that the infrastructure of the country hasn’t matched the economic growth.

Within half an hour, the descent into Rio has begun as the plane weaves through the mountains with the Christ the Redeemer statue on the right before it swings left over the bay, looking down on Copacabana, Urca and the rest while the Sugarloaf stands guard, a little close for my liking as we approached, on the mouth of Guanabara Bay.

The plane lands just over the water and there is a brief time dealing with the formalities in a Brazilian airport, and they are always brief,  before the streets of Rio provide their own vibrant backdrop to the World Cup.

Across Brazil, journalists are returning from cities with their own stories. We become experts in a month, discuss the beauty and the sadness and move on, only dimly aware that this is not reality. I remember how Johannesburg appeared to deflate the week after the last World Cup ended and, only 72 hours later, looked like a totally different place.

Brazil, it would seem, has been true to Brazil. A colleague who lives here expressed surprise last week when a couple of us said how much we had enjoyed our 36 hours in Manaus. The tournament, he said, had provided the finest pr for Manaus which is viewed within Brazil as a place to avoid. Perhaps this was just the contagion, another sign of the infatuation many of us feel with this tournament and this country.

There will be many logical reasons advanced for the success of this tournament, many attempts to spot trends. It would be irrational to suggest that the spirit of the country has had an effect but the spirit of the country has had an effect.

This is a land that, through its vastness and contradictions, has been untameable. In A Death in Brazil, Peter Robb describes the objectives when the military took power in the 19th century.

“The republic’s motto, Order and Progress, girdling the globe with the stars of the Southern Cross on Brazil’s beautiful new green, blue and yellow flag, proclaimed its positivist values; and betrayed, in its very peremptory formulation, the new rulers’ deep anxiety about their new body politic . . . The republicans were about control. Their aspirations were entirely European and in sweaty, chaotic, sensual Brazil . . . there was a lot to embarrass people who wanted Brazil to become a nation-state of a European or North American kind.”

This has been a South American World Cup which is not a tautology given that in South Africa it often felt like a European event, at least within the areas under FIFA control.

FIFA are at this World Cup but it’s hard to find them. They’re like old Joe Kennedy staying out of the way while JFK was sold to the American people. FIFA had no need to be prominent when this World Cup has been so enjoyable, they can enjoy it with the rest of us and then take their profits, free from tax in the host country, and return to Zurich.

Perhaps we’ve been had. Those Brazilians who protest about the cost of this tournament while so many live in poverty and the government is unable to provide basic services must hope that people continue to pay attention when the show leaves town.

FIFA will retreat to their safe havens in eight days’ time, hoping that they are not the focus for the remainder of the tournament.

They can be found if you look for them. They hold a daily briefing in the Maracana and to step into the dark room to find dogged journalists pursuing them. The colour drains from the World Cup in these rooms.

On Thursday, FIFA’s people looked uncomfortable as one Brazilian journalist questioned them about the sale of black market tickets which police in Rio say involves somebody from FIFA.

Here they were, rebutting the familiar charges of grubbiness — “Maybe it’s not from FIFA, it’s often easy to come to a conclusion about who is FIFA,” their head of media said — while the glory is found elsewhere.

On Wednesday, FIFA’s Technical Study Group announced its ‘preliminary findings’ from the World Cup at a press conference at the Maracana. To borrow Peter Cook’s line when David Frost invited him to dinner with the Duke and Duchess of York, I was busy watching a Brazilian soap on TV and couldn’t make it.

Their preliminary conclusions were that the World Cup was fabulous but, I guess, we’ll have to wait for their full report before we make up our minds.

Instead of hearing the preliminary findings I took a trip to Santa Teresa, described as the bohemian quarter of Rio. I thought I knew what to expect but one thing Rio teaches you more than anything is that expectations are meaningless.

Instead of a continuation of Rio with prettier, more ornate buildings,  — charming architecture and cobbled streets, the guidebook said — it was like taking a 10-minute journey to the middle of nowhere.

It felt like a sleepy Mediterranean mountain hamlet. The cobbled streets were empty and the local botecos were all inviting, while the two giant murals on the wall, one celebrating the 1958 team, the other showing the current squad in a Rio tram being pulled by Hulk, was a reminder of where we were.

We ate in a local boteco which was German-run, allowing us to break away from the steak-based food of the first few weeks and try something lighter, in this case knuckle of pork. (It’s hard getting your five-a-day here but I came close in one meal when I had pork, chicken, beef and lamb in one nutritious and surprisingly enjoyable meal.)

Everywhere in Rio there is something to marvel at, from the funicolare through a tropical jungle that takes you to Cristo Redentor to the views at the top which cause spontaneous gasps of awe.

On the journey up, I sat beside an Algerian fan who spent some time looking at video on his phone from Porto Alegre and gave me an unprompted rating for the referee —  “zero”. An England fan complained that it was “cloudy as fuck” and worried if we would be able to see anything at all, while a samba band played to a virtually empty carriage on the descent, again creating one of those little moments of unexpected joy.

They occur all the time. After nearly four weeks, our findings have barely reached the preliminary stage. This tournament is not about order and control but instead, like Brazil, revels in its own unknowability.

Sunday Indo Sport

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