Fans made World Cup special, not Fifa

Fans made World Cup special, not Fifa
Argentina and Germany fans cheer prior to the 2014 FIFA World Cup final football match between Germany and Argentina at the Maracana Stadium in Rio de Janeiro

With the commentator's knack for succinct summary, Martin Tyler captured the essence of this World Cup beautifully.

"Football wise, it's definitely been the best World Cup of all the 10 that I've covered," the definitive voice of football told me.

"But I need to balance that in my mind with the loss of life in the construction of the stadia and in the building of the highway in Belo Horizonte."

That was the complex, sensitive tightrope that Brazil 2014 walked from beginning to end.

Teams were cheered for their astonishing mix of muscular and magical counter-attacking football. But Fifa president Sepp Blatter was mercilessly booed at the World Cup final.

Along the scruffy streets of Sao Paulo and Rio, street art neatly captured the tournament's schizophrenic qualities with that popular, spray-painted slogan of defiance.

Love football, hate Fifa.

The World Cup's narrative was borrowed from Dickens. It was the best of times. For some, it was the worst of times; a tale of two tournaments.

Fifa's uncanny ability to organise and irritate simultaneously reached its zenith in Brazil. A phalanx of impeccably groomed PR and media executives with Fifa blazers and neutral accents somehow kept the plates spinning across 64 games and 12 cities stretched unevenly across the country.

They were backed by the real World Cup heroes - Fifa's blue-shirted army of smiling, bubbly, bilingual volunteers who were always on hand to offer directions and soothe tensions.

They worked in their thousands, shamefully unpaid but delightfully upbeat as they laboured through long hours. But their blue-collar presence was not replicated in the stands. The working man's game is now a sporting spectacle for the privileged few.

Champagne-quaffing corporate guests who spent more time taking selfies than watching the games were no longer reserved to a couple of executive boxes. They were dotted throughout arenas, notable for their silence, conspicuous by their affluence.

The Maracana spent US$500 million ($620m) on extravagant renovations only to price the folks who had sustained the stadium for the last 50 years out of their own market. From taxi drivers to bar owners, Brazilians were united in their frustration when it came to exorbitant ticket prices.

MINORITY At the four (unfinished) stadiums I visited - Manaus, Sao Paulo, Belo Horizonte and the Maracana - white faces mostly smiled for the TV cameras. According to the Guardian, a poll taken at the Brazil-Chile game revealed that 67 per cent of spectators were white. In Brazil, more than half the country considers themselves black or of mixed race.

Most depressingly, nine out of 10 came from Brazil's economic elite.

In many ways, Fifa's Disneyfication of the World Cup has been a remarkable triumph. A stroll along the concourse around any of the tournament venues was akin to shuffling along Main Street USA at any of the Disney theme parks; identical architecture in a safe, sanitized, slightly artificial venue.

Thank heavens, then, for the irrepressibly entertaining South Americans. Brazil's neighbours made the most of their close proximity and swelled the ranks. Even the North Americans took advantage of being in the same neck of the woods; their euphoric chants of "USA, USA" echoing across the country.

For the Americans, this tournament really felt like the last bastion of round-ball resistance had been knocked down. The Stars and Stripes often fluttered highest among the travelling flags here.

But the Argentines truly made Brazil their second home; temporarily annexing the Copacabana promenade with their fleet of battered camper vans. The smell of scrambled eggs and fried rice and beans drifted from their portable cookers, always accompanied by that unofficial World Cup anthem Brasil, Decime Que Se Siente (Brazil, Tell Me How It Feels).

They assaulted the senses from the moment they arrived.

At Copacabana, I stumbled upon an impromptu South American interpretation of West Side Story; with gangs of Brazilians and Argentines fighting to out-sing each other. They jumped, danced, taunted and paused only to swig from a seemingly inexhaustible supply of bottled beer.

They were rowdy, raucous and mostly harmless. They didn't follow the World Cup. The World Cup followed them as the tournament gravitated towards the much derided Fifa Fan Fests.

Long considered the physical embodiment of all that was wrong with Fifa - a controlled, clinical environment with only sponsored brands available at inflated prices - they were at least free.

Brazilians who had filled the Maracana for half a century now filled the Rio Fan Fest instead, bringing the true spirit of the Selecao back to its most humble beginnings - the beach.

Still, they couldn't be entirely trusted.

Helicopters whirred overhead and entire platoons of armed personnel set up permanent garrisons around every major stadium, beach, shopping district and street in the country.

They never stopped the party entirely, but they always tried the patience. Endless security checks - a personal record was six before the France-Germany quarter-final - grew increasingly tiresome as the tournament progressed.

When a belligerent official at the World Cup final snatched an umbrella from my rucksack and binned it, claiming that it was a security risk, even my temper failed me.

As the Fifa circus takes down its tent and gathers up the reported US$4 billion in profit, the question is already being asked. Was it worth it?

FRUSTRATION

Despite the US$13.5b of public money invested in Brazil 2014, Manaus has almost certainly been left with a concrete white elephant in a remote Amazonian city in dire need of improved roads, better education and decent healthcare. The wonderfully kind people now have a glorious stadium for a third division team with average gates of 4,000. But the favelas remain.

Finding frustrated voices is not a difficult task here. "Our education system is terrible," said Andre Fraga, an engineer living in Rio. "If we can afford it, we must have private health insurance because the public system is so bad and our public transport and roads are a joke. But we made Rio look good for foreigners and they enjoyed the games and so did we - on TV - because we couldn't afford to buy tickets for the matches."

The World Cup final had barely kicked off yesterday morning (Singapore time) when the protestors returned to the streets of Rio. With Brazilian elections coming, angry voices will get louder.

For a month, they were almost drowned out by a stunning sporting spectacle. It's not a trite observation, but an honest one. Rubber bullets and tear gas didn't dilute the dissent. Football did.

The game's leading teams somehow conspired to produce a tournament for the ages, sticking a Band Aid over a host country's simmering resentment.

On the pitches, the footballers found their feet. In the fan zones and on the streets and beaches, the fans found their voices as Brazilians opened their arms and warmly embraced the world.

Apart from the captivating football, this World Cup should also be remembered as the tournament when hosts and visitors came together in a glorious celebration of sport's finest unifying qualities.

This was the World Cup where the people's game was returned to its rightful owners.

npsports@sph.com.sg


This article was first published on July 15, 2014.
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