Welcome to Brazil.
At its best, the largest country in South America is a tropical paradise with a carefree attitude that can become intoxicating.
At its worst, it’s a sobering reminder of the struggle some people have to go through just to make it through the day.
My adventure took me to Fortaleza, Ceara, which played host to six games during the 2014 FIFA World Cup. On the northeast coast, Fortaleza is the fifth-largest city in Brazil with more than 3 million residents.
All is not blissful there. There were anti-government demonstrations in the lead up to and during the World Cup — some violent — protesting the use and misuse of public funds, promises made and broken. I was accompanied on this trip by one of my college buddies, and we met up with his friend, Bruno, who was from Fortaleza. Bruno pointed out several buildings and infrastructure projects that were supposed to be finished for the World Cup and were not.
And yet, the city seemed to embrace the soccer tournament with open arms. It didn’t matter who was playing, people gathered around TVs — at the bank, in the mall food court — as they followed the world’s greatest spectacle.
Our apartment was only a couple of blocks from Beira Mar Avenue, a stretch of beach and boardwalk lined with outdoor restaurants (called barracas) and street vendors.
Our apartment’s location showcased the best and worst of Fortaleza. We could step out on our balcony and view high-rise apartments for as far as the eye could see. We could look out the window of our elevator and see the Atlantic Ocean. But our apartment was on a tiny street that dead ends into rundown shacks. If we took a right out of our apartment, we went down Abolicao Aveenue, where we felt fine walking at night. If we took a left, we would be in rundown and graffiti-filled neighborhoods we wouldn’t want to walk in during the day.
When Brazil played, everyone seemed to come together and social status didn’t matter — most businesses closed down for the game. It was a Tuesday afternoon when Brazil played Mexico in the group stage, and it still felt as if the entire city congregated to the FIFA Fan Fest, which was showing the game on a giant screen. Everyone was decked out in yellow and green, chanting “Brasil” and blowing whistles.
I was fortunate enough to see three games in person while in Fortaleza; Germany vs. Ghana, Greece vs. Ivory Coast and the Round of 16 match between Netherlands and Mexico. City buses took us to the stadium drop-off point, and once we got off, it was as if we were in another world. Immediately we were bombarded with vendors shouting “Agua! Cerveja!” (water and beer). Dozens of vendors lined our mile-long walk to the stadium, all trying to make a buck.
The games themselves were the most organic sporting experience one could have. The stadium seats 60,000 people, but it was built in such a manner that even our “cheap seats” had a great view (especially compared to the nosebleeds at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa). Once the match started, there was no music over the sound system or Jumbotron messages urging us to cheer. There was no need. Though the stadium was mostly filled with locals, they still had a strong preference for which team they wanted to win. The crowd reacted with every shot on goal and every foul.
This is life in Brazil. Where people drive like maniacs to get somewhere, and then take their time once they get there. Where two donkeys can be in the median and no one bats an eye. Where it doesn’t matter if you have the official jersey from the mall or the knock-off from the street, just as long as it says “Brasil.”
There is still work to be done, and there are social and economic problems that must be addressed. Even in the nice parts of town there are numerous homeless people. Outside a modern-looking grocery store, we saw a mother and her baby sitting outside a cardboard box.
The potential is there for Brazil to be a major factor in the global market. In 2016, Rio will host the Olympics and we can all check back on the country’s progress then.