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World Cup 2018: Brazil’s Respite from Reality

Mario Tama/Getty Images
A boy from Santa Marta favela with his Panini World Cup sticker book, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, 2014

This is the second in a series of essays about the 2018 World Cup guest-edited by Joshua Jelly-Schapiro.

 

Every four years, Brazil is transformed by a sportive Midas touch that turns everything into apolitical emptiness. It sweeps our country with a force almost too strong to resist.

We puff up our chests and recall that we are the only country that has attended every single FIFA World Cup since its beginning in 1930 (a distinction we have held alone since 1950, when Romania did not enter the competition and France withdrew). We have also won the championship five times. And although Brazil has never gotten a Nobel prize—just three Ig Nobels and too many Darwin Awards—at least on the soccer field we can proudly face first-world countries such as England, France, Italy, Germany, and Spain. The nation is now facing a major political and economic crisis with no end in sight, but suddenly, this became only a minor nuisance. It’s like a collective shout of substitution: out go social equality, political stability, and true democracy; in come Pelé, Ronaldo, and Neymar to let us brag to the rest of the world.

So we celebrate as loudly as we can.

We paint our streets in yellow and green and decorate them with long strings of tiny paper flags. We buy pernicious plastic horns, metallic wigs, silly hats, yoyos, napkins, balloons, foam spray, pom-poms, and even an angry yellow canary costume. We take part in sweepstakes and lose serious money trying to predict the results of Morocco vs. Iran. On days of matches involving the national team, people leave work early, streets empty, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the crime rate also goes down, with a welcome day off for delinquents.

Months before the main event, the World Cup insanity kicks off with the arrival of a new edition of the championship sticker album: according to Panini, the Italian company that makes the booklet, Brazil is its biggest market, with twice as many sales as in Germany. A local factory produces 8 million envelopes a day for distribution at newsstands. In public squares and shopping malls, children and adults alike engage in feverish trading of stickers of all the players in the tournament, and many collectors resort to the “black market” to get their favorites. (The special team badges “shiny” stickers are the most desired.) Beyond buying and swapping stickers, it is also possible to win them in traditional matches of bafo, in which a player has to slap a stack of stickers turned face down, and if he manages to turn over one or more of them, he can claim those and add them to his cache. It takes a lot of wrist training to master the technique and one can easily lose one’s entire hand to a dexterous eight-year-old.

In 2014, thieves stole 300,000 stickers in a dramatic heist of a Panini delivery truck in Rio de Janeiro. Four years before that, five burglars broke into a Santo André distribution center, held up a security guard, and plundered 135,000 stickers. Today, the whole operation runs with escorts of private security guards and federal highway police. That’s how seriously we take the World Cup.

All this quadrennial euphoria, amusing as it is, leaves little time for people to concentrate on other issues, such as the huge recent FIFA corruption scandals, or the fact that hosting the championship is bound to be an economic and social failure for the host nation’s population, especially in countries with struggling economies like Russia and Brazil. Brazil, in particular, has barely begun to recover from the burdens of hosting both the 2014 FIFA World Cup and the 2016 Summer Olympics—and here we are again, painting our nails in yellow and green to show our support for the mythological heroes of the national team.

Brazil is currently immersed in a huge economic and political crisis, to the extent that nobody knows for sure if the scheduled presidential elections will even take place this year. The clear frontrunner in opinion polls, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, the former president and legendary labor leader, was recently convicted on a graft charge, and in second place is a far-right politician, a former military officer with a long history of making derogatory remarks about women, blacks, and homosexuals. For months now, there has been speculation about the looming threat of a military coup. The incumbent president, Michel Temer, who took over the post after a controversial process of impeachment against a democratically-elected head of state, has an approval rating of 3 percent—lower, almost, than the poll’s margin of error.

Approaching the start of the tournament, Brazil’s media outlets have been more and more dominated by sports news. Suddenly, the new hot topics are the World Cup Muse, a supposedly clairvoyant cat with a talent for predicting game outcomes, and a fanatic who covered his VW beetle with 15,000 soccer stickers. We also get endless talk shows about everything from the Brazilian goalkeeper’s hairdresser to the probable starting lineup (composed almost entirely of Europe-based players).

For the first time in years, people are confident about the squad. Commentators love Brazil’s coach, Tite, as well as the team’s biggest star, Neymar. Besides our other world-class players, we can always count on the blessed presence of Jesus—the forward Gabriel Jesus. There is a growing sense of the possibility of redemption by avenging that 7-1 home defeat against Germany in the semifinals of the last World Cup.

But most of the sports coverage provides an illusion of living in an extraterrestrial bubble (even when the World Cup was on our own turf). Criticizing the event in any way is treated as incomprehensible or heretical, or even as tantamount to rooting against the national interest. That’s how Brazilians carry on, with a totally dissociative attitude that isolates sports and politics, as if the only option in the circumstances were to be “pro” or “con” soccer itself.

So far, the run-up to this World Cup has strayed little from the usual. That’s why, whether Brazil succeeds or fails in Russia, the outcome will be equally permeated with an old bittersweet flavor: the feeling that we are second-class citizens of the world trying to look the other way, in the hope that the euphoria of the next four weeks might extend to months or years, maybe a whole lifetime.

“I want to live in a World Cup,” my brother said a while ago. That’s the spirit.