This package was broadcast on July 13 by RTÉ Radio 1 (Ireland) on World Report.
June 12 – the World Cup opening game.
Days of subway strikes in Sao Paulo had paralyzed the city: Its problematic transport system was facing fresh strain and images of chaos dominated the news. Street protests against the Cup were small yet persistent. Nobody knew if they would gain momentum or fade due to police cracking down.
A week before that first match between Brazil and Croatia, I visited the new Arena Corinthians. There were few signs the stadium would be ready on time – a gloomy reflection of widely held views that hosting the World Cup was a logistical nightmare waiting to happen.
Workers sweated in the afternoon heat as officials tried to convince a crowd of journalists that everything was under control.
The Arena is a curious boxy structure that defies the smooth curves of other stadia. On a hill just a few kilometers away, thousands of people were occupying land in protest against spiraling rent near the new venue, sleeping in ramshackle plastic tents and eating in communal kitchens.
“I love the game, but I don’t like the event,” Rafael Santana told me. He scored the first goal in the People’s Cup – a parallel competition held by displaced groups as a demonstration against FIFA and the Brazilian government.
Later, I watched Brazil face Croatia in the backyard of a small bar near the occupation, with several of its residents. After 11 minutes, the home team fell behind to a disastrous own goal – before eventually coming back for a nerve-jangling 3-1 win.
People cried, hugged, kissed the fuzzy television, doused each other in water and offered thanks to heavenly forces. Somehow, it felt like months of boiling tension had instantly been swept away by a wave of manic relief.
Such a scrappy victory seemed like a potent metaphor about the World Cup itself: It wasn’t a smooth operation, but Brazil got the job done.
I was also struck by a deep contradiction, shooting photos while occupants of the tent city appeared to forget their problems in a euphoric daze.
The same people who had passionately spoken against FIFA during interviews were overpowered by emotion generated by the same World Cup that deprived them of a home.
And the People’s Cup wasn’t the only protest happening that day.
Before the match started, doves of peace were released on the pitch by three children – one white, one black and one indigenous. It was an action designed to showcase Brazil as a harmonious multiethnic society.
But the indigenous boy, 13-year-old Wera Jeguaka Mirim, had other ideas.
As the birds flew into the sky, he pulled a red banner from his shorts and lifted it for all to see. Its message: “Demarcaciao Ja!”
Wera is from the Guarani people, who have fought with authorities over land rights for many generations.
TV cameras instantly cut away from his courageous act, which passed largely unnoticed by global media.
Nonetheless, images spread rapidly on social networks.
“The indigenous population is growing and we need more space,” said Wera’s father, Olivio. “It’s getting difficult to survive – we don’t live in huge apartment buildings like people in the city,” he explained.
Nearly one month after that brave protest, I watched Brazil take on Germany in the semi-finals with Wera and Olivio. The family lives in a Guarani community outside Sao Paulo, surrounded by nature.
They puffed on long pipes in their wooden hut as the match began in a similar catastrophic manner to the opening clash. Brazil conceded after 10 minutes and this time there would be no comeback: Germany triumphed by a staggering seven goals to one.
That record-breaking defeat will almost certainly haunt Brazilians as the most abiding memory of a World Cup where the country hoped success on the field would make up for a mountain of organizational difficulties.
Brazil was desperate to show the world they could pull it off.
Perhaps, with time, a more positive legacy will emerge, and the Cup of 2014 will be remembered as a turning point for the country’s transformation into a true global power.
The 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro are still to come, but I feel a sense that despite the national team’s woeful exit, Brazil has passed an important test.
For World Report, this is Frederick Bernas in Sao Paulo.