Matthew Niederhauser is reporting from Brazil with support from the Pulitzer Center.
My flight into Fortaleza was awash in gold. Brazilian jerseys took up entire rows of the airplane. Despite their solidarity in numbers, I also sensed tension amongst those heading to watch the Brazil match against Mexico. They were talking in hushed tones and gripping armrests. It was not from fear of flying. Mexico won their first game against Cameroon. If Brazil now beat Mexico, it would guarantee a ride into the knockout stages of the World Cup. There was much at stake, aside from the normal handwringing about the performance of the Brazilian team. When we arrived in the airport, their tension quickly broke against the exuberant Mexican fans, who were also flocking to Fortaleza to see their team. Chanting erupted in the baggage claim area from both sides. It was a big match, and the excitement drove everyone toward the Estadio Castelao. Everything was set for a showdown.
After checking my luggage into storage, I hopped a bus directly to the stadium, an imposing structure where Brazil defeated Mexico a year ago during the Confederations Cup. There was already a precedent for a Brazilian victory, but Mexican fans were there with a completely different set of expectations. Tens of thousands of them descended on the coastal city to support El Tricolor. Rumors abounded that some mortgaged their homes and sold their cars in order to make the trip. Mexican flags waved, sombreros were handed out, wrestling masks were donned. The Brazilian fans were also clad from head to toe in their national colors, but with nowhere near the same elaborate flair. Nothing could compare to the Mexican fans in Aztec regalia happily chugging beers.
I eventually emerged from the pre-game frenzy and hit the streets surrounding the turreted Estadio Castelao. Located far from the highrises overlooking the ocean in downtown Fortaleza, these residents instead reveled in prime views of the stadium towering over their humble neighborhood, another temple to the futebol gods. Now the Brazilian team was in the spotlight on their doorsteps, and even if they couldn't afford a ticket, they could still set up televisions in the street and watch the game with the stadium as a backdrop. Unbeknownst to me there were also small protests occurring nearby. Other locals were expressing their frustration over the lack of compensation provided to those forcefully evicted from homes to build World Cup infrastructure. Their voices were drowned out by the cheering fans, though. No one in Brazil is likely to pay much heed to protests until the World Cup is over, or if the Brazilian team makes an early exit.
After sharing in some BBQ and a few cold beers around the stadium, I headed to Fortaleza's famous urban beachfront. A massive FIFA Fan Fest was set out along the shore. Once again it was fenced in for corporate sponsors and overpriced merchandise, but it did provide a place for locals to gather en masse and get a sense of what it would feels like in a stadium surrounded by thousands of other fans. The tension I felt earlier on the airplane reached new heights during the first half. Brazil was unable to score against Mexico despite many excellent opportunities. People were starting to pull at their hair and howl desperately in the air.
During halftime I discovered that local vendors set up their own large screen in the street adjacent to the FIFA Fan Fest. Taking matters into their own hands, they had put together a mini fan fest so that viewers could enjoy the game and consume their own snacks and beverages. The resolution of the screen might not have been as great, but the setup actually benefitted the local economy rather than the FIFA coffers. Here I watched the crowd slowly descend into madness during the second half as Brazil missed opportunity after opportunity to take the lead. Mexico also sent some heart palpitations through the crowd with their own chances on net. Despite the drama, it ended in a tie. It was a disappointment in many ways, but the prospects were still high for Brazil advancing into the knockout stages. The agonized looks of the crowd quickly melted into revelry as people headed out to dance the night away along the beach. So it goes in Brazil.