Matthew Niederhauser is reporting from Brazil with support from the Pulitzer Center.
I visited ten host cities in Brazil during the group stage of the World Cup these past two weeks, but there was one that slipped by me in particular (I am saving Rio de Janeiro for the finals). Due to conflicting match schedules and lack of flights, I couldn't make it to Cuiabá when there was a game at the Arena Pantanal, another newly built stadium with an exorbitant price tag and no apparent future use. Since it was becoming clear that most Brazilians do not engage too heavily when other nations play anyway, I decided to head to Cuiabá for Brazil's first match in the knockout stage against Chile. It was the most crucial game of the tournament for the host country thus far, and the perfect opportunity to see what was happening on the southern edge of the Amazon.
Cuiabá is a bit of a backwater like Manaus, except with only a quarter of the population. It saw a cycle of booms and busts after its foundation during a gold rush in 1719, but ever since modern transportation infrastructure arrived in the 1930s, Cuiabá has steadily grown into a busy little urban sprawl. It's still a very quiet place, though, and largely known as an agricultural center. Most of the advertisements are for tractors when arriving at the airport. During the first half of the Brazil verse Chile match, I was hard put to find large groups of congregated fans. I ran into a lonely television sitting in a tree next to a taxi stand, a few bars at half capacity, small house parties with residents sitting on their stoops, but mainly a bunch of empty streets. It turns out most of the city headed to the FIFA Fan Fest in a park on the banks of the Cuiabá River. The second half of the match just started when I arrived, and it quickly turned into a gut-wrenching but ultimately jubilant afternoon.
I'm still on the fence about the FIFA Fan Fest setup. They can provide an exhilarating way to watch a World Cup match, especially when surrounded by thousands of other screaming fans, but there is no avoiding their corporate cesspool nature. Even though the entrance is free, people are subjected to nonstop advertisements, branded handouts, and confined product choices (mainly Budweiser and Coca Cola ingestion). Moreover, FIFA makes a killing off the advertising revenue and pockets all the cash thanks to tax breaks given by the Brazilian federal government. The entire situation is quite nefarious, especially considering the lack of quality social services provided in many of the host cities. All of that was forgotten in the midst of the drama occurring in the Brazil verse Chile match, though. People were losing their minds as Brazil were unable to score a winning goal. After more drama in extra time, it was on to penalty kicks.
Penalty kicks result from a desperate situation in the beautiful game. Players can't be expected to continue running the field after a two-hour intensive performance. Instead they are reduced to taking turns trying to slam a ball past the goalie from twelve yards out. It sounds simple, but actually turns into a nail-biting mind game for everyone involved. The situation could not be more tense as Brazil stood a very real chance of getting eliminated from the tournament. The large crowd in the FIFA Fan Fest went wild with every Brazilian goal and groaned in desperation with every miss. By the end I could barely watch and turned to face the crowd with my camera instead. Then, when Gonzalo Jara hit the post on the final penalty kick for Chile, the crowd went truly berserk. I felt so emotionally ravaged by the whole experience I started tearing up. I was engaging in a communal religious experience, and overtime penalty kicks are the greatest of trials for the faithful.
After having a beer to calm my nerves, I made a pilgrimage to the Arena Pantanal which now stood empty in a quiet suburban neighborhood. The $295 million structure, like all the "white elephants" scattered about Brazil, looked impressive. It was unfortunate that the mass of screaming fans I just witnessed would probably never show up in the same numbers to see the local soccer club play in their new 41,000-seat home. It remains extremely hard to justify the process that led the federal government to prepare stadiums for twelve host cities rather than sticking to the usual eight. The decision was supposed to spread the economic benefits of the World Cup, instead it mainly profited corrupt construction firms and corporate ventures with political ties. Structures like the Arena Pantanal took money away from public coffers when cash was desperately needed elsewhere. But the time for argument continues to be put on hold while Brazil advances in the tournament. After the victory, locals took to the streets in their cars and motorcycles, honking and parading around town. It was time to celebrate, and the last thing anybody wanted to talk about was how they got there in the first place.