The idea was irresistible: the grandest soccer tournament in the world, hosted by the nation where “futebol is not only a sport, but a passion, a national passion.”
With these words, Lula accepted the 2014 World Cup on behalf of Brazil. For once, the loquacious president was restrained. Ask Brazilians about soccer and you usually get breathless hyperbole. Other countries united around wars, raised their flag for myriad championships, annual independence parades, elections. Brazil waved its flag once every four years for the Seleção, the national team. The eleven men in canary-yellow jerseys were “the nation in cleats,” in the words of Nelson Rodrigues, one of Brazil’s best-known writers; their games were celebrated or mourned in great cathartic outpourings.
Soccer alone provided this continent-sized nation with a shared ritual and a common narrative. Over decades, this connection to the sport had become mythical; if culture is the stories we tell about ourselves, Brazil’s story was spun around the ball.
There was that style, the futebol arte, a playful dance with the ball that was seen as quintessentially Brazilian, born of the racial and cultural gumbo of our origins. More than an approach to the game, it was held up as a representation of who we were and how we lived. Brazilians saw themselves as a people who fought harsh conditions not with bloody insurrections but with their wits, their irreverence, and the now-you-see-it, now-you-don’t dribble of the street-smart hustler. There was a pinch of this jeitinho in the way they played the game, there was jogo de cintura, rhythm, spontaneity. Futebol arte was held in contrast to stereotypical European style: organized, professional, disciplined—in other words, stiff, planned, boring.
This way of playing took as much glee in showmanship, in leaving the opponent flummoxed and the audience delighted, as in driving the ball to the net. But it was also very effective. Between the 1950s and the 1970s, this style coalesced into three World Cup trophies in four tournaments. The 1970 World Cup was played during the worst years of the dictatorship. The national team won six of six matches, showing Brazilians that art could triumph even amid brutality, ignorance, and fear.
All told, Brazil had five World Cup trophies, more than any other nation. Soccer was a reliable mirror that always showed the nation at its best. This made it beloved during the long years in which we had little else on which to stake our national pride.
It also won Brazil much acclaim abroad. When the World Cup rolled around, the Seleção was nearly every country’s favorite after their own national team. This fondness came through for me more times than I can count, earning me instant favor with a near-deaf cobbler in a small Greek town, a free lunch from an Algerian bourek-maker squinting over a deep fryer, an appreciative nod from a cantankerous parking lot attendant in a Rome. What would start as a stilted, wordless transaction between two people who shared nothing would tilt once I pointed to myself and said, “Brazil!” Along a broad swath of the globe, this would spark a smile and the inevitable response: “Pelé! Pelé!”
It was in this light that Lula welcomed the chance to host the World Cup. The appeal was obvious; why not harness all this goodwill to a broader political project?
Brazil’s Cup would have two burdens. The first was to show off recent progress, prove the country could manage the logistics of a major international event, and assert the nation’s position internationally. The second was pure soccer: to reaffirm Brazil’s primacy on the pitch and heal an old wound.
Two thousand fourteen would not be the first time Brazil hosted the championship. It had happened once before, in 1950. With Europe in tatters after World War II, FIFA had looked to South America. The war had been good for Brazil; industry and agriculture had prospered, and the country had assumed a leading political and economic role in the continent. For the young democracy trying to carve a global position for itself in the first years of the Cold War, the Cup would be a chance to spread a modern, progressive image. The sporting infrastructure would reflect Brazil’s engineering and technological capacities, and Brazil’s prowess with the ball would further its nation-building project.
This kind of dramaturgy deserved a stage to match, a stadium that was grand and contemporary, a refection of the country’s might and the promise of its future. There was fierce resistance to such extravagance from a segment that wanted schools and hospitals instead, but after much debate in the media and at city hall, the municipal government approved the stadium’s construction. It would be the largest arena on the globe, and it would sit on the geographic heart of Rio like a giant buckle, connecting the wealthy south and the working-class north.
Raising the stadium for that first Brazilian World Cup became a patriotic affair; construction funds were complemented by thirty thousand families in exchange for rights to a seat for a few years or in perpetuity. It was officially named Estádio Municipal, and later, Estádio Jornalista Mário Filho, after one of its most vocal advocates, but Cariocas nicknamed it Maracanã after the river that flowed nearby. That’s the name that stuck.
The project was beset by problems and delays. Even on the day of the final World Cup match, July 16, 1950, the public had to step around exposed rebar to find their seats. No matter. Even unfinished, the Maracanã was elegant and powerful, a double-tiered colossus in white concrete, and a fitting crown for the nation’s certain victory.
Brazilians expected nothing short of glory. The country entered the 1950 World Cup a strong favorite, and reached the finals with the makings of a champion. After a 2–2 stumble against Switzerland, they’d trounced Sweden and Spain. This left only Uruguay—tiny Uruguay. The Seleção had a one-point advantage. Under the rules of the time, they only needed a draw in that last game to win the Cup.
Before the match, Rio’s mayor addressed the team through the state-of-the-art public address system.
“You who will be consecrated within a few minutes as champions of the world, you who have no rivals on the planet, you who I already greet as winners . . .”
Brazil stopped to listen. The stadium could hold 170,000, but that day around 200,000 packed its stands, nearly 10 percent of Rio’s population at the time. Among them were perhaps three hundred Uruguayan fans. Thousands of Cariocas encircled the arena to listen and be close to the action; millions listened on their radios at home.
“. . . I have been true to my word and have built this stadium,” the mayor concluded. “Now fulfill your duty and win the World Cup.”
The moment was seared into the memory of twelve-year-old Léo Rabello. He had followed every turn of the 1950 championship. When we met, sixty-four years later, he could still recite the names of players, scores, and the tense moments in each game.
His father, a military man, had been among those who’d done his duty and bought a permanent seat in the stadium. The exhilaration of the twelve-year-old soccer fanatic still rang in his voice decades later. Léo remembered the day of that final match in detail.
He took the tram with his parents and joined the throngs flowing into the Maracanã. The stands were packed; they found their seats. The mayor spoke. Anticipation clenched his throat. Léo, his parents, the team, all of Brazil hung breathless, together, waiting for the shrill sound of the referee’s whistle.
The game started. Over the next forty-five minutes, the public had to swallow a tight, scoreless match. The tension rose; Brazil could win with a tie, but it was too close for comfort. Two minutes into the second half, Brazil scored: 1–0.
A collective exhalation rose from the crowd, then an explosion of fireworks.
“We felt like everything was resolved,” Léo said. “It was a sense of total bliss.”
The second half ticked by, each passing minute bringing Brazil closer to victory. In the sixtieth minute, Uruguay scored. It was 1–1. This shook Brazilian confidence, but the end was near. Brazil just had to keep the game tied. As the score held and the minutes flew, FIFA’s president, Jules Rimet, left to oversee Brazil’s victory commemoration. When he returned five minutes later, he was met by a morbid silence. Uruguay had scored. Again.
“It was as if the world had ended,” said Léo. “No funeral wake has that silence, the silence of two hundred thousand people.”
It is still possible to read the shock of the moment and watch it crumple into sorrow on thousands of faces captured on the grainy, black-and-white footage of the time. Brazilians of all backgrounds, gathered as one, gave themselves over to grief. Perfectly coiffed women in strings of pearls turned aside, trying modestly to hide their tears; working men in shirtsleeves raised thick-knuckled hands to their faces, eyes brimming over, or let sinewy arms hang, useless. Léo saw his father cry for the first time.
That day, Brazil lost much more than a game. Because of the buildup and the ties to national identity, the defeat was a blow to the core, a public deflation of the country’s pride and its aspirations. It cast doubt on our worth as a people and as a nation.
The Seleção cast aside the white jerseys in which they had played that day; they’d never wear them again. The press, which had praised Brazil’s mixed-race team and their unique style as a reflection of our best selves, now turned the myth inside out, singling out the black players, and particularly the goalie, as scapegoats for the disaster. Brazil wouldn’t have another black goalkeeper for forty-five years.
“It was irreversible, that loss. We never recovered,” said Léo. “Brazil might have won other times, in other places, but that loss was a wound that wouldn’t heal.”
He should know. Léo dedicated his life to soccer and made it his career. After rising through the administrative ranks to the top of his own his club, Flamengo, he recognized the market potential of Brazil’s great players. These were men who could be geniuses on the field but often knew next to nothing about negotiating contracts and building a brand. Léo became FIFA’s first licensed agent; his registration number is 001. Over the years, he shepherded generations of footballers from club to club in Brazil and around the world, and watched as the game he loved was profoundly transformed.
Players who were once locally grown and locally loved became global commodities; the sport moved billions of dollars. The Maracanã also suffered profound changes. Over time, it lost its democratic essence as a series of reforms wiped out the cheap standing-only section, installed VIP boxes, and destroyed all of the internal architecture. Its open, concrete bleachers were swapped for numbered chairs in molded plastic that held just over 78,000 fans, nearly 100,000 fewer than the original Maracanã.
The game and the stadium were much changed by 2014, but the symbolic weight of a World Cup in Brazil was still there. If anything, the burden on the Seleção was heavier. Sixty-four years after that traumatic loss, futebol was being called on, once again, to elevate Brazil on the field and beyond it. The final game of the 2014 Cup would be in the Maracanã. Brazil would finally have a chance to repair that old injury with a victory in what was still one of the sport’s most hallowed grounds.
No one, not the FIFA officials who handed the World Cup to Brazil, nor Lula, who accepted it, had thought the path to 2014 would be smooth. But the ride had been more harrowing than anyone anticipated, and from its start, the year of the Cup—the year that should have been all glee and giddy high hopes in the country of futebol—felt strained, dangerous.
A stagnant heat hunkered over the city in the first months of 2014, blocking the cool southern breezes and withering any clouds. The sun, relentless as a curse, baked the streets, strained the energy grid, and torched the vegetation. It was the hottest summer in half a century. There was no relief: the ocean’s surface felt like a warm shower. A five-hundred-mile-wide mass of dead algae hovered just off the coast like a bad omen.
The stifling temperature left Cariocas on edge, and barbed everyday exchanges with impatience. But it wasn’t just the weather. Aspects of life in Rio that had seen real improvement or that had offered well-founded reasons for hope just a handful of years ago—the economy, the environment, the feeling of safety when walking down the street at night—had recently suffered reversals or ended in failure. There was a sense of expectations pushed too far. What had been the punch line to a joke—imagina na Copa!—became a sarcastic mantra. Imagine during the Cup. What if Brazil fell apart as the world watched?
After years of sluggish growth, the economy was showing signs of real stress. The federal government’s efforts to control the cost of living by artificially capping fuel and electricity prices were revealing themselves for what they were: gambiarras, makeshift solutions designed to get the country to the October presidential elections, leaving costs and consequences for later.
Petrobras, the state-controlled oil company, predicted it would have to spend $18.8 billion in 2014 to keep the country running on subsidized fuel. The electric sector stayed afloat with a $5.4 billion government-engineered loan, but this would have to be paid back through substantial rate increases in the years to come.
None of these mechanisms kept inflation from punching through the projected ceiling. Economists forecast another year of very low growth and floated ugly words like “recession.”
Brazilians felt this as prices spiked in places that hurt: education, food, transportation, and housing led the list. As consumer debt hit record highs, banks raised interest rates, squeezing the new middle class. Each uptick pushed families closer to missing payments on their kid’s braces, their teenager’s English classes, the parents’ new Volkswagen.
Even the traditional Carioca options for blowing off steam, soccer and the beach, were soaring out of reach. The frst game I attended in the refurbished Maracanã set me back $30 for the cheapest ticket, about one-tenth of a month’s minimum wage salary. A coconut from the beach vendor’s cooler cost $3; a fashionable bikini went for a stratospheric $200. Even the bus fares had inched up once the protests of 2013 were a safe distance away.
Any careful observer picking up the newspaper could see the escalation of government spending, the lackluster stock market, and the unfavorable trade balance. By the end of summer, Standard & Poor’s had cut Brazil’s standing to its lowest investment-grade rating. No one was surprised.
Rio embodied this sense that Brazil’s moment might be passing before it arrived. The city had been in dire need of investment for decades. Cariocas had high hopes that the international events that started with the Pan-American Games would bring measures to curb chronic congestion, pollution, and violence.
But they were learning, at great cost, that massive sporting events have short-term objectives and tight deadlines that do not mesh well with long-term city planning goals. In Rio, contracts bound resources to the needs of external organizations, creating a permanent state of exception that left no room or time for debate, consideration of broader needs, or the reform of flawed institutions. On the contrary, these pressures reinforced the existing hierarchies; the rush to kickoff or the torch lighting justified the further concentration of power and shortened decision-making processes.
Over four years, I’d seen this at work in the removal of favelas without due process; in the scrapped environmental reviews; in social cleansing policies that targeted street vendors, prostitutes, drug users, and the homeless; and in the further arming of a police force still lacking accountability. Gentrification worsened an already serious housing crisis even as favela-upgrading programs like Morar Carioca were cut off at the root.
With a couple of months to go before the World Cup and two years until the Olympics, many of the projects that were put in place were proving insufficient or poorly planned, with budget overruns, lapsed schedules, and unforeseen social or environmental costs.
Take transportation. Improved mobility was billed as an important legacy of hosting these sporting events, but one of the first projects to fall by the wayside was the bullet train between Rio and São Paulo. Only half of the transit projects in the twelve World Cup host cities were delivered in time. Of those, one-third were incomplete. Many were abandoned, which critics pointed out was not all bad, as they had been terrible ideas from the start.
The undersupply of mass transit, the myriad construction projects, and the continued federal tax incentives for buying cars had tipped Rio’s infamous traffic from frustrating to unbearable. To Cariocas, this meant time wasted and extra gas that cost drivers more than $13 billion in 2013 alone, according to Rio de Janeiro Federation of Industries, FIRJAN. No wonder motorists leaned on their horns, blasting out their anger.
The environment continued to suffer as more users were introduced to already overtaxed systems. Manhole covers exploded because of underground gas leaks; massive water mains ruptured, destroying homes and drowning residents; the sight of backed-up sewage pipes burbling in the gutters of my neighborhood no longer surprised me.
The push to clean up waterways was so behind schedule as to be practically abandoned by that summer. The promise had been to treat 80 percent of the sewage going into lakes and the bay, but Guanabara was still a toilet, while the state government acknowledged that less than 15 percent of the promised $4 billion needed to complete the sewage treatment plan was available.
Garbage was on everyone’s mind—and nose—that summer. Rio’s trash collectors went on strike during Carnaval, demanding a raise to their $360 a month salary. Mountains of refuse left to rot in the sun exacerbated the usual city-wide hangover and left entire neighborhoods gagging.
In the midst of the strike, the mayor was caught on camera tossing half-munched fruit over his shoulder during a political event. The message was clear: even the poster boy for the city’s anti-littering campaign had failed to change his habits.
The scent wafting off the bay, the garbage bags rippling with flies, the rising prices, and the heat, the unrelenting heat—all this left Cariocas chafing. But perhaps the deepest disappointment concerned security. By the summer of 2014, several cases of explicit police violence had raised questions about the possibility of improving one of the state’s most corrupt institutions.
After he took over as head of state security, Beltrame had pushed through reforms to make the police force more professional, more accountable, and less violent. By 2010, Rio’s streets were safer than they had been in years. Crime had decreased, but perhaps just as important was the belief that improvement was possible. The experiment with Pacification Police Units within favelas left 74 percent of Rio residents feeling safer, according to a 2012 survey. This sense of safety, both real and perceived, was riddled with caveats: it was frail and it was unequal, hovering protectively over some people and some neighborhoods, eluding others. Still, it heightened expectations and fed demands even among those whom it did not reach.
These changes had started with real promise. In early 2011, during the months that followed the takeover of the Alemão complex, law enforcement faced some of its most glaring failings as investigations revealed corruption, murder, and cover-ups among rank and file as well as leadership.
The police chief, Mário Sérgio Duarte, had promised zero tolerance for the lawlessness that he called “a plague” within the force. During his tenure, he’d pushed out dozens of dirty offcers, including heads of UPP units. Still, evidence of gruesome crimes by police continued to surface, and pressure mounted on the commander. He managed it all—until August 2011, when events took a turn straight out of mafia playbooks.
A state judge known for being tough on rogue police was shot twenty-one times with police-issued bullets in front of her house. Judge Patricia Acioli’s murder was seen as a warning to the entire legal establishment. Eleven officers from the town of São Gonçalo were arrested and charged in her death. Among them was Cláudio de Oliveira, then in his frst position of authority as chief of São Gonçalo’s police battalion. His old friend from BOPE training days, Mário Sérgio, had nominated him for the job.
Police refer to purges among their ranks as “cutting our own flesh.” Mário Sérgio had often taken that knife to others during his tenure. When he was faced with accusations against his friend and appointee, he turned the knife on himself. As chief of state police, all nominations were his responsibility. He took the blame and resigned. All eleven police offcers were found guilty in the judge’s murder, including the head of the battalion, Cláudio de Oliveira. As the summer of 2014 wound down, the men were sentenced to up to thirty-six years in prison.
Cariocas had last seen their police chief at the top of his game, addressing his troops from a caveirão and claiming victory on TV over the adversary in the hills. Now they watched the man brought down by the police corps’ biggest challenge—the enemy within, the banda podre.
The case buried Mário Sérgio’s career. The ambitious cop’s cop took a job in the interior and spent his free time writing or helping his wife with their twins. With his chiseled features, ramrod sense of right and wrong, and unwavering loyalty to a fallen friend, he embodied the schizophrenic currents that coursed within state’s police. Rio’s criminals and cops were intimately twined, and the effort of pulling them apart could fray the fabric of the force to the highest levels; it could destroy even the most dedicated individuals.
The trust of Cariocas in the UPP program was also suffering under mounting evidence of dishonesty and brutality. One case came to represent its failures: the disappearance of a construction worker named Amarildo de Souza within the Rocinha favela. After an investigation, twenty-fve UPP offcers were indicted as suspects in his kidnapping, his torture within their base, and his murder. By the summer of 2014, the state government issued a statement officially presuming him dead. The announcement would have to suffce for Amarildo’s wife and seven children. They never got a body to bury.
In the face of the police force’s weakened credibility, gangsters staged coordinated attacks against UPP bases across Rio that summer; shoot-outs shut down the city’s main tunnel and left half a dozen pacification officers dead, four of them in Alemão.
That sprawling community was once again representative of the troubles afflicting the city as a whole. Shock troops reinforced strategic points; residents suffered searches and restrictions on their movement. Gun battles canceled classes for thousands of children and forced shut for days the gondola service that the president had inaugurated with pomp. Alemão’s community health center was attacked, its computers and equipment destroyed. Doctors quit.
Its borders, which had grown porous to outsiders like myself, began to close down again. Walking through the alleys I felt that familiar reluctance of ordinary people to speak openly to a stranger. The attacks against the police, the uncertainty over who was the dono do morro, left locals feeling exposed.
“I was one of the people who stood here and waved a white banner out the window when the police first came,” said one man, the owner of a hole-in-the-wall paper goods store. He shook his head, as if chiding himself for the naïveté of a few years ago. “Now, how can we trust them, if they can’t even defend themselves?”
If anyone gained from the experiment, it was Diego, the Red Command trafficker who had turned himself in to face justice. Ever the hustler, he remade himself even as the police chief who had orchestrated his rendition went down and the favela that was once his home slid into chaos.
The murder charge against him hadn’t stuck; after a year in prison he walked free. He found a niche as a cameraman for a nonproft that worked rehabbing former traffickers and had discovered a talent for American football, which was growing in popularity. The young man who couldn’t leave Alemão for fear of arrest or death at the hands of police now traveled the country as a middle linebacker with the Botafogo Mamutes.
His mother, Dona Nilza, still worried. Mothers will. Diego earned very little compared to his days as Mr. M; she wondered if he wouldn’t tire of life on the straight and narrow. There was also the violence ripping through Alemão again. Would it reach her son, through a quest for revenge or sheer envy? Even as she continued to run the van service and cook for the drivers, she kept a close eye on her Diego. She had nine other children, she said, but this one needed her most.
Beyond Alemão, murders, street theft, and robberies in public transportation were up. Cariocas were back to swapping horror stories during lunch breaks and Sunday barbecues. Street urchins in ragged shorts and flip-flops roamed in clusters again, new incarnations of that kid who’d once stuck a piece of broken glass against my ribs, holding me up for pocket change. There were many of these children, a little younger, a little older, mostly boys, sometimes girls, all hard-eyed, bony, and tough. Caring little for their own lives, they moved with a fearlessness that was heart-wrenching and chilling at once. I watched them hopscotch through eight lanes of rapid-fire traffc with a maniacal grin to reach a promising target, and knock over a cyclist to steal his ride. Petty theft in my neighborhood went up more than 60 percent in a year.
Tension coursed like an electrical current under the rush and heave of the urban fabric. When it exploded, the damage was far uglier than anyone had anticipated. Rio was once the sort of place where armed, off-duty offcers killed homeless kids. The most stunning instance happened in 1993, when cops took potshots at the sixty or so kids sleeping in front of the Candelária Cathedral downtown, killing eight before they scrambled. The outlines of the children’s bodies were spray-painted onto the sidewalk, creating a sort of anti-postcard of Rio, a portrait of the times: in the background, the soaring sanctuary, a symbol of our aspirations; in the foreground, a reminder of our worst sins.
When I returned to Rio, my bundle of expectations included the hope that cowardice of this sort was a thing of the past. The summer of 2014 brought it back, only this time it wasn’t police. Cariocas began to catch kids suspected of street theft, or in one case, stealing food from a supermarket, and administer their own version of justice.
This particular strain of cruelty intersected with my daily routine on the last night of January. It came in the form of a young black man, a teenager still, who was beaten, stripped naked, and bound to a street sign.
Neighbors saw him, his fingers gripped around the arc of the bike U-lock that pulled his throat against the metal post. Someone called Yvonne de Mello. She lived around the block and worked with traumatized kids. She’d been a first responder to the Candelária massacre. More than two decades later, she was the one who sat with the young man and called the fire department for help.
While they waited, he told her he was seventeen and came from the state of Maranhão, where the northeastern coast approaches the equator. The firemen had to use a blowtorch to get the lock off. The teenager was taken to a hospital for treatment, but escaped overnight, as if knowing what would come.
In just over twenty-four hours, a photo of the seventeen-year-old and details of the case had circulated widely through newspapers and social media platforms. As they spread, Yvonne began to get death threats. Neighborhood watchdog sites and online forums overflowed with comments, some calling for calm and others praising the vigilantes, inciting more violence.
“Wake up you idiots . . . people in Flamengo know he’s a THIEF who robs elderly ladies and women every day. What they did wasn’t enough, they needed alcohol and a lighter to ‘sterilize’ the delinquent,” wrote one man.
“Too bad I didn’t pass by with my Pit-bull to let him play a little. Bandido bom é bandido morto,” wrote another.
This happened at the end of my block, a pretty residential stretch shaded by tall trees draped with orchids and bromeliads. This was the corner where I paused every morning, waiting for a break in traffic so I could dash into the park for a run. It was where I’d catch my frst glimpse of the Sugarloaf’s craggy face.
After that January, that spot on the sidewalk would be a daily reminder that among my neighbors were those who’d slip a U-lock around the skinny neck of a teenager and leave him exposed and bleeding on a public street. These were the same men who stood next to me in the supermarket line, chatting about prices and the weather, who jogged by me, nodding their good mornings.
This was Rio de Janeiro in early 2014.
Excerpted from "DANCING WITH THE DEVIL IN THE CITY OF GOD: RIO DE JANEIRO ON THE BRINK" by Juliana Barbassa. Copyright © 2015 by Juliana Barbassa. Preprinted with permission from Touchstone, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.