Michael Palin: The World Cup shows the yawning gap between Brazil’s very rich and very poor

Brazilians are football-crazy and know how to win, says Michael Palin – but is that enough to unite a fractured nation?

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Whatever happens to the England team in the World Cup, we in Britain can claim to have a very special relationship with Brazilian football. We started it. Around 1900, Charles Miller, son of a Scots engineer who was building railways in the country, brought some footballs over with him and Fluminense, the oldest club in Brazil, was born. The date was 1902 and the man who took Miller’s footballs and produced a club was a rich Anglo-Brazilian by the name of Oscar Cox.

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The first international played by a Brazilian side was in 1914 against Exeter City, who were, for some reason, touring Brazil at the time. Brazil beat Exeter 2-0. A month later, the First World War broke out. Rarely can a sport and a country have taken to each other so well.

In 1950, Brazil was accorded the supreme honour of hosting the World Cup. As expected, their team stood on the edge of victory in the purpose-built Maracana stadium, in front of a crowd of 199,854. But everything went wrong. Brazil scored first, but Uruguay went on to win 2-1. According to Alex Bellos in his book Futebol, the scorer of Uruguay’s winning goal claimed later that he was one of only three people who’d ever silenced the Maracana: “Frank Sinatra, Pope John Paul II and me.”

This year Brazil is hosting its second World Cup. And the final will be played once again at the Maracana stadium. The most significant difference is that, although the stadium has been expensively refurbished, there’ll only be room inside for 78,000 people.

There will be bars and restaurants and VIP areas and lifts and lots of toilets, all of which will make it a much more comfortable spectator experience than the one in which a stunned nation watched the Uruguayans snatch the World Cup from their grasp on, but the pay-off is higher prices and reduced capacity.

It’s also an image of the contradictions in Brazil as the World Cup approaches, and an indicator of why a football-mad nation that’s won the World Cup five times has been taking to the streets to protest against the expense of this ultimate celebration of the Beautiful Game. They are, of course, not protesting against the game itself, which is played wherever a ball can be kicked, but against a Cup that has come, like the new Maracana, to symbolise the still yawning gap between Brazil’s very rich and very poor. 

In Rio, the very poor have historically congregated in the favelas, the shanty towns, that loom over the affluent beachside areas of Copacabana and Ipanema in a curious inversion of the way these things usually are. The poor in the favelas have fantastic views from the top of the hills, with the people beneath them huddled into some of the most expensive real estate in the world. As the Brazilian artist, Vik Muniz, put it: “It’s like being in St Tropez surrounded by Mogadishu.”

Until five years ago the favelas were left to run themselves, but as gang wars became increasingly violent, and the news came through that Brazil was to host the World Cup in 2014, and then Rio the Olympics two years later, the city and state governments decided it was time to intervene. They began to occupy the favelas in what they called a “pacification” programme. It was a stick and carrot policy, first chasing out the criminal gangs and then re-integrating the favelados into the life of the city as a whole. 

By 2012, when I was last in Brazil, there was still much to do. I visited favelas with no proper sanitation, with untreated waste pouring down gutters. Electricity was tapped off the wires, medical facilities were basic and the houses had a temporary, half-finished feel with walls and roofs made of whatever material people could afford. In others, the gangs had largely been chased out (though where they went I was never quite sure), proper houses and schools were being built and in one, a shiny new cable-car system hung in the sky above the network of alleys.

Although the investment is generous, it only emphasises how much there is to do and how little had been done in the past to provide the 20 per cent of Rio’s inhabitants who live in favelas with even basic services. So the fact that the Maracana stadium had been given a $350m facelift, only to make its capacity smaller and more expensive, rankled with the Brazilian on the street, as did the appropriation of land for building around the stadium and the provision of hotel facilities for foreign visitors.

And disgruntlement isn’t confined to Maracana. Despite the fact that over 80 per cent of Brazilians live in built-up areas along the coast, the World Cup venues have had to be apportioned out to cities right across the country, largely to appease local political and business interests. Controversially, large amounts of money have gone to build world-class stadiums in places like Manaus and Brasilia, whose local teams barely scrape together crowds of a few thousand.

Although a lot of people in Brazil are angry about their own welfare being sacrificed to the demands of a World Cup described by a Cariocan on a recent BBC documentary as costing more than the last four put together, the fact is that most Brazilians love the game. The attendances at the stadiums may be low by our standards (the facilities aren’t always good, the games are often played in the cool of late evening when transport links to get people home are inadequate) but huge numbers, rich and poor, watch on television and there is vociferous support for the main clubs in Rio and Sao Paulo.

The fans look for flair and skill and dash in their game and they love a star. One of the Brazilians’ most attractive eccentricities is the way they appropriate foreign names, dead or alive, just because they like the sound of them. The New York Times reported an accordionist in Recife who called one of his children Xerox and another Fotocopia. Socrates the great philosopher was also a great Brazilian footballer. One of their latest prodigies is known for a name as unforgettable as it is unpronounceable. Step forward Petroswick-onicovick Wandeckerkof da Silva Santos, on the books of the Sao Paulo club, Corinthians. 

I hope I’ve been exaggerating the disillusion with the World Cup. Should the Brazilian soccer team have a good run, the country will be in full festive mode and there’s no country I’ve visited in the world whose people enjoy themselves with such unselfconscious joy. But a good run will not be enough. Brazil will hold its breath until Sunday 13 July when the dreadful defeat of July 1950 will have to be avenged. I only hope that the Maracana will not be silenced again. 

Whatever happens, commentators all over the world will be relieved to know that Petroswick-onicovick Wandeckerkof da Silvas Santos will be too young to play. 

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Brazil by Michael Palin is available at the Radio Times bookshop