This morning I went to the front desk of my hotel in Belo Horizonte to ask where the nearest laundromat was located. The receptionist drew a map and then explained in mixed Portuguese and English that it was closed today.
“Fechado (closed)? But it’s Thursday.”
He shrugged his shoulders and replied, “Brasil. Futebol.”
Instead of doing my laundry I went outside to explore the city until the start of the Brazil-Croatia game taking place in São Paulo. It was hard to find anybody NOT dressed up in yellow and green, many wearing the iconic #10 shirts of the Seleção Brasileiro.
I wasn’t shocked, but I was surprised. For the past six weeks, I had been traveling through Brazil between Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo. Nearly every Brazilian I had spoken to in this time said this World Cup was different. I was told the streets were usually lined with Brazilian flags and World Cup paraphernalia well before the games begin. Anti-government protests and strikes have tarnished the image of the country and the tournament. On top of that, many Brazilians believe the billions of dollars being spent on stadiums should have been used for the well-being of the Brazilian people. Not once did I get the feeling Brazilians were excited about this World Cup. I was worried.
Today, everything changed.
After a few hours walking around town, I headed to the FIFA Fan Fest at Expominas to watch the World Cup opening game. The scene was phenomenal. A sea of yellow and green dominated the floor, with a few Colombian fans filling in the empty spaces (sadly, no Greek fans were to be found). The World Cup spirit was alive and well.
Tonight, all eyes would be on Neymar and company as Brazil began their daunting quest to capture World Cup glory for the host country. This World Cup isn’t just about football. It is equally important to Brazilian politics and social issues. The only option for Brazil is victory. Winning the World Cup would justify the tournament and boost the morale of the entire country. Losing would be beyond devastating.
After the national anthems were sung, the passionate crowd of thousands at the Fan Fest was engrossed in the match. The air was taken out of the building as Marcelo put the ball into the back of his own net, but Neymar’s equalizer soon boosted the Brazilian spirits and restored the festive atmosphere. A gift penalty and a late goal by Oscar sealed Brazil’s 3-1 win and gave the crowd what they were hoping for.
However, the crowd did not forget the outside issues affecting the tournament – a resounding “boo” rang through the cavernous Expominas as Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff was shown celebrating on TV. At halftime, a news report was shown of protesters clashing with police in São Paulo, Porto Alegre, and even here in Belo Horizonte.
For now, it seems the majority of Brazilians have come together to support their national team and enjoy the world’s biggest party. What happens next in this amazing country all rides on the shoulders of 11 men on the pitch.