One damp morning last week I was sitting on the rocky bus to college when suddenly my heart leapt: I spotted a picture in the local newspaper and a story about the Red Devils, coming to Brazil for the World Cup. Not Manchester United, but a group of ecstatic South Korean youngsters coming over here to support their national team. The photograph captures 120 excited, smiling faces, full of hope and expectation. It’s a far cry from the mood of many of my colleagues and students here in Porto Alegre. So why has the mood soured just before the greatest sports tournament on the planet? Why can’t Brazilians get behind the national team?
Well, the short answer is FIFA. The all-powerful football federation has had the Brazilian government in an arm-lock for the the last year, insisting its high standards are met. Sod the poor state schools and hospitals – get those stadiums finished and up-to-scratch, whatever the extra cost. So the government has forked out billions in tax-payers’ money to build a host of white elephants, just so FIFA executives don’t lose face (and the odd million in profits). Of course, having unfinished stadiums has had its funny side. One English ex-pat here in Porto Alegre, on seeing a Facebook picture of his mate’s England-Uruguay tickets bought back home posted a note: “I take it you’re coming a couple of weeks early to help build the stadium?”, and the mate posted back, “Of course – I’ve already packed a bag of cement in my suitcase!”.
It seems the 2014 World Cup will be remembered for the wrong reasons, particularly in Brazil. But in fact, they will be for the right reasons. Like the fact that World Cups are hideously expensive spectacles that do nothing for a country’s economy but everything for FIFA plc. These tournaments suck countries dry, leaving black holes in government coffers and stadiums that will never again be even half-full. One economic analyst has calculated that the total public spending on the tournament would be enough to pay Brazil’s annual social welfare bill – the Bolsa Familia – twice over. So Brazilians are torn: most of them believe the cup has done more harm than good for Brazil. And yet.
When the boys in yellow take to the field and Brazil’s national anthem begins to play millions of stomachs will be aflutter and hairs will be standing up on the backs of necks in living rooms and bars across this vast expanse of a country. Perhaps there will be some tangible euphoria if Brazil keep winning their games. Perhaps people will be singing and dancing in the streets. Last year Brazil gave Spain, the current holders of the cup, a good trouncing, so the squad has a great chance of going all the way to the final. It’s going to be fun to watch, with 5 games happening in the newly-refurbished Beira Rio stadium, less than half-an-hour away from where I am writing this.
Trouble is, I can’t support Brazil. Not with body and soul. I love Brazil, but I am English through and through. If you cut me open I’m full of warm beer and Bird’s custard. So what am I to do? Paint a St George’s cross on my face and get behind the Three Lions, of course. The World Cup seems to make patriots of even the most liberal-minded people. I have often asked myself why I feel so strongly about the England football team. They are usually appalling to watch, the fans are mainly saddos and when the penalty shoot-out comes, it’s time to run for the exit. So why do I continue this madness?
Well, it’s love. A strange kind of love, but love nonetheless. It’s hard to describe, but I suppose it’s a love of childhood, hearth and home, the streets where I played tin-can-squat with my pals. It’s all my English travels and the wacky people I met on the journey. It’s old black and white photographs of Bradford buses. It’s Philip Larkin and Monty Python, The Rolling Stones and Al Read. It’s the rolling English drunkard and the rolling English road. It’s salt and vinegar and cheese and onion. It’s Shakespeare and J. B. Priestley and the English language. But it’s more than all that: it’s a kind of feeling you just can’t define in words. I don’t think most people know why they feel emotional about their nation. It’s a question nobody thinks to ask.
However, there is one big question I’d like to ask FIFA as this global extravaganza is about to kick off. What happens to the billions made through sponsorship and TV rights? I don’t mean to be churlish, but I think Brazilians and the rest of us watching this World Cup have a right to know.