LIKE MANY TRULY MEMORABLE PARTIES, Rio’s World Cup celebrations look set to be a blast for everybody…except the hosts. As the world’s press whips itself into a frenzy over the forthcoming fiesta of beautiful beaches, beautiful butts, and the beautiful game, I’m getting the hell out of Rio de Janeiro before the first whistle blows.
With a day to go before kickoff, the city still looks like a construction site. Transport and building projects that were promised to be delivered in time for the Cup are months — if not years — away from completion. Attempts to throw a veil over the city’s horrific social problems have backfired, and violent shootouts between drug traffickers and “pacifying” units of military police have become a nightly occurrence.
This would have been my third World Cup in Rio, and by local standards the pre-Cup street decor is looking lackluster to say the least. The colorful football-related murals that traditionally crop up months in advance of the Cup are outnumbered by slogans such as “F*ck FIFA” and “Queremos Hospitais Padrao FIFA” (“We want FIFA-standard hospitals”). One mural downtown shows a yellow smiley face with a bleeding bullet hole to the head and the phrase “Bem vindo ao pais do copa” (“Welcome to the Country of the Cup”).
With the world’s attention on Brazil, and much of that attention centered on Rio, everybody with a political axe to grind is vehemently stating their case. Recent weeks have seen general strikes called by everybody from bus drivers and street cleaners to security guards and museum staff, as underpaid workers press the government for decent wages in a city where the cost of living is sky high and salaries are often shamefully low.
Police units decked out like Robocop with helmets modeled on Darth Vader roam the magnificent Zona Sul (the wealthy South Zone of the city, home to tourist hotspots such as Ipanema, Copacabana, and Sugarloaf mountain), while masked gangs of protesters that call themselves “Black Blocs” insist that “there will be no Cup.”
There will be a Cup, and I have no doubt it will be remembered as one of the most spectacular of all time. But as the fans focus on partying on the beach and the press cameras focus on the teeny bikinis, those of us that live here will have to contend with hordes of visitors crowding an already overloaded public transport system, with already absurd food and drink prices bumped up still further to exploit the tourist dollar, and a whole host of day-to-day annoyances that will be overlooked as the city puts all its efforts into the Cup.
On a quick stroll through downtown a few mornings ago, I had to walk out into traffic three times to avoid three separate exploded pipes leaking sewage onto the sidewalk. Already-poor internet and phone connections seem primed to get weaker still as they struggle to contend with the influx of World Cup visitors.
Rio de Janeiro is a city whose ability to captivate is matched only by its ability to frustrate. A city of seemingly endless physical charms, it is also a city with a rich-poor divide that beggars belief, where social problems have long been overlooked in favor of creating an aesthetically pleasing city “para gringo ver” (“for the foreigners to see”).
It’s a city where crime is rife, where prices are high and quality low, and where the simplest and most mundane of tasks turns into a day-long adventure due to queues and endless red tape. (Want a new SIM card for your phone? First you’ll have to register your CPF (Brazilian Social Security number). Don’t have one? Good luck with that.)
For at least a year, locals have sighed and said, “Imagine na copa!” (“Imagine what it will be like during the Cup”) every time an overloaded bus has ground to a halt, a water pipe has burst, a supermarket queue has stretched into infinity. I’ve imagined what it will be like during the Cup, and I’ve decided I’m not going to be around to witness it.
I’m sure it will be a great party, but I’m going to sit this one out. Bring on my first World Cup in Buenos Aires!