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  • Sep 20, 2014
  • Updated: 6:41am
Road to Rio
PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 01 July, 2014, 11:17pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 02 July, 2014, 7:24am

Road to Rio: Protests on the backburner as Brazil embraces the opportunity to party

Locals remain unimpressed with Fifa, that's plain, but as long as the selecao are doing well, it seems chaos will have to wait

BIO

Paul Kay is a Hong Kong-based journalist and media consultant, and the former editor of Time Out Hong Kong and Hong Kong Tatler. A lifelong football fanatic, he is making the pilgrimage to Brazil for the World Cup to offer a fan’s-eye view of the greatest show on Earth.
 

A couple of weeks into the World Cup, it's safe to say that predictions about mass protests and half-finished construction projects disrupting the tournament were wide of the mark. But then again, it's probably a nearer miss than Brazil or Fifa would like to admit.

While the stadiums have been first-rate, driving between the cities we've encountered numerous stalled or possibly abandoned infrastructure projects - literal roads to nowhere - while the paint has barely dried on some of the hotels.

And although we haven't seen any actual protests, anti-Fifa sentiment is nigh ubiquitous. The sorest points are predictable enough: the US$11 billion bill that could have been spent elsewhere; the building of so many new stadiums, several of which are of negligible long-term use; and the fact Fifa takes all the profits and pays no Brazilian tax.

Before long we're being pulled out of our chairs by a gamut of relatives, from kids to grannies, to do some sort of hoedown

It would be facile to believe these issues will be forgotten even if Brazil bring home their sixth World Cup, but while that dream is alive, they are firmly on the back-burner. On match days the excitement in the air is unmistakable, while Brazil flags and yellow strips abound, from uptown to the favelas. There are no illusions about what Fifa and the Brazilian government have cooked up between them, but - true to reputation - Brazilians appear unwilling to waste a good opportunity to party.

In Pernambuco state, of which Recife is the capital, they've had more reason than most to celebrate. As well as five World Cup games at Recife's Arena Pernambuco, the state also pays homage to a succession of saints in June, most notably Sao Joao (Saint John), who is commemorated by several days of street parties, bonfires and festivities.

We're invited to one such celebration in Gravata, a town about 80km from Recife. It's fairly common for the middle-class to have a holiday home elsewhere in the state, and the get-together is at one of these, set in a few hectares of lush farmland replete with horses, chickens and at least one ostrich. We're given a warm welcome and fed well with generous cuts of masterfully cooked meat from the churrasco (barbecue) while a live band plays traditional Brazilian folk music. Before long we're being pulled out of our chairs by a gamut of relatives, from kids to grannies, to do some sort of hoedown.

Afterwards I get a potted history of Brazilian politics from Pedro, a journalist turned political researcher, over plastic cups filled with ice and whisky. The Brazilian presidential elections are in October and Pernambuco's governor, Eduardo Campos, is one of the front runners, although president Dilma Rousseff is expected to win despite the protests.

Are Brazilians becoming more interested in politics because of the furore over the World Cup, I ask. He shakes his head with a mirthless laugh. "No, they are more interested in this," he says, pointing to his smartphone.

As the coals of the barbecue fade we bid our hosts goodbye and head for downtown Gravata, where a music-festival-sized stage has been erected in the town square to mark the occasion. The streets are festooned with flags and giant painted effigies, some in Brazil strips, while stalls selling barbecued meat, beers and caipirinhas are everywhere.

Taking full advantage of the latter, we're soon tempted into more fancy footwork as a forro band with a full complement of backing dancers takes the stage. Forro is a sultry northeast Brazilian dance, and the locals are uniformly expert.

As the only gringos in a crowd of several thousand, we try our best to not look like it, and I'm relatively pleased with my attempts until a burly, bald-headed local taps me on the shoulder and wags a finger in my direction. Apparently my hips are all wrong and he proceeds to demonstrate how it should be done while his girlfriend cracks up and I do my best to shake it like I mean it.

Eventually I get the thumbs up and spend the rest of the night practising, hoping I don't fall foul of Brazilian party politics again.

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