Watching A Nation's Dreams Die in Rocinha

Watching A Nation's Dreams Die in Rocinha

By July 9, 2014 World Cup

A dispatch from Eight by Eight“s eyes in Brazil, Clay Skipper. 

Wayne Lawrence for MSNBC

Wayne Lawrence for MSNBC

The higher you climb into the favela, the fewer flags you notice. In the nicer areas of Rio, down on the beaches of Copacabana, lining the streets of Ipanema, or hiding in the hills of Saint Teresa, you’ll find them everywhere. But winding up the streets of Rocinha, past the moto taxis flying down the hills and around corners where speakers blast music and stairs lead to narrow back alleys, they can’t be found.

Despite this, the yellow of the Seleção inevitably flows uphill. In the favelas, Brazilians wear it on their backs and hold it in their hearts, and so they too felt the paranoia that had crept into the national consciousness: The sense that, in a tournament with dominant star performances but no dominant teams, when Neymar broke, so too did Brazil; that maybe even 39 years of unbeaten games on home soil was no match for the 64-year shadow cast by the 1950 World Cup Final; that to win the World Cup, they’d not only have to overcome Germany but those demons too, and that might be too much of a burden to bear.

It was pouring rain and we were in a little bar in an alley across from a stack of flooded houses. Water poured out from under their doorways, cascading down the alley, and down the hills of the Rocinha, back out into the rest of Rio.

Inside, the television flickered. Somewhere in the background firecrackers boomed. When the game finally began, an older woman, sitting in front of the TV, filed through her nervous tics, bringing her hand to her face or running it through her hair. Marcelo’s ambitious shot from outside the box went wide, she yelled. Thomas Muller scored, someone else yelled. The woman paused in that moment; all she could do was bring both hands to her mouth to stifle the noise she couldn’t make. The bar was silent. The match had just begun but it was already over.

Before we left in search of another bar, Germany scored again. Outside, the rain had slowed to a steady drizzle. The winding streets — usually teeming with buses and motorcycles and pedestrians — were empty. But music still blared from speakers and some still looked hopeful. Maybe 2-0 wasn’t so bad, they thought. Now that the rain had slowed, the party could pick up. Maybe Brazil would fight their online casino way back.

But they wouldn’t. Germany scored again. More firecrackers, like Germans were hiding in the hills. We kept walking downhill, past a dead rat on the wet road. Then we heard another collective groan, another pop, pop, pop. 4-0.

We peered inside a side-street bar trying to catch a replay. “Cinqo – Zero,” said the men at the bar, looking at us. 5-0. We thought maybe we were wrong, that we didn’t really hear them score two goals in the ten minutes we’d been walking. And we were. They’d scored three. “Cinqo,” the men kept saying in disbelief. A toothless man in the back smoking a cigarette held up five fingers. Cinqo! They weren’t telling us, we realized. They were trying to convince themselves.

We left and walked to the corner of the street. There was small shack called Marcilio Bar. Marcilio himself sat inside, watching a small TV. He was 71, and had lived most of his life in the shadow of the maracanazo. He said this was the worst 45 minutes of football he’d ever seen Brazil play. We stayed through the half and were joined by teenagers donning Brazil jerseys, smoking cigarettes, and drinking a bottle of red wine. They weren’t around for 1950 but had surely heard about it—the curse that they were about to inherit. After the sixth goal, we decided to leave.

The nation was shellshocked. Down below, Copacabana was as still as it had been in weeks. Brazil would wake up the next morning still in the throes of a bad dream, the same one they’d been trying to escape since 1950: another team lifting that golden trophy in the Maracana. Eventually, yellow will light up the streets of the favela and the rest of Rio again. But the next time the World Cup returns to Brazil, and Marcilio is likely gone and his bar is too, those boys will talk about the time they watched their heroes lose 7-1 in the worst game in the history of Brazil—and how this time it was supposed to be different.

Everyone said Rio would burn if Brazil lost, that the protests we heard so much about but saw so little of during the group stage would bubble back to the surface and explode. But, like the Brazilian team that played on that night, they never showed up. Instead, the fans went quietly into the night. Brazil’s World Cup was like the firecrackers that echoed every German goal: Loud and booming and startling but just as quickly gone. It was still and quiet in Rio and it wasn’t just that the World Cup felt like it was over.

It felt like it never happened at all.

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