SAO PAULO – The World Cup will be saturated in yellow, a festival of all things Brazilian. But like the country itself, it certainly won’t be perfect.
On a balmy, near-flawless night here, in a stadium organizers tinkered with right up to the opening whistle and a handful of metro stops from where protestors clashed with riot police earlier in the day, the beautiful game finally took center stage.
During my first three days in São Paulo – the southern hemisphere’s largest city and a soccer hub home to likes of Brazilian giants such as Corinthians, São Paulo FC and Palmeiras – World Cup hype was auspiciously absent from day-to-day life.
While the party raged at Copacabana and Ipanema up the coast in Rio de Janiero, São Paulo seemed to largely keep its head down. People went to work. The ever-present, choking traffic, like death and taxes in this city of nearly 12 million, snarled the roadways. Yellow was a color, not the rallying cry of an entire nation.
Then, on Thursday, the tangled streets and freeways miraculously cleared, in large part because the government declared a partial holiday to ease the congestion that normally strangles the sprawling metropolis. My hotel restaurant, previously an early-morning haven for sleepy reporters, swarmed with the colors of the Seleção.
As if previously in hibernation, the canary-clad masses emerged from their houses, apartment blocks and hotels, flocking to Arena de São Paulo mainly by foot and train – the latter thanks to a narrowly averted metro strike that threatened to derail the beginning of a World Cup already dogged by ominous headlines.
Brazil came draped in flags. It came blowing horns, smiling, dancing. It came swathed in yellow, green and blue. Positivity (and a healthy helping of Brahma beer) flowed through the crowds that shuttled into the neighborhood of Itaquera via the red line.
It was Carnival in June, but bathed in the colors of the national team. Brazil, for an afternoon, was united.
And, as expected, it wasn’t without a few glitches. But for the most part, any fears that the tournament opener would be a logistical disaster or that safety would be a major issue were allayed. The biggest headache? Concession stands that couldn’t handle the ravenous crush of 62,000 fans.
Meanwhile, the temporary stands flanking the east and west ends of the arena, never tested at full capacity, were rock solid. The aesthetics, though nowhere near perfect, didn’t distract from the occasion. Hell, even Jennifer Lopez showed up for the opening ceremony despite reports she’d bailed earlier in the week.
And then the game started, Croatia showing no signs of becoming the first sacrificial lamb in the hosts' quest to erase the heartbreak of 1950.
Just 11 minutes in, Brazil scored – only it was into the wrong net, as Marcelo brought a national nightmare to life. For a moment, the banks of yellow fell silent before quickly rousing themselves and urging their team to right the injustice and revive the hopes of a country obsessed with capturing the game’s biggest prize on home soil.
Fittingly, it was the great hope of Brazilian soccer and an emblem of the nation’s free-spirited attitude toward, well, just about everything, who did the reckoning.
Neymar’s face is plastered everywhere in Brazil. He preens from billboards, in service stations, grocery stores, restaurants and just about anywhere else his likeness can be plastered. This is his tournament, played in his country.
And when the mohawked chosen one’s seeing-eye shot caromed off the left post and nestled in the back of the net in the 27th minute, the rooftops of São Paulo erupted in fireworks, as if primed for the very moment its native son would take his place in Brazilian lore.
Neymar nearly undid it all with 20 minutes remaining, but his patently average penalty kick slipped through Stipe Pletikosa’s hands to spare some serious blushes and send his disciples into convulsions. In the end, Brazil met expectations despite a somewhat sloppy performance, closing it out with Oscar’s strike and a 3-1 victory that eased the anxieties of 200 million Brazilians.
Yellow had prevailed, only the black eye of an own goal to dampen the celebrations, and São Paulo spilled out into the streets under a mesmerizing full moon, marking a historic victory watched by the entire world.
No, the issues that plague this country and this tournament – widespread corruption, a massive gap between the haves and the have nots and a government unable (or perhaps unwilling) to fulfill its promises – haven’t gone away. For the most part, they’re still in plain sight.
But the beauty here, in the country, its people and the game they love, is undeniable, even if there was only cynicism in Fred’s dreadful acting job to set up Neymar’s winner.
For the next 31 days, soccer will jockey for headlines with the social issues that have split this country right down the middle. But on this night, at least, the beautiful game reigned supreme. Imperfect, yes, but utterly Brazilian.