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Postcard from Brazil

Brazil is my third FIFA World Cup, and the same thing strikes me each time: people from all over the world come together peacefully to enjoy themselves. At times, it is akin to war on the football field, but with a few exceptions, the streets are full of visitors who have paid a lot of money and travelled a long way to have a good time. They sing, they dance, they drink. They are proud to celebrate their country.

Above Rio de Janiero, the arms of the spectacular Christ the Redeemer statue are outstretched to welcome and embrace people from every continent. It is a Tower of  Babel up here, people speaking their own languages and joyously waving their own flags, but speaking a single language that is called football. An American asks me to take a photograph with an Iranian he has just met. With their flags overlapping, I frame the picture with the statue's arms protecting them both.

There are more countries in FIFA than the United Nations, and you're as likely to hear a group of chanting Mexicans in sombreros as singing Japanese in wild makeup and crazy hair. Of course, the Brazilian flag dominates the street decoration, and with so many locals in their own version of gold and green, it has a disconcertingly Australian air about it.

But if there's one city on earth where it's hard to distinguish locals from visitors, it's probably Sao Paulo. It is a heaving collection of people from everywhere, the largest city by population in the Southern Hemisphere. During the day, as workers come in from surrounding towns, the number of people is close to the entire population of Australia. It is noisy, bustling, energetic, edgey and distinctly multicultural. Remarkably, it has a large market which opens at 1am, serving thousands of people from surrounding cities who bus in overnight to buy provisions for their local communities. The buses pack the streets for a few hours but are gone and the market is closed by 6am, ready for the day workers. This city is so busy, it works shifts.

Most Brazilians we speak to are thrilled to host the World Cup, but embarrassed by the delays, corruption and cost. The protests are not about the world joining them in a football celebration, but the way FIFA and their own politicians have gone about it. FIFA regulations require the host country to have a minimum of eight large stadiums. Brazil has 12, including a new one in Manaus in the Amazon, where it is estimated that only a few games a year will be held after the World Cup, with no professional team of note. Stadiums that were supposed to cost $400 million will have final price tags of $800 million after the layers of corruption are paid. That's what the protests are about, and rightly so.

The darker side of a country with extremes of very rich and very poor, forced together in teeming cities, is serious crime, in full view on the streets. The Australian Government's advice to travellers is not to argue if threatened, and to hand over everything. This is unlikely to be instinctive for most Australians, not realising that street crime in Brazil is life-threatening. Recently, the friends we are staying with were about to jump into their car, their two children already in the back seat, when the father felt a sharp dig in his back. It was a gun, held by a youth he thinks was no older than 15. My friend pleaded with the attacker to stay calm, and he gave him their wallets, phones, rings, anything of value. This was on a busy city street as passers-by watched and did nothing. Then my friend glanced back at the car, and saw another young man in the driver's seat, about to head off with the children in the back. This is the real worry for families of Sao Paulo: kidnapping and ransom. My friend grabbed the door and told the thief to take the car but he was not having the children. A tense standoff followed, but the children were allowed out, and moments later, the car was gone, never to be seen again. As car insurance is prohibitively expensive due to these attacks, that was a $40,000 loss the family could ill afford. And yet my friend was intensely relieved and grateful as he hugged his family.

That's life in much of Brazil. This family has had enough of it, and has decided to leave for America, where family connections have led to approval of their permanent visas from the start of 2017. Although the wait is 2 1/2 years, they have new hopes for the future, because regardless of the economic prosperity seen from the ouside of one of the BRICs, life of the streets is too dangerous.

The capital, Brasilia, feels like it's in another country. It is a rich city with wealthy residents, a spectacular new airport, smooth six lane highways and more monuments than Washington. It's where the government sits and the home of foreign embassies, including Australia's. Most amazing for what is now a sprawling home to three million people, it was still a field in 1957 when the President, Juscelino Kubitschek, decided Brazil had too much emphasis on the then capital, Rio, and the rich south including Sao Paulo. So he selected a site almost in the middle of the country, and by 1960, the city was sufficiently developed for the government to move there. Public departments and companies soon followed and the city grew rapidly, but it's unbelievable to think this has all happened in my lifetime.

At night, it feels safe to walk around this city. There are natural lakes spanned by floodlit bridges and surrounded by boardwalks, and restaurants and bars are filled with music and chatter, and of course, thousands of football fans. We are in town for a game featuring Switzerland, and there is a massive police and military presence. It looks overdone. Who are the Swiss going to fight with, and about what? Undercooked strudel? Criticism of army knives? By the end of the game, the police are so bored that they are later hooning around the streets in their matte black Landcruisers, machine guns resting on wing mirrors, and holding up traffic for little reason.

But there is a major stuff up at the first game in Brasilia. As we walk to the game with plenty of time before kickoff, we see a park next to the stadium where people are lining up. Long queues, which snake between the trees and head in the direction of the stadium. And then to our horror we realise they are the queues to enter the game. Even with 45 minutes until kickoff, it's obvious we are never going to make it in time. I won't reveal the naughty way we overcome the problem because I don't condone such behaviour, but inside the gates we see part of the cause of the delays. Everyone was going through the same type of security as at an airport, but of the eight x-ray machines at our gate, only three were being used. Bottles of water, posters, flags over a certain size, plastic trumpets and hooters were being confiscated.

In the news that night, they announce that everyone made it inside by half-time. Well, that's fine, then.

Rio is party time any time, but with the World Cup in town, it feels like Sydney during our Olympics. Along Ipanema Beach, there are dozens of floodlit courts where people play futevolei, a combination of beach soccer and volleyball. Any move that is legal in the normal game is adopted, and the skill level is awesome, especially use of chests and shoulders. Further along, teams play beach football in the still balmy evening, and stall holders sell fresh coconuts, grilled meats and caipirinha, a lethal mix of lime juice, sugar cane liquor and ice that is the national cocktail. On one night we are in town, the United States is playing and they score a late winner, and throngs of young Americans are deliriously happy. It's hard not to feel infected by their mood, especially when they want to high-five every Aussie they can find.

Sure, the planes run late, the queues at airports are energy-sapping, surprisingly few local people speak English (why should they?) and you spend the day checking you still have your wallet and passport. But the counter of the fact that Australia is such an expensive place is that most other countries seem cheap. The sun is shining, the football has been excellent, everyone wants to chat and the Australian team has delivered proud performances in their first two games.

There's no denying that the vast majority of the 200 million Brazilians are too poor to contemplate going to a game, and most are seriously annoyed at the waste of money when the same event could have been held much cheaper. But football is their passion, and they crowd around screens in bars, feel every kick and tackle, and desperately hope their team will win.

Unfortunately for them, from what I've seen so far, they are likely to be disappointed.

 

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