Things came to a head: Germany win the World Cup, but at what cost?

All good things come to an end, and this one came to a good end. Germany beat Argentina 1-0 in the World Cup final, with a sublime goal from Götze, who’d come on to replace ace striker, Klöse. 20140714-065432-24872150.jpg The German coach looks like a genius with that single stroke. His legacy is set, as is that of his team. On the other side, Lionel Messi will have to abide the view that his legacy is incomplete because he has not won a World Cup champions medal. That’s a bit of rubbish, in my view, because one player can rarely determine the result of a team match, certainly, it’s hard in football. Messi did not play a spectacular game, but Germany knew what they had to do and managed to corral his runs well, though he nearly slipped the net once.

Germany had few weak links. On the contrary, some players gave up too much body and soul. Christioph Kramer took a shoulder to his head early in the first half, and looked knocked out. As happens all too often, a trainer came on, and the player was led off the field for a cursory amount of ‘treatment’, and then returned to play. Within 10 minutes, Kramer had fallen down, and was then led off the field, looking and walking like a zombie, and was substituted. During the match, the commentators we had did not give any update on his condition. I have not yet seen any reports, either. But, it showed starkly something terribly wrong in football. Head injuries and the risks from concussions are not taken seriously. 20140714-063457-23697244.jpg FIFA has a protocol for dealing with such injuries, but unlike in American football, where the NFL applies it’s rules rigidly, the round ballers repeatedly let the ball drop on this matter. I honestly think it will take a player dying on the field or soon after a match for the issue to be addressed seriously. It was Kramer’s first start during the tournament, and it was a sad end. But, his was not the only instance of dangerous head injuries during the match. Higuaín got a heavy hit from German keeper, Neuer. Also, Schweinsteiger was punched in the eye by Aguero, resulting in a nasty gash to his eye.20140714-064217-24137589.jpg

I noticed on Twitter that the topic got a lot of attention from well-respected football commentators, including former US national player, Taylor Tweelman. But, several mainstream media houses, such as ESPN and Fox Sports seem to be highlighting the issue and FIFA’s negligence. See one scathing piece by Slate. Let’s hope that national federations and professional clubs see the wisdom of protecting players from a needless injury and brain damage.

The consistent negligence regarding head injuries was the one real blight on the tournament, which showcased some simple innovations in match management. We can all understand coaches’ reluctance to rapidly switch their line up, but in the end they have a squad for a reason.

No doubt, Germany proved to be the best team over the whole series of matches. They were nearly derailed twice by African teams, and had Ghana taken a 3-1 lead in their group game, we’d still be wondering what had happened to Germany. But, they showed their mettle by dodging those upsets. Algeria took them to extra time in the round of 16, but quality rose to take that match, eventually. Neuer partly redefined goalkeeping to show its range to include a sweeper role, but he also showed the value of solid shot stopping and ball clearance. Germany was also the most clinical in front of goal. Brazil felt that worst of all. They also showed how to pass fast and accurately all over the field.

This was my third time seeing Germany reach a final game while I was in the host country, and they lost the previous two times. At least, I’m not a complete jinx.

Credit to Brazil, for pulling off the organization. Debt headaches aside, it was a good-looking job. Social issues were not far from the surface, and the amount of security personnel visible on the way to Maracana made clear that the government was not going to risk any mishap, whatever the core merit of grievances. That’s no big surprise. Those issues can’t be removed by demonstrations, but much can go wrong with such demonstrations.

Rio airport was filled with departing fans. Most got to watch the final before leaving, like we did. Almost, timed to perfection. I have to get my head ready to think about another trip to Rio for the 2016 Olympics. Then, Jamaica will have some direct interest, not having to live vicariously.

Teaching moments: Simple actions in Rio that would look good in Jamaica

A ten day trip to Rio, whose prime purpose was to enjoy the atmosphere of World Cup football, is no fact finding tour. But, I’ve had to look at socioeconomic developments and try to assess them quickly for most of my working life. So, let me use that experience to share some observations that could help Jamaica move ahead. They are not in any special order.

Tourists need to be left to enjoy their visits and feel safe. Arriving in Rio, the biggest problem is figuring out where to collect baggage; the claim areas are split, either side of duty free shopping. Once done, passing Customs is simple, with basically no stop. Admittedly, Jamaica has been tagged as a drug haven, so we need stiffer checks to protect ourselves from those who want to try some simple drug running, as part of organized operations or just to get some extra dosh. That hurts our tourism badly, and maybe the only way out is some brutal sentencing, including near immediate deportation. The idea of airport courts seems radical but, it may be what’s needed to frighten the daylights out of the casual wrongdoers. Admittedly, tourists arriving at Montego Bay tend to have lghr checks than arrivals at Kingston, most of whom are residents. That, naturally, sets up resentment from locals. But, evenhandedness is something with hitch Jamaica struggles.

Once on land, tourists in Rio see plenty of signs that security is ready to deal with all problems.

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Rio Tourist Police, on Ipanema beach strip

Municipal and national guards were everywhere in uniform Rio. It was likely that some of the road sweepers or other tourist workers were undercover operatives. They were on hand, visible, and clearly ready. I have no idea at what cost. But, no one wants to robbed or mugged on the street when just trying to enjoy sun, sand, and sea.

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Tourists just want to have their fun
We read stories about how favelas and streets had been cleared of vagrants. News reports yesterday mentioned how protesters had been picked up ahead of the final and that 25,000 security personnel had been added to deal with potential protests at the final. Rio is in a very difficult position, so extreme measures are no surprise. But, in the end, the naive or educated visitor wants to come and go safely, and leave a country to sort out its internal strife.

Like Jamaica, Rio has its vendors. They work the beach strips, selling on the beach, trinkets, drinks and snacks. On the roadside, little cafes and juice bars are dotted around. Massage services are there, too, on the beach. Most vendors take no straight away. Pestering in not common. I did not see if vendors were licensed. But, they went on walking the beach. Most beach visitors just went about their recreation. No one offering them drugs. They could get drinks if they wanted, or play or doze, if not.

I’ve barely seen any police at Jamaican resorts, by contrast. Maybe, they are all under cover. But, we have reports of petty or more serious crimes against tourists. Each incident is a blight, and becomes amplified as a negative story when people get back home. Most people have positive images of Jamaica before they visit. The taxi driver who loves “Bobby Marley” is typical. We need to harness that.

Taxis should be safe and trustworthy . Most visitors do not know their way around a foreign country. They often think they are easy targets for exploitation. So, one way of allaying those fears for the benefit of all is for the popular form of transport from point to point, the taxi, be a reliable service. Rio has a lot of taxis, but they never seemed enough.

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Taxi, with onboard GPS, meter, visible official driver ID

Perhaps, the arrival of all those football fans was the reason for seeming excess demand. However hard it was to get a taxi, each one tended to give the same experience. The driver was licensed: the vehicle had the driver’s badge clearly visible. The vehicle was metered. The cost was clear, and drivers did not haggle over the small number, eg R$11.30 was R$11. The driver wore a belt and each seat had a belt. (One driver, seeing my 10 year old daughter was in difficulty strapping in, stopped to free the belt, which had gotten trapped under the seat. Attentive and courteous.) If uncertain of destination, drivers quickly tried to verify directions by using on board GPS, or checking with another driver. Vehicles were NEVER overloaded: no space, no rider. No exceptions. Naturally, in this age of widespread smartphone use, some drivers tried to stay abreast of social activities. One driver was constantly checking and sending voice messages,though he limited this to when stopped at traffic lights. One driver was one the phone to an acquaintance, but still drove carefully.

We took at least two taxis each day and never saw one accident–at all. Rio has six million people and an area half that of Jamaica. Admittedly, road conditions are far better in a Rio, with several four-lane freeways through the city.

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Rio has good, spacious roads

Pedestrians do not have priority, so that would tend to create more problems, but none were evident.

If visitors feel safe travelling around a strange place, day or night, they are likely to venture out more and further. That tends to mean more spending. We are experienced travelers and have a friend who had lived in Brazil and spoke Portuguese. But, those aspects did not feature much in routine travel. We tried our luck on the streets, often needing two taxis, which did not arrive simultaneously. We never ended up at different places; we sometimes had a long wait to meet up again. We were not really worried. We did some research and ventured out on ferry boats, too. No mishaps. Drivers also gave good advice about when to travel and better routes.

My understanding is that the government did not mount any special campaigns. But, perhaps, the trade associations got members to buy into supporting the events with positive attitudes. Or, people have understood what is good for business.

Free Wifi internet access needs to be widely available. Most traveller know about the high cost of roaming charges, so shy away from making local telephone connections. However, they will do their best to keep in touch with friends, families, and colleagues through email, text messages, including via Whatsapp, and social media sites. You only need to go anywhere with free wifi to see the clusters of communicators. Rio offered free wifi to those who were already subscribers to local telephone services. But, many bars, restaurants, and shopping areas had free wifi. Even some hillside slums, favelas, had free wifi networks.

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Favela Santa Marta has free wifi

Brazil has benefited from extensive infrastructure investment connected to major international events. Again, the pay off comes through the easy experience visitors have.

Litter is a major turn off. In Rio, garbage disposal was constant. Large bins on the sidewalk, plus cleaners walking the beach strips and streets. Of course, people are dirty, but it need not swamp everyone or everywhere. We saw plenty of garbage in a favela. Bottles and cans get used as missiles. Likewise, roads that need repair trap trash as well as people. The impression left was that Rio was clean, even if sour-smelling. That’s an observation, not a criticism. Big cities have their odour.

Finally, Rio celebrates its street art. Downtown Kingston has recently had much of its murals removed from ghetto areas. The rationale was that this glorified local criminals. Whatever the truth of that, the murals are important local expression. By contract, Rio promotes such art.

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Favela art, Rio

Admittedly, a recent government initiative has sought to regularize favela life, and accepting murals adds to the sense of ownership. Heavyhandedness is often not needed, once respect has been shown by those in formal authority.

Laugh with me, not at me: the Brazilian national football team seeks redemption

Real life came back to Brazil abruptly when it was hosed by Germany in the World Cup in midweek. The president admitted that. Her political fortune might have gone up in flames with it, but that’s her life. Today, the football team gets a chance for some redemption, or the complete cementing of their legacy as loses. They play for third place against Holland, who have been frequent losing finalists. What should Brazil do? Play the A team, which capitulated so badly that they all should be sent for psychological assessment? Put in the B team, which clearly wasn’t good enough earlier to pull any rabbits out of hats? Play some new combination? Mix and match? If they win, what will it matter? It’s not for the big banana. If hey lose, it just goes to prove that they were kittens in paper bags and a bunch of whatever pejorative Brazilians use.

I would not want to be Coach Scolari on any day, least of all this one. His star player, Neymar, save some ignominy by being injured for the naked ice bath, has an agent, as do all the big footballing kahunas. He also goes by one name, Ribiero. He wrote on his Twitter account a sarcastic list of credentials to be a Brazilian national coach:

‘One – being Portugal Coach and winning nothing.’
‘Two – going to Chelsea and being sacked the following day.’
‘Three – going to coach in Uzbekistan.’
Four – returning to Brazil, taking over a big team [Palmeiras] and getting them relegated to the second division.’
‘Five – leaving the club 56 days before the end of the Brasileirao [season] to ‘escape’ the relegation.
‘Six – being an old jerk, arrogant, repulsive, conceited and ridiculous.’

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Now, Ribiero may really know diddly squat about football, but knows how to grab headlines. Last year he insulted the god of world football, Pele, who’d called Neymar “ordinary”, after disappointing national displays. Agent Ribeiro took out his pointed matchstick and jabbed Pele, saying his comments were pure “jealousy”, and insisting the Brazilian veteran would be an “inferior” player in today’s footballing world. Okay. I think Pele would be on any all-time team, if not the first pick. But, I’m no agent, so what do I know? So, children, let’s put away the toys and sing one more verse with Barney. “I love you. You love me. We’re just one big family…”

The match will be in Brazil’s administrative capital, Brasilia, while the final will be in Rio, the one-time capital and heart of the national spirit. The carnival and samba, and favelas and girls from Ipanema capable of walking onto any national men’s football team and beating the world, save their own men’s team. Well, that was a nice dream. Now, bitten by reality as if the arm of Ivanisovic were in the jaws of Suárez, Brazil is going to be the butt of jokes for all-time. It all happened in the worst of places, in Brazil. Not in the sun baked desert of Qatar. Not in the frozen steppes of Russia. Not in the lung-burning altitude of Mexico City, where they had already reached unreachable heights. But, in Bela Horizonte.

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Nothing pretty to see there.

It will be the end of the tournament for the hosts, and the stage will be set for the visitors to fill on Sunday. Neymar has thrown his hat onto Messi’s head and Argentina to win. He probably hates himself for backing the arch rivals, but how could he back the true Weltmeisters, Germany, after they shown that his teammates had no backbone?

That seems to sum up where the Selecao are: nowhere they want to be.

No rest for the wicked: From Rio, reggae sounds tinny

Yesterday and today are rest days before the last two matches in the World Cup. The final will be at football’s Mecca, Maracana Stadium. Many fans made their trek to the venues for those matches, and Rio was awash with Argentina fans, who seemed more numerous than Germany fans. No surprise, given relative distances. I presume Brasilia saw an influx of Dutch fans; Brazilians can leave travelling it till later. Those fans I saw were in good mood, mostly decked in shirts other than team colours. They were helping the economy a little more by shopping and taking taxis. The rains did not let up, and drenched Rio all day and throughout the night.

We took it lazily and found our way to a fabulous restaurant, named Aprazível, in the Santa Teresa area of Rio, up a step hill near to Corcovado.

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Santa Teresa, Bohemia maybe

The area has lots of older buildings, and the hills make the area seem more like a European town. It’s become a place for arty types, and has a bohemian feel, with narrow, cobbled stone streets. We just enjoyed some nice Brazilian fare

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Dished to please, galinhada caipira

as my wife and her friend and daughter celebrated The Bahamas 41st anniversary of Independence. We then went to help the economy, too, to dodge the rain and be somewhere less gloomy and cold–a mall in upscale Leblon.

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Bookstore and cafe in the mall

It made for a long day, and we did not get home till well past 9.30pm. My little daughter got to stay up really late, playing cards with one of her sisters.

Rio has been blessed with a lot of technological investment from its hosting of mega events, and free wifi internet access is widespread. So, when we have downtime, it’s easier to do some surfing rather than leaving it all till day’s end. (We are not alone, and the mall was awash with people sitting in groups doing the same. International roaming charges are no joke.) I took the opportunity while my ladies shopped to read up on Rio and some elementary Portuguese. As I caught up with the day, I read, as usual, news from Jamaica. It makes for interesting contrasts to the heavily football-centric focus now in Brazil.

Here, even the not sports news is related to football. The budding ticket scandal, where a FIFA-affiliated hospitality company official, Briton Ray Whelan, has been arrested for selling complimentary tickets and match credentials. Latest news was he’d ‘escaped’ and was on the run. My older daughter wondered if he’d headed to The Amazon rainforest.20140711-065746-25066430.jpg

A blooming ‘would have, could have’ story is coming from the British press, asking if the first penalty kick by Holland, which was initially saved by the Argentina keeper, actually crossed the line. Read and watch a replay. This could just brew into a little more embarrassment, who seem like fly paper in that regard. With much-touted goal line technology, it seems that match officials are still in the trigger whistle mode and not accustomed to waiting and getting a conformation of near incidents. The fans and IT mavens will have a little field day.

In Jamaica, the news has been much about the parched conditions are the drought now biting. For over half a century, that little island has shown how the curse if riches works. Resource rich, but application poor. We have water coming at us from all possible angles, but cannot get it to where people are. Or, we squander nature’s abundance like children and splash and dash away valuable rain water. “No problem, man!” You better sing another song, if the Weather Service predictions of little rain throughout the coming months are correct. What Rio has had for the past 48 hours would do us a treat. I bet people are begging for a tropical storm to come lash the island. I read a few days ago about fields catching fire in St. Elizabeth, the island’s bread basket, then saw a report yesterday about the government ‘implementing’ a J$30 million drought mitigation project (or maybe just recycled news) island wide . 20140711-075112-28272216.jpgHi, Lily, hi low. Oh, the plight of the beggar! What’s that passage about reaping the fruits of our labour? We work at not working, so our basket must stay empty.

The stories swirl about the Commissioner of Police’s sudden resignation and retirement. Just in his 50s, and giving every sign of being ready to sail on into the sunset of 10 more years. Then, brap. Just so,he says “Nah! I want to go fishing.” Was he jump or was he pushed. He doesn’t seem the jumpy type. Let’s leave it there. But, read Mark Wignall’s column from last week, which puts the skeptical case well.

Eyes have also focused on the latest exchange rate developments. My reading is that the central bank governor did something normal, but some want to see it as extraordinary. He intervened in the market to maintain ‘orderly conditions’. Governor Wynter reportedly said the rapid rate of depreciation within the last few weeks was not justified by any fundamentals in the market. Jamaica just got a kiss and hug for being teacher’s pet from the IMF MD, and successfully launched a US$800 million bond. That would suggest that speculative pressure on the exchange rate should lessen, and it’s rate of depreciation slow. The Gov did something extraordinary by announcing the intervention. That could be a classic ploy of signaling to the market that enough hanky panky has gone on. Forget about the rate having reached a bottom. Jamaica doesn’t have the dosh to slosh into the market and defend a level, and Mme Largarde won’t accept it, either. So, keep on with end Lamasse breathing.

Jamaica is over twice the physical area of Rio, with about half the population. It’s not been blessed to sit within a huge land mass, or to have seen years of intense economic and social change. It’s a place with hopes but woeful vision. Rio and Brazil are almost the opposite of great hopes and too much vision. It wouldn’t take the wit of many people to fix Jamaica’s woes. But wit we use to be twits.

The World Cup table is set, now all we need is a room to place the Olympics: Rio’s double curse

Argentina beat Holland 4-2 on penalties, after playing a 0-0 draw. 20140710-063753-23873739.jpgThat’s the important part of the second World Cup semifinal. It was a dour match, with neither side taking risks in defence, and getting few clear openings in attack. It was really what we’ve come to expect at the top level, till Germany spoiled us the night before. We still ended with a respectable four goals a game over the semis.

So, Argentina can win in Brazil and the hosts can’t stop them. Nightmare number two still hovers over Brazil. To say that the Argentines are arrogant would not be nice, but it’s what many believe. Yesterday was also their Independence Day, so fate was smiling on them. So, let the haters and baiters have their say, but wish the finalists give us a super match on Sunday. Before that, Brazil has to raise itself to contest the symbolic playoff for third place, in Brasilia, the administrative capital, leaving Rio, the true heart of the country, to hail the finalists.

It is not easy to raise yourself from the fresh mental torture of a heavy defeat at home to play another match. It has to be about pride and heart. Nothing can erase the past, and the fear is that the fall from grace will be deeper if the national team lose again. It will be fascinating to see if and how the nation rallies behind the team. I’m not close enough to local politics to do more than repeat what I’ve read. The government had tried to raise its popularity on the back of the football love fest. Now, that’s evaporated. The huge spending on the tournament, some US$ 13 billion, could have gone to address many social needs. People are understandably unhappy about that, but seemed content to trade that spending off for a World Cup trophy. Now, the well is dry and the cup is gone. Thirst bites hard.

But, Brazil has not finished being parched. It will host another expensive international event soon, with the 2016 Olympic Games. The World Cup had been threatened by lack of preparedness, with much criticism from FIFA. On the face of it, the infrastructure and organization have held up well. But, the Olympics preparation is severely off track, reportedly just over 10 percent done, while London was 60 percent ready at the equivalent time. The International Olympics Committee Vice President has called it the “worst” state of preparation he’s ever seen. 20140710-060836-22116797.jpgSimon Jenkins, a hard-hitting British sports journalist, wrote a highly critical piece on the dual curse on Rio. He pours ice water on the proposals for ‘nomadic’ architecture, whereby Olympic structures could be transformed into schools. The promised further improvements in favela facilities seem stalled, but clearance of the areas has still gone ahead, with nearly 200,000 people moved–still far from Beijing’s 1.5 million. 20140710-061442-22482437.jpgEven an optimist would worry about the social trauma moves like this leave if successful. If they fail? Caramba!

All modern Olympics have been financial disasters for the hosts, leaving behind many ‘white elephants’. The eyesore of unused or underused or unnecessary structures in areas of pressing social needs is offensive enough. Dress that with the odour of privilege that trails behind the officials and dignitaries. Then top it off with the seemingly inevitable sleaze and graft that are bedfellows to these processes and you have the ingredients of a super social Molotov cocktail.

Based on recent games, the World Cup generates approximately US$3.5 billion in revenue (with most going to FIFA) and the Summer Olympics generate around US$5 billion (with most going to the IOC). Simple arithmetic tells us that the games will mean a net loss for the host country, unless the host makes up the difference with increased income from tourism and investment during the games or—as a result of the games—in the future. Recent history also shows that the projected costs are too low ad the forecast revenues and gains too optimistic. Another bomb waiting to explode. So, Rio is near to ‘riot’ in many discomforting ways. Brazil’s mid-2000s boom, needed to be extended and accelerate to propel it from emerging to developed economy. It may well re-emerge at a place it left decades ago.

The list of modern Olympic financial planning disasters makes for horrible memories: Montreal 1976, Sydney 2000, Athens 2004, Beijing 2008, London 2012. It is a roll call of subsequent economic meltdown–though London is still a work-in-progress. Greece’s financial catastrophe has its roots in the Olympic spending debacle.

So, Rio, the capital of carnivals, has a cavalcade of hearses waiting to roll on its streets as hopes of success die.

None of these problems seem evident to most visitors. Most are only concerned with the main events, and rightly so. Residents shouldn’t hold grudges against the tourists, who fill bars and restaurants and offer easy money, at least for a few weeks. My wife blanched at paying R$20 (about US$10) for three popsicles on Copacabana beach yesterday, but she paid, and in five minutes they were done, while the vendor kept doing his disappearing coin trick on a new set of punters. That was too ironic a ploy.

I may get lucky and come back to Rio for the Olympics. My older daughter tried to learn some Portuguese before this trip and has been putting it to good use. She’s talked about learning it properly and looking to encourage her employer to open a Rio office, where she’d work. All power to that thinking. Hopefully, that would deal with lodgings. Sort out transport and the deal could be done, for me, though, a bed is good enough.

Jamaica, who sees itself as part of the Olympics success package, is just getting out of some deep economic do-do. How ironic that we could help push Rio’s head firmly into that malodorous pile.

How could the beautiful game get so ugly? Brazil 1-Germany 7, is how.

I wrote previously that the notion that football is boring, or low-scoring, is a crock. I think that everyone, other than the most rabid partisans, went into yesterday’s semifinal between Brazil and Germany thinking it would be a close, tense match. That’s what we expect at these late stages and what these teams have served recently. Well, Germany rewrote the book. In a first half that surpassed stunning, they poured five goals past Brazil, three coming in a three minute spell that had people gasping for air.

As a former player watching as a neutral, but wanting to see Brazil win, my reactions were simple. When the first chances fell to Brazil, it looked as if they had a way to open the German defence. They’d struggled to do that easily in previous games, and without Neymar as playmaker and scorer, things looked good. But, forget that. In case a corner, men charged towards the near post, David Luiz was badly out of position and behind him came the predator, Muller, to volley side footed into the net. That’s alright: 1-0, and plenty of time.

We were watching the match in a hotel restaurant, just on the coast down from Ipanema. My wife had gotten everyone yellow Brazil shirts, and a green and yellow wig for our daughter.

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We are Brazil for a day
We’d walked along Copacabana beach to get there, through a throng heading the other way, towards the Fan Fest area, with its large, outdoor screen. Everyone, bar a few, including some Australians with an inflated kangaroo, for the home team.

At the restaurant, we could see one of the favelas on a hillside. The hill was covered in dark clouds.

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Looming clouds, a portent

Rain had fallen earlier in the day, as forecast. But, I asked if this was an omen. No one replied. Lightning started to fork as we waited for our meals, and the rain lashed down. Some municipal guards came inside for shelter. The TV blanked out. Groans. The image came back. Cheers. “Iron out the kinks now,” someone said. Our food arrived. We started to deal with it, but were bothered by rain coming in from a side window. Then, another patron pointed to water on the floor. A pipe had burst and water was jetting up through the floor, and rolling towards us. Bags and things were grabbed off the floor. A man put his foot over the hole from where the water was coming. Germany scored their second goal. By the time we had rearranged ourselves, Germany had scored two more. Three goals in three minutes. I looked at the dark sky.

The screen was filled with images of crying fans. Brazilian players were looking as though they has seen a ghost. Where was Christ the a Redeemer? The game was half an hour in. Coach Scolari waved his arms, and mouthed what seemed like instructions. The analysis started. But, only one question, really: what was happening? Records were being shattered. “Stay positive,” my wife and her Bahamian friend muttered. Germany scored a fifth. Good, Lord. This was a disaster. http://www.fifa.com/worldcup/photos/galleries/y=2014/m=7/gallery=brasil-alemania-en-imagenes-2401948-2401954.html#2401884

I’ve never seen anything like this. Brazil had for years been known to be bad at defending, but goal scoring kept them above others. Then, they learned how to defend and how to be rough, thanks to Scolari in an earlier presence. The teams never had the magical flair of the 1970 team, but Brazil kept winning or being close. No more beautiful game, but still plenty of trophies. Winning ugly, even with the much disliked penalty shootout. Brazil was never routed, though. Now, this: down 5-0 at half time.

The second half began with promise and also portents. Brazil created clear chances, but failed to beat the German keeper, either through his good position in or through sloppy and hasty shooting. Then, a Germany break away. Here we go again, 6-0. Skip the detail, then 7-0. That Brazil got a consolation goal to end up losing 7-1, is irrelevant. The tears flowed as hard as the rain drenching outside. More analysis. My older daughter and I are football coaches, so we went into the Xs and Os of what system seemed to be used, and who seemed to not be playing well or being invisible.

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Big Phil with little to say

It didn’t really matter, because a top level international team had been royally schooled, stripped naked, and thrown out into the freezing cold of a humiliating defeat. Worst of all, at home. The hopes of a nation drowned. The little happiness that football had brought was now replaced by the dread that would be there for eternity. No loss of face from a defeat by Argentina in the final. This was unimaginable and much worse. No need for the statistics and records. Worst of most things to do with Brazilian football was written into the stone tablets of history. I thought of Pele, and knew he must be shedding tears so hard and salty that all around him had to cry, too.

We eventually left the hotel and went to a bar in Ipanema. We had heard reports that ‘manifestations’ were happening in Copacabana, and that riot police were out dealing with that, so wanted things to cool down. We’d seen the heavy deployment of security personnel on our way to watch the game. By the time we reached the bar, owned originally by the writer of the song ‘Girl from Ipanema’, Vinícius de Moraes, the rain was teeming down.
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We got out of the cab and joked with some Americans who’d watched the game outdoors and were drenched. The rain poured for about another two hours. Any riotous intentions were likely being washed away, literally.

We watched post match analyses, and saw the drawn face of the Brazil coach, his tearful captain and vice captain, the Joyous but respectful German team representatives. We couldn’t hear their words, but I thought I could discern their sentiments. We drank coffee and ate dessert. Someone mentioned listening to music upstairs later. Most of us had no interest. We headed out into the flooded streets to hail a cab.
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One stopped soon, and we forded the water to get in. We all had soaked feet, to rub in the ignominy of defeat (a pun?). Rain had eased, and as we approached Copacabana, we saw drying streets, and people having a normal-looking evening: little groups by bars, waving hands in animation, people with little bags of shopping.

Someone said that Brazilians have short memories, and the politicians will hope so, as elections approach in October. History has its entry, and short memories won’t erase that. Will it matter? Who knows. The players now have embarrassment engraved into their character. The joy of previous wins, especially against Colombia a few evenings ago, are like ashes now. The ecstatic face of David Luiz after he scored his stunning free kick could not compare to his tear-drenched look, as the defeated captain. That mantle, given to him because the actual captain, Thiago Silva, was suspended. Thanks, a lot.

And Neymar? Spared actually playing because of a broken vertebra. The speculation will never end about whether his injury and absence were the real difference. If Brazil had lost heart before the match. If Brazil had no hope without him during the match. He can score. Fred and Hulk cannot, with regularity. As one analyst wrote, the needed a syllable or two to be Brazilian greats, like Pé-lé, Rivelino, Tostao, Romero, Ronaldo. One syllable is like having only one foot in football.

Though the context is completely different, I can only think of Stevie Wonder’s lyrics for ‘I believe…’:

Shattered dreams, worthless years,
Here am I encased inside a hollow shell,
Life began, then was done,
Now I stare into a cold and empty well

The search for scapegoats has already begun. It will hunt through the team from its top, naturally. One trenchant critique, by Bleacher report, says much with which I would agree: David Luiz was pivotal (read here). If he played, the wrong role, however, was that by personal design or with coach’s approval? He was not the only player whose assignment seemed mixed up. We will hear more as days pass.

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Brazil has to believe in itself like never before. A pointless match for third place comes on Saturday. The pressure to win and play well should be there, but it will be muted by the lump in the throat that is missing out on the final. Whoever wins on Sunday, it cannot be Brazil. That dashed hope, like a burning flame, snuffed out.

The beautiful game is now about to get deadly serious: Brazil 2014 semifinals

This is my third time being in the host country during the World Cup final stages. In England, 1966 was all about World Cup Willie and that ‘We’ll win the cup.” So, it turned out, and a victory so steeped in historical significance, as West Germany were beaten on the hallowed turf of Wembley.

20140708-120148-43308443.jpg I’d like to say that the word for the tournament should have been lionized. I really remember many things apart from the final. The kicking of Pele. The rise of Eusebio. The horrible tactics of the Argentina team, especially, Ratín. England playing in red, and the country full of bulldog spirit.20140708-121213-43933310.jpg I was wrapped up in it all. The West Ham trio of Hurst, Moore, and Peters were national heroes, so was manager, Alf Ramsey.

Twenty years later, I was on a working visit to Latin America, including Mexico in time for the final game. My boss had hooked up his tickets; I had to fend for myself. I did alright, snagging a pair from a tout at face value. My friend and I were right behind a goal, with a perfect view. The final was superb play and drama, with Argentina, blessed with the imagination and guile of Maradona, overcoming Germany, again. I was bitter that the Argentines were in the final, having cheated England out of the semifinals, with Maradona’s handball goal. But, I swallowed that as I feasted on my luck, seated at the final.

The endearing image of 1986 was Maradona, good and bad. It was his tournament.

The whole trip was intriguing, involving mainly meetings with central bankers, finance ministry officials, and commercial bankers, about how to get the region’s major debtors out of their debt crises, which had started with Mexico declaring default in 1982. Some of our meetings were interrupted by football, never the other way around, as we moved through Colombia, Venezuela, and Mexico, as the region sought solace in the bliss that was football.

It’s only now that I notice that Germany was a constant, getting to the final each time I was present, and losing. Ominous? My Brazilian hosts must hope so. They have ready made excuses if they fall now, having lost one of their stars to injury. No more, Neymar.
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But, they have Christ the Redeemer looking over them in many ways. The statue is the dominant image of Rio. But, religion is taken seriously here, and saying that football is religion is no mere cliche. I think Brazilians feel that they will win at home. But, they are afraid…of Argentina. The rivalries between the two countries are long-lived, deep-seated, and ready to flare up over football. Brazil could lose to any country, but not Argentina. It would be beyond grief, if they lose. The ecstasy side would be simpler…party, forever.

Brazil has left one great image, the image of David Luiz scoring against Colombia in the quarterfinal. The free kick was sublime: a knuckleball kick, with ball not rotating and hit the net from about 25 meters. Watch it. Then see his glory run. Pure relief for him and 190 million others.

Churches are decked in yellow and green bunting, their insides bathed in green light.

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National colour on everything

If praying counted, the match will be Brazil’s.

Fans are donning their green and yellow garb, teeth are not spared. My wife has turned our troupe into Neymar babies. One paper had masks of the fallen hero. We are all number 10.

Heavy rain has just started, a few hours before the match. An omen? Pull out the rosaries.

Paqueta: a step back in time

The island of Paqueta is the kind of place that is all too rare these days. It is close to a large urban area but shares little in terms of how it has developed.
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In particular, Paqueta has no motorised vehicles; only bicycles and horse-drawn carriages are supposed to move people around.

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Horses still provide the driver power

Truth is, you’ll see a few trucks belonging to the municipal government, clearing garbage. You’ll also see a tractor pulling a makeshift bus. But, that’s about it. What parts of Rio have on Sundays and holidays, Paqueta has everyday.

It was once the weekend getaway spot for Rio’s rich, but now they apparently sneer at going there. If true, more space for visitors to Rio during the World Cup.
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The ferry was full heading there in the early afternoon. Many were locals, but many were those foreigners still in Brazil for the remaining World Cup matches. Costa Rican fans were ‘licking their wounds’, after their team lost its quarterfinal on Saturday. Argentina’s fans were in boisterous mood, heading into their match against Holland on Wednesday. German fans, likewise.

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Pick your ride

Brazilian fans, which were just about everyone else, were just still lapping up the goodness that comes from being hosts and still in the hunt.

Paqueta has little more to offer than its tranquility, but that’s worth a lot these days. We had lunch in a hotel restaurant that had been open since the 1920s.

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Old phone

It had on display some technologies from the various decades: manual calculator, typewriter, old telephone, etc. It also offered some simple solid fare to eat. After a few days eating meat like Brazilians, I needed my meatless Monday. Fish was a welcome change, with a huge salad. It also offered the litre bottle of beer.

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Beer by comparison with other liquids

My older daughter and I chose not to rent bikes after lunch, for fear of buttacheitis, but walked on the beach instead, admiring the calm of the sea and some of the old buildings. We then sat to watch the sun start to set.
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A mother was trying unsuccessfully to get her daughters to stop rolling in the sand and head home. Some fishermen sat without shirts sharing a bottle of what looked like white rum. The beach had stone chess tables, and I could visualize moves being made decades ago.

We took our pictures, several minutes apart, and gawped at the stunning mountains in the background. I don’t know what my daughter was thinking, but I imagined living here centuries ago and wondering who lived in those mountains or what was happening on the mainland. I would have had my fishing and been content.

The sun set for the day, but thankfully it will rise on Tuesday to greet this sleepy island unchanged.

A day in the life of a Rio favela. Jamaica, are you watching?

The idea of tourists taking a guided tour of a Rio favela struck me as tacky. The idea of my being one of them seemed far fetched. So, what was I doing being driven in a van up a hill for a tour of a favela? I was being a team player during World Cup 2014. Out local guide quickly changed my attitude.

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Carlos, our guide

Carlos was so humble, and unassuming; he was not blasé, and he was not pompous or annoyed about what he was showing.

Call a favela a slum for simplicity sake. As in any country, where masses of poor people live, certain characteristics appear. So Favela Santa Marta was little different at first sight.
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It was Sunday afternoon, and most people were just cooling out. Lots of little children were playing–football in an area covered with artificial turf, running around playing tag, using the tourists as shields as we walked along.

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Atop the favela

Adults were in small groups on roof tops bars, one group getting ready for a birthday party for the lady bartender. Other groups were listening to funky music and grilling meat. Some just cooled out in bars along the narrow passageways.
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The first contrast with Jamaica that struck me was that no one came with a begging hand. Now, it could be that the community, which is organized in many clear ways, has come to shun that behaviour, but it’s a habit that’s generally less evident in Rio than in Kingston.

We walked around and marveled at the views of Rio from the high and steep hillside dwelling.

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Amazing view from the hillside

It did not take much imagination to think that one pressure to change the area would be its desirable location. Gentrification may not be far away. It may be closer since recent efforts by the government to make favelas more like normal areas: improving water supplies; introducing ‘police pacifying units’, and using government organizations to run more things and push away control from drug and criminal gangs; forcing people to pay for their use of electricity and cable TV. I had to look at my wife and smile at the thought of JPS’s recent tussles to deal with electricity theft in Kingston. The good and bad of both sides were easy to see. The favela was wrapped in electrical cables, much of it looking jerry-rigged, but with some standard fittings for street lights. We saw the new digital metering boxes. We heard about cases of overcharging of customers. Some wondered about fire risks.

My mind is never far from risk:reward issues. I looked at the piles of garbage caught in narrow areas where water pushed things but could carry them no further. Kingston’s gullies are wide and we avoid such piling up in many areas because of that.
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Garbage collection, and many social services face peculiar problems in a Rio favela, perched on a steep hillside, where the way in and out means steep movement up and down. You cannot do much except deliver in bulk at the bottom and get things redistributed upwards. Likewise, getting material down must be in small amounts. I looked at the newish fernicular railway that made the climb and descent much easier for people. It was easy to see how that one provision could and had transformed daily life.

Michael Jackson had visited this favela and made his video song ‘They don’t really care about us’. Though, I knew the song, I had never seen the video. We were given a viewing in a little store that sold MJ memorabilia.

My first reaction was “Those are Rasta colours,” as I saw the typically tight choreography. My second reaction was several thoughts, including wondering which politicians had seen allowing this as part of a strategy to help push change. I know that The Pope and President Obama have been well-publicized favela visitors. They’re now chic. Rudi Guiliani had sent materials from NYC to help develop this favela. Things were moving in a good direction, it seemed.

Our tour organizer had stressed at the outset that the favela would be safe. As we stood perched at the top, where we started, and looked from a pavilion down, we heard a loud crack and saw smoke. “It’s only fireworks, folks, don’t worry,” he said quickly. No one had ducked or screamed, but I wondered if he’d gotten an OMG moment. He seemed well at ease in the community, joking with kids and our guide. He told me that he was not from a favela, but had befriended people from there when he’d arrived in Rio, feeling more affinity with them than with the crowd he met in Copacabana.

We are not going to be major agents of change with our favela visits lasting 90 minutes, and pressing some cash into a few hands. I live seeing kids playing, and naive as it may seem, that’s usually one thing I try to use as a gauge of how life goes. Kids are not good at faking it. The little girl who carried a plate covered in foil to a table by a bar was deadly serious. That salad was for the party, not me. The boys who crashed into my legs, running from each other had not seen me as anything other than another object. I saw boys flying kites from high roofs. I did not have some idyllic notion that they would be with parents on comfy sofas watching Brazil play Germany on Tuesday. I visualized a mass, gathered around a TV or in a square crying out “Brasil! Brasil!” I visualized them all crying when the final whistle was blown, whatever the result. Tears taste the same, whether of joy or pain.

Our tour organizer said later that Brazil will beat Germany, but feared that they would meet Argentina in the final. Why? Brazil may lose, to their arch rivals. Argentina supporters had already been strutting after their quarter final win. No. Lose, yes, but not to Argentina. He did not want that blight on his children’s lives. I was stunned that this young man focussed on the generations to come. But, he was a football apassionado, if I can use that word. He was a fan of Flamenco, the red and black colours ruled his vision and thoughts once he saw them. It is a simple thing in many football-crazy countries. Everything comes back to that. Much of life’s significance and personal pride gets reduced to that.

Brazil is on a high. World Cup now. Olympic Games in 2016. The world loves Brazil and she can return it in bucket loads. Favela life may get more than a sweet smell and wash over from that. Maybe, some jobs. Maybe, some wider interest. Maybe, some cleaning up and more consistent flows of public interest and money.

I asked about land ownership, drugs, alcoholism, sex trading. I did not hear much that surprised or shocked me. Alcohol is a bigger problem than drugs: people had seen the effects of the latter and were afraid of it. Land titles were not easy to create, but evidence of ownership was available. Of course, sex sells and is bought. Duh! I should have asked about whether the favelas are becoming the hip place to visit for ordinary Brazilians. I suspect not yet. The alleyways don’t lend themselves to casual visiting. More likely, favela action creeps down the hill into streets, bars, clubs and bedrooms. Everyone loves Samba.

Jamaica can take many lessons from the process of repositioning favelas. Slums have stigmas, but they contain lives as valuable as any. They often have great creativity. Living on little does wonders for ingenuity. Getting out and ‘moving ahead’ may be in some minds, but getting by is more likely. Few people really like to suffer all the time. Those who say people should get out of the favelas are good examples of those who see instant fixes in life. You can get poor in a hurry, but getting out from under the rock of poverty isn’t usually easy or fast.

Jamaican garrison politics depends much on being able to control through attrition, so pressure to maintain ghettos is strong. Our criminal elements have not yet been displaced by administrative structures, not least because they cannot deliver services as well the Dons can. So, we can look to Brazil, but our journey won’t be the same. But, baby steps may be starting to happen.

Football can be Krul: How Dutch courage changed a match

Call me a snob about football. But, I think I’ve been in and around long enough to know what I see. Yesterday, another pair of quarter finals matches were played. Argentina looked better than Belgium throughout and got a 1-0 win with an quick volley from Higuain, whose form had been in question. Asked and answered. We watched the match by Copacabana Beach, in a restaurant with a good crop of Argentine supporters.

Next up was Holland-Costa Rica. I’m pulling for the Dutch, who are nation which has been to the final game the most and never won. It was what I would caught a hard-fought match. Costa Rica looked content to defend tightly and break away when they could. The Dutch looked to attack constantly, and snuff out counter attacks. Los Ticos were very well organized, and goalkeeper, Navas, was in great form; call him Howardesque’, performing similar heroic saves as the USA keeper had a few days ago on the same ground against Belgium. Maybe, it’s the grass. The posts and crossbar was playing for them too. The Dutch had good enough chances to score, but didn’t, and the match went to a penalty shoot out. Never my liking as a player, coach, or spectator. I would always prefer to see more play, with reduced numbers.

But, this shoot out would different. A minute from the end of extra time, the Dutch made a substitution. They brought on goalkeeper Tim Krul. “That’s an insult!” said my daughter-soccer coach. Not at all, I said. Krul is a great shot blocker, with excellent form in shoot outs. A bold move by coach van Gaal. This bringing on of a penalty saving specialist had never happened before in the World Cup finals. Bold the move proved to be, as Krul saved two shots and the Dutch won the shoot out 4-3. 20140706-070346-25426202.jpgThat set up the classic encounter with them against Argentina. You can look up the history of that contest, but let me just say the record shows epic battles.

Now, why did I mention snobbery? Some people thought the match had been pedestrian or boring. The latter came from its lack of goals. Since when has that been the measure of great football? It’s like saying that chess matches are boring because they end in stalemate. The countering plays of each side is THE game. Goals may come, but luck plays a big part. Instead of the woodwork being hit, we could have seen at least one stunning goal, which would have been memorable. But, football is also much about the agonizing near misses. So, put away your nonsense about boring and get back to reading about cuticle removal.

The game being pedestrian is trickier to deal with. It’s open to several views, depending on how literal one wants to be. I thought the match was played at a fast pace, considering the conditions, which we know to be hot and humid. But, it could refer to the style of play. The Dutch tried to weave their way through Costa Rica’s covering layers, and often found the way to hola blocked. The Costa Ricans played balls forward quickly, trying to catch the Dutch exposed in defence, but often finding their lone striker couldn’t get past the last defender. At least one commentator thought the Dutch moved the ball too slowly. Relative speed of play may matter to some, so I won’t bang hard against pedestrian. But, each team plays to its style and rhythm. The Dutch have Arjen Robben, who, though 30-something, was clocked at 37 kilometres per hour (23 miles per hour) during Holland’s 5-1 rout of Spain – a new record for a footballer. He is surely not pedestrian, except when lying prone on the ground.

Two thrilling semi finals to come, which will be played however each team feels best to shift the delicate balance of top-level play in its favour. Au Jeu.