The party started early in Salvador. Forget 4 July, 2 July was Independence Day here in Bahia. A public holiday, the streets teemed with colour amid a riot of green and yellow. To the sound of endless marching bands, families thronged the streets dancing, drinking beer and eating grilled meat from ad hoc street stalls. In contrast, those streets were eerily quiet at teatime on Friday.
A handful of late stragglers desperately looked for somewhere to watch the match as kick-off neared.
In the background, the haunted faces of Júlio César, Luiz Felipe Scolari and Thiago Silva rotated on silent loop. The collective madness that seems to have gripped Scolari’s tearful squad has not, in the main, transmitted to the country at large. But as kick-off neared, it was as though there was a national collective realisation that this was where things got serious.
The morning papers gave tongue-in-cheek tips on how to avoid a heart attack and dissected why the mainly white, moneyed supporters inside the stadiums were not giving the team enough vocal backing. The stragglers strode with the combination of purpose and nervousness familiar to any football fan before a big match. Most were heading for the official fan fest – the big screen “viewing experience” that has become an integral part of tournament planning.
Before the tournament, some said that Brazilians would not take to communal viewing. But that has proved not to be the case, with more than 3 million queueing up to be frisked at the gates. While some of the official fan fests in South Africa – often out of town in miserable locations – had tumbleweed blowing through them, the Brazilian ones have been largely packed. Salvador was no exception. Merchandisers lined up to sell knock-off green and gold jerseys, Brazilian flags and three cans of lager for five reais. Inside, there was good-natured bedlam and horrible tension.
Fifa’s Fan Fests are, on the one hand, a horribly deadening corporate experience and, on the other, an opportunity for those who cannot afford or could not get tickets (ie the vast majority of the Brazilian public) to grab a slice of this World Cup.
So while it is easy to sneer at the queues for the free Coca-Cola inflatables or the gangs of cavorting life-size Brahma cans, the tens of thousands clad in various combinations of yellow and green who were packed on to the coastal site seemed to be enjoying themselves. Overwhelmingly young and Brazilian, the main activity seemed to be proving you were there with an endless stream of selfies, as with most communal events these days.
The atmosphere was initially largely that of a friendly, heavily branded, school disco. Until the football intervened and they were put through the wringer once more. Yellow and green Mohican wigs were popular, likewise nails meticulously painted with the Brazilian flag.
Every other shirt had Neymar Jr and the No10 on the back. Salvador’s authorities eventually agreed to put Fifa’s marketing extension on one of their most famous beaches, nestling beneath the lighthouse at Barra. São Paulo’s version, miserably crammed between skyscrapers and a flyover, cannot really compare. The natural slope running up to the lighthouse made for the perfect natural amphitheatre.
As the sun – and the beers – went down, the atmosphere started to crackle. Of course, the beers were all Brahma – those present had already agreed to forfeit any contraband items deemed to break Fifa’s rules. Not that they seemed to care. It was almost as though they were watching a basketball match or a video game.
Each time possession changed hands, a cheer went up. Whenever Neymar got the ball, the screams got louder. A step-over demanded acclamation as loud as a goal. Outside, in the warren of bars and restaurants that line the ocean, wiser heads bit their nails as Brazil’s predilection for kamikaze defending returned.
When David Luiz, who runs Neymar close for popularity, struck the second goal with a great free-kick it seemed the party could begin. But this Brazil side do not do things the easy way. There was still time for Júlio César to concede a penalty, converted by James Rodríguez, and for a tearful Neymar to be carried off on a stretcher.
A horrible hush descended as he did so. At full-time, as this Brazil side lumbered and occasionally thrilled their way to the semi-finals, the exhausted cheers were as much of relief as of triumph.
Then the band started up and they began planning to do it all over again.