If by chance you have never been to a Brazilian training session, allow me to recommend it most highly. (Apologies for the overflow of analogies here, but for those of us new to arguably the biggest sporting event in the world, comparisons are all we’ve got.) A Brazilian training session is like ballet without the ponciness, Riverdance without the Enya-like faux Celtic-ness. It has the same air of practised-to-the-bone choreography that might put one in mind of trapeze artists, but with fewer sequins and more hair gel. It is, in other words, a surprisingly soothing way to wile away an afternoon.
On Wednesday afternoon the Brazilian team took to the Arena Corinthians in São Paulo and pretended to practise football for the benefit of the world’s press beneath Fifa and Brazil flags (there were twice as many Fifa flags and they were twice as big). Neymar – very much Brazil’s star; football newbies should envisage Justin Bieber crossed with Ricky Martin multiplied by a puppy – did some fancy knee work (which I was solemnly informed by one World Cup veteran is officially referred to in the professional lingo as “keepy-uppy”) and briefly pretended that there was some kind of risk that he might drop the ball. Neymar did not drop the ball. The world’s sporting press affected to be too jaded to be wowed by this young beagle and vaguely dithered over their laptops, but a brief search of social media showed the majority of them were tweeting photos of Neymar on the pitch. While most practice sessions only allow the press to watch for a few minutes, Brazil happily let everyone stay the full hour, even allowing them to stay to watch the physio bend the players afterwards into shapes that made them look like illustrations out of The Joy of Sex. The reason for this, apparently, is because they are so confident about their playing ability that they don’t mind people watching. England are especially strict about throwing the journalists out after 15 minutes.
But the biggest surprise of the training session to the unpractised eye was the kit. Instead of the team wearing the famous yellow and green kit – they were wearing a tedious dark green one, livened up with the occasional pair of neon sneakers.
“Why do they wear a different kit to practise than they do to play?” I asked my more experienced neighbour.
“So they can make more money,” he replied.
This turns out to be the answer to most things football-related and everything Fifa-related at the World Cup. Why aren’t we allowed to bring our own water into the press area in the stadium? So they can make more money. Why don’t any plug adaptors work in the stadium? So they can make more money. (Perhaps Fifa has its own electrics system.) Why do we have to pay for soft drinks provided by Fifa’s own sponsors? So they can make more money. Rumours that a Fifa-sponsored cashpoint in the stadium’s media centre will take your credit card and give you nothing in return have yet to be confirmed. What was confirmed was that a pickpocket was on the loose in the press area of the stadium before the World Cup had even begun, and the world’s sporting press hugged their precious iMacs and even more precious iPhones even closer to their bodies than usual. At least two journalists had money stolen out of their bags, which seemed outrageous to me, especially because one of those journalists was me.
“Someone has stolen my money!” I complained to someone vaguely official-looking.
“It happens,” he shrugged. Someone later swore they saw Sepp Blatter running out of the stadium, cackling maniacally, clutching various wallets to his chest.
But it’s hard to argue with a Fifa official while you’re at the World Cup because it would be like quarrelling with God in the real world: ultimately, they have the final say and, if you annoy them, they’ll put a curse on all your family and have you wiped off the Earth. Throughout the backstage area there are giant screens that show – instead of the actual news – rolling adverts for Fifa that promise Fifa can cure everything, including racism and war, and that is not an exaggeration. “Fifa: Football as a catalyst for change; no football without ethics or integrity” trumpeted a typically 1984-esque email that arrived in my inbox while I was sitting in a Fifa stadium, eating Fifa food, paying Fifa money (except it’s not actual money because the only currency Fifa accepts is a particular kind credit card which also happens to be their sponsor.) “We are one rhythm!” squealed posters all over the stadium, which seemed like a sadly too late attempt to turn an already hated World Cup anthem into something more Gloria Estefan-esque.
But the most hilarious thing about being backstage with the press at the World Cup has nothing to do with the venality of Fifa but rather something even more outrageous: gender imbalance. For at least 75% of the working day I was the only woman in any room or vehicle I was in, and I got such shocked stares I became briefly paranoid I had some Fifa food stuck on my face. I haven’t been in such a male environment since the time I accidentally walked into the men’s room at Stamford Bridge.
But by the end of Wednesday, even the jaded male and female sporting press seemed to be feeling something akin to excitement. “We’re going to see Brazil play on Brazil’s soil!” sighed one happily. All this anticipation, all this exhaustion, all these nationalities thrust together, all this venality, all this overexpenditure and, most of all, all this corporate excitement undercut with vague menace – why, I wondered, does this feel so familiar? And then I got it: the Fifa World Cup reminds me of Disneyland.