(A few weeks ago in Boston I met Nate Waters, who plays soccer for Principia College in Illinois, near St. Louis. He told me he was catching a few matches in Brazil, and I said I was extremely jealous. I was curious what a college player would find interesting about being at the World Cup and made him promise to write. He wrote two lovely pieces that were well received by readers. Here is his final report.)
By Nate Waters
Great athletes say that when their feet cross the line, they jog onto the freshly cut grass and glance down at the name on their chest. Nothing else in the world matters. They’re required to forget about what happened the previous day. Everything pauses, because nothing is bigger than the next 90 minutes. After traveling down the coast of Brazil and attending three World Cup matches, it seems as if the country has paused to enjoy watching the Seleção attempt to sew a sixth star into Brazilian soccer history.
Attending the World Cup is like no other trip I could imagine. Each corner is equipped with street stands selling jerseys, every park is packed with people cheering for their home country, and the taxi drivers couldn’t be more busy. It’s an atmosphere of excitement, passion and patriotism. I was caught up in the magic of it all.
Every activity was determined by the games being played that afternoon. We weren’t sure if we should visit the Christ the Redeemer statue because the United States was playing Portugal that night. Waiters brought out food and drinks only during commercial breaks and halftime. And I quickly realized that sporting the canary yellow Brazil jersey was the safest choice one could make while cruising through Rio de Janeiro.
While being swept up in the awesomeness of crossing the street into Copacabana Beach, you would not think to look down and notice “Go Home FIFA” stenciled into the crosswalk, as if it was included when the streets were first painted.
However, thousands pass by each day glancing down at the bitter reality that this World Cup has brought to Brazil. The tourists probably never noticed the fare increase for the Metro or that the Brazilian workers outside the stadiums have “Volunteer” printed on their official shirts because FIFA does not pay most of its employees. The only concern was to arrive before kickoff and be squished with 10,000 other fans on the burning sand to watch the game in the FIFA Fan Fest.
Brazil is caught up in hosting the World Cup, and the riots seem to have been overshadowed by a 22-year-old striker with a crazy Mohawk and four goals for his country. Maybe it’s Neymar or simply the amount of tourists that outshine all of the problems we read about before, but the Brazilian dream of playing futebol on the beach and enjoying the breathtaking beauty all seemed to be true.
I watched the Brazil-Cameroon game with a Brazilian family in São Paulo, and following Neymar’s second goal, they all cheered, calling him the best player in the world. I laughed for a second and questioned if they truly thought he was better than Messi or Ronaldo or Van Persie, even referencing other great Brazilian players like Ronaldinho. I honestly had never seen such confusion before as I was almost asked to leave the room and find a different place to watch the game.
It’s true—nothing is bigger than soccer in Brazil. It’s their culture. It’s what unites the country. It’s the beautiful game.
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(In case you missed, here are Nate Waters’ two earlier pieces. I just want to add how happy I am for him that he produced these three articles. Good luck, Nate.)
“They may hate the cultural context they now find themselves teaching in, but they love their work. The Achilles’ heel of schoolteachers, one all too easily exploited by politicians, is that they love their students.”
(One of the best reads in the NYT these days is Margaret Renkl, in Nashville. In her latest post, Renkl describes the dedicated core of “born teachers” – the majority, she submits.)
(From Madeleine Albright in one of her final interviews in February):
“Putin is small and pale,” I wrote, “so cold as to be almost reptilian.” He claimed to understand why the Berlin Wall had to fall but had not expected the whole Soviet Union to collapse. “Putin is embarrassed by what happened to his country and determined to restore its greatness.” – Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, recalling her first meeting with the relatively unknown Vladimir Putin in 2000. – The New York Times, Feb. 23, 2022.