July 31, 2014
In the Bosnian bunker
Special to the Herald
The newcomer faces Argentina, not an easy first step, they admit
RÍO DE JANEIRO — Guarujá, a beach resort with white sand and a green ocean, is 90 kilometres out from Sao Paulo. It’s a weekend getaway, far enough to get some distance from the din of the monstruos metropolis. Guarujá is also the Bosnian base in Brazil. The protests and marches don’t make it out there, neither do the daily criticisms of Dilma Rousseff’s organization of the World Cup — a legacy, just like the government, of her colleague Lula da Silva. In this hideout, Bosnia has been preparing for its first appearance at a World Cup. The only newcomer at this tournament will be Argentina’s rival this afternoon in the Maracanã in what will be the first game of Brazil 2014 for both sides.
If Argentina is seeking to exorcise the ghosts of the quarterfinals, its barrier at World Cups for the last 20 years, Bosnia is aiming to at least make it out of the group stages. Such a target may not be such a reach given the other rivals in Group F: Iran and Nigeria. In addition, for the Bosnians, who two decades ago went through a war after having declared their independence, it’s a reaffirmation of their identity.
“Nobody expects to beat Argentina,” says Bosnian journalist Sasa Ibrulj. “Argentina is considered to be the best team in the world, one of the favourites to win the World Cup. And the fact is that 90 percent of people are thinking about the second spot and the games against Nigeria and Iran as the most important,” he adds. “Of course, it’s a great feeling to play the first game of the World Cup in the Maracanã and against Argentina. But the pressure will be on the Argentines.”
Bosnia was welcomed with samba music in Guarujá, where Pelé and Neymar — two Santos stars at opposite ends of its history — have homes. Argentina was also greeted warmly in Belo Horizonte, in the state of Minas Gerais. In Cidade de Galo, the chosen base for the tournament, Brazilians line up in long queues just to have a brief glimpse of Lionel Messi.
It’s in sharp contrast to what is occurring in other parts of the country. Teachers blocked the Brazilian team from entering Teresópolis. There were subway strikes that generated traffic chaos in Sao Paulo, a city that even on a normal day requires infinite patience. Arrows were shot at police by indigenous groups. Social movements occupied public spaces, some of them nearby the Itaquerao, the Sao Paulo stadium were the inaugural game was played on Thursday. On the first day of the tournament the police intervened to beat back an attempt to block the Radial Leste avenue by “Black Bloc” anarchist anti-Cup groups. And Dilma was insulted in the stadium. “Eh, Dilma, vai tomar no culo,” the four corners of the stadium shouted, occupied by middle and upper class fans. The rest of the country can’t afford the price of the tickets.
The government mobilized the army, and above all the military police, which is notably present at the teams’ base camps, airports, hotels hosting FIFA executives and stadiums. Despite the criticism, Dilma Rousseff has reason to be pleased. The World Cup, although scraping past the starting-line and faced with unprecedented protests, has begun. The Brazilian president will seek re-election on October 5 and she knows that her team’s performance is key to her chances. Although she is facing a headwind, she still has popular support. This, despite the fact that the right-wing opposition has attempted to capitalize on the Cup’s negative image. The left and social movements that until recently were close to her Worker’s Party (PT) have challenged the tournament — on which over US$ 10 billion was spent — and the invasion by the FIFA world.
Dilma is resisted by the traditional media and the establishment. She is taking heat for the corruption cases. Neither does she have a harmonious relationship with FIFA. She let the powerful Ricardo Teixeira and João Havelange fall from grace after they were accused of receiving bribes as FIFA executives. And while she now has José María Marín, former governor of Sao Paulo state during the dictatorship, as president of the Brazilian Football Association (CBF) it is well-known that she can’t stand him. Before the World Cup started Dilma met with representatives from Bom Senso, a group of Brazilian soccer players looking to improve soccer in the country. Marín can’t have been pleased with that meeting.
Amid those contradictions, struggles and tensions, a highly significant World Cup for Brazil and for South has started. Because beyond the local team and Argentina, Colombia, Ecuador, Chile and Uruguay — which still fondly remembers the Maracanazo in 1950 — are all looking to do well. This afternoon Lionel Messi’s side will be facing a newcomer. Safet Susic, the Bosnian manager, is a national hero of shorts. “Many people remember him as the best placer that the country has ever had,” says Sasa Ibrulj. They still look back on the game between Argentina and Yugoslavia at the World Cup in 1990, a game that Susic played in, and a friendly in 1979 in which he scored a hat-trick. Now, the star is Manchester City placer Edin Dzeko. Before travelling the Bosnian players asked to meet Pelé. But they haven’t travelled to take a stroll on the beaches, nor to take photographs. In the Maracanã, Argentina will be able to test the strength of the newcomers. And to discover how much talent they’ve brought to Brazil.