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December 18, 2014

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Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Saying goodbye from Christ the Redeemer

Tourists visit Rio de Janiero’s famous Christ the Redeemer statue, with the World Cup Maracanã stadium in the background.
By Rick Maese & Dom Phillips
The Washington Post (*)

With the World Cup finally over, Brazil is left with one lingering question: was it all worth it?

RIO DE JANEIRO — Situated high above the city, the iconic Christ the Redeemer statue can see it all. On Sunday, the nearly 100-foot statue could turn to its left, peek down at the oval in the roof of the historic Maracanã stadium and see the culmination of a World Cup that was packed with equal parts drama and controversy. In the end, Germany scored a late goal to top Argentina, 1-0, and win its fourth World Cup title.

It was an exciting finish worthy of a tournament that had no shortage of theatrics. From the Amazon rain forest to Copacabana beach, this World Cup hypnotized a nation. And now that it has finished and all the pomp and circumstance gets packed up for four years and shipped across the ocean, the host nation is left with one lingering question: was it all worth it?

“We gave a party in our home, and everyone had fun,” said Alexandre Campos, 41, of Rio. “Of course, a party has its costs.”

For many, the estimated price tag to host the massive 12-city event — reportedly around US$12 billion — could never justify five weeks of fun and games. There were at least eight deaths tied to stadium construction, plus forced evictions, cost overruns and nationwide protests. For many more, the legacy of the tournament will be tied closely to what unfolded on the field and the failings of the Brazilian national team.

“Brazil wanted to show something to the world, and that was the conquest of the World Cup,” said Jean Sena, 39, from Manaus. “But we failed in a very ugly way.”

Yes, the home team enthralled and then disappointed, but soccer fans will remember so much more. A player was banished for biting an opponent. The US team ignited passions back home, backed by a goalkeeper who showed the amazing ability to be everywhere at once. Traditional powers such as Spain and England suffered embarrassing defeats, while plucky underdogs Costa Rica and Mexico turned in spirited performances.

Even though Germany was the team hoisting the championship trophy here Sunday, the mere presence of the blue Argentine jerseys in the final underscored how disastrously this tournament unfolded for Brazil on the field. The host nation had to watch its archrival contend for perhaps the biggest title in all of sports. “Disappointment the size of my optimism” is how 38-year-old Cauby Fonseca described it.

“I was very optimistic, so I am very disappointed,” he said.

This event wasn’t a series of 64 soccer games as much it was a prolonged period of nationwide soul-searching. There were protests, tear gas, new construction in a dozen cities and billions of dollars ultimately doled out. It was a party that many didn’t want, but when it finally arrived last month, most still took part.

“I thought it was absurd the amount of spending,” said Rodrigo Franca, a 25-year-old from the northeastern coastal city of Recife.

On Friday in Brasilia, the nation’s capital, Brazil President Dilma Rousseff held an informal gathering with reporters at her official residence, the opulent Alvorada Palace. Tables were filled World Cup trinkets, and green and gold scarves were tied around banisters.

“For me,” she said, “the big legacy of the Cup is that we did the Cup in Brazil despite being told it would be chaos... people showed it was the contrary.”

A year before the tournament, tens of thousands protested all over the nation, many ending in violent clashes with police.

Though the organized demonstrations tapered down in recent weeks and months, the concerns never left: why spend money on a soccer stadium, Brazilians asked, when basic infrastructure, healthcare and education are so lacking in most of the country?

“This is how democracies work,” Rousseff said last week. “People want more of everything.”

From this tournament, that was certainly the case, both on and off the field. The World Cup is such a big, unwieldy event that it represents something different for everyone. It’s a can’t-miss family gathering in the favelas and high-rises alike, a fraternity party on the beaches of Salvador, Recife, Natal and Rio but a polite cocktail reception for business suits and corporate sponsors in Sao Paulo, Brasilia and again, Rio.

With the Christ the Redeemer statue looming high above, Fernando Neves spent Saturday afternoon at Rio’s Copacabana beach, where thousands of locals gathered to watch Brazil lose to the Netherlands in the tournament’s third-place match.

The host nation’s World Cup began with such a high hopes. An impromptu fireworks show and car-horn symphony stretched across the country followed its 3-1 win over Croatia in the tournament’s opening match one month earlier.

The Brazilians later lost their star player, Neymar, to a back injury in the quarterfinal, and for many here, the World Cup effectively ended with a devastating 7-1 loss to Germany in the semifinals, a pin in the balloon that numbed a nation.

For fans like Neves, the difference between third and fourth place hardly changes the way they will remember the World Cup.

“FIFA could have demanded less,” said Neves, 23. “But it is an event that every country should receive once because it brings hope, cultural exchanges and a return on investments.”

Somehow the nation woke up Sunday morning, knowing the tournament continued without the team in green and yellow. From the rain forest surrounding Manaus to the concrete jungle of Sao Paulo, Brazilians had nothing to cheer for but plenty to root against: Argentina, their talented South American neighbour.

The Brazilian players stayed home, but nearly everyone else was at the Maracanã: singers Shakira, Mick Jagger and Placido Domingo; actors Ashton Kutcher and Daniel Craig; athletes Tom Brady, LeBron James and Pelé.

Oh, and Vladimir Putin and supermodel Gisele Bündchen, too.

They sat through scoreless but exciting soccer for more than 90 minutes before the match went into extra time. Then, in the 113th minute, Germany’s Mario Götze took a pass off his chest, made one quick step and whipped his left leg around, firing a laser past Argentina goalkeeper Sergio Romero for the game’s lone score.

The sun had disappeared behind Christ the Redeemer by time the Germans hoisted the trophy and Brazilians staggered onto the streets, left to contend with everything this tournament had wrought.

There was the disappointment of the national team, expensive new stadiums lacking permanent tenants but also lingering tensions and frayed feelings caused by a World Cup Brazil only hesitantly embraced.

For five weeks, Brazil hosted quite the party and yesterday they woke up to assess the hangover.

@rickmaese, @domphillips

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