On weekends and holidays, some roads are closed off for parties with live music when the neighbours come together to dance in the Brazilian sun, drink beer, and generally enjoy life.
The people here are extraordinarily friendly and the community spirit is vibrant. Children and teenagers alike embrace the elderly ladies as they sit outside their houses watching the world go by.
At the height of the Rio de Janeiro summer, the heat can be unbearable here, people barely have enough energy to move. There’s difficulty too with the state of Brazilian services. Sometimes there are water shortages, internet is unreliable but if you’re lucky you can avail of a wifi hotspot near the children’s football pitch.
Here twice a week, boys and girls from as young as four are coached and play organised games. On Tuesdays in the community hall close to the health clinic the kids have Capoeira classes. All free of charge.
Behind the hall lies the men’s pitch. Scarcely any grass of course, scorched by a combination of heat and boot. Here games are played the Brazilian way, as players try to emulate their club heroes. Flamengo have a massive following around here but Rio’s other giants like Botafogo, Vasco da Gama, and Fluminense also get a look in. On any given weekend, goals are greeted with firecrackers launched into the sky above the network of streets.
The ladies who arrange the decorations are preparing for the most sparkling spectacle of all, the World Cup. The fabled Maracana stadium lies eastwards, a rickety bus journey down the Avenida Brasil motorway. Every four years, the country comes alive with expectation and the neighbourhoods are decked out with an explosion of colour in support of the Seleção. On street corners, alongside neighbourhood bars with their duke boxes blaring music well into the night, sit churches big and small. Faith is a huge part of Brazilians’ lives but football too really is a religion here.
And yet, this time, it’s not the same. The World Cup in Brazil was supposed to be the greatest tournament the game has known. The sport was returning to its adopted spiritual home, where the statue of Christ the Redeemer stands watchful over the Maracana and the beach games. But the great concrete figure also sees a people below in turmoil. Protest marches descend into violence where the whistles don’t accompany samba bands but herald civil disobedience.
The World Cup paraphernalia is jetted in by FIFA in advance of the tournament, and Brazilian youths jostle with each other to destroy it. A giant World Cup replica in Rio de Janeiro now slumps in on itself, a mess of black ash, torched by Brazil’s inflamed population.
The demonstrations now make headlines around the world while national heroes like Ronaldo and Pele are castigated by their former adoring public for whoring themselves to FIFA’s plastic party. The current Brazilian squad sympathise with their people and try to word their interviews diplomatically. But here too, the players are subjected to the anger. Brazil’s team bus was met with protests at its training camp in Teresopolis, outside Rio de Janeiro. The country’s army has now been drafted in to bolster the security around all the participating nations.
Is this the vision FIFA had in mind when they awarded the tournament to the nation that has embraced its sport perhaps more than any other?
The propaganda rolled out by the world governing body is that they want to spread the game throughout the globe. Recent editions of the finals went to Japan and Korea, and South Africa. This year it returns to South America, then controversially to Russia and Qatar. FIFA say they are breaking boundaries but the association earned $3.7 billion in sales from the 2010 finals.
The World Cup volunteer training plan for Brazil 2014 is full of references to a lasting legacy but we’ve already seen the effect the tournament is having on the country. Right now Brazilians are locked in debate with one another about the merits of hosting the tournament. Many who live abroad say their countrymen and women can’t see the huge financial and tourism benefits that await and condemn the protesters for the damage they are doing to that potential economic injection.
For their part, Sepp Blatter and FIFA make passing references to the protests. The demonstrations are only mentioned in terms of potential disruption. FIFA criticise the organising committee for missing construction deadlines but make no mention of the fact the money comes from the public purse and not private interests as originally promised, the core reason behind the fury. FIFA will pray the Seleção can achieve something special in the tournament, to ease the bubbling anger.
For some Brazilians, a World Cup win for the home nation will spark the magical scenes FIFA envisaged. The outpouring of joy will be incredible but for many, capturing the golden sculpture for a sixth time won’t sit alongside the memories of the past. The trophy will be tainted. FIFA’s legacy will be that they brought the tournament to the people who loved it the most, and both they and Brazilians are counting the cost.
In Santa Margarida, and the neighbourhoods and Favelas throughout this vast land, the street decorations will go up, the television sets will flicker, and music and dance will come. But it won’t be the same. For Brazil, the World Cup may never be the same again.