For three hours on Wednesday afternoon, Rio’s Copacabana beach was empty. It was lunchtime, and everybody (even the cops) was watching Brazil trounce Honduras 6-0 in the Olympic semifinals in soccer.
Soccer is, of course, one of Brazil’s national obsessions, and the dozens of (mostly male) Cariocas clustered around restaurant and luncheonette TV screens were happy to hold forth—first about Brazilian football, and then about everything else.
Sebastiao Ribeiro, a street samba musician, paused from playing music in front of the Principe de Monaco restaurant as Gabriel Jesus scored a third goal. “Thank God,” he said. “Now we can relax.”
By this, he meant that the country was beginning to take steps toward erasing Brazils’ crushing 7-1 defeat by Germany in the World Cup in 2014 in Maracana Stadium, an arena many think is cursed. The two teams are set for another showdown in the Olympic gold medal match on Saturday at 4:30 pm EST.
Celvo Carrera Muniz, a doorman just getting off work, sipped a beer and interjected, “No we can’t. Not until the referee blows the last whistle of the final game.”
Edson Silva agreed. “We haven’t forgotten,” he said, referring to the 2014 game. “This makes things a little better but some things are impossible to forget.”
Marcos Souza was watching the game across the street with a giant group of diners. He wasn’t impressed. “The game used to be so beautiful,” he said, waxing poetic on the term “jogo bonito,” or “beautiful game.” The phrase, now synonymous with Brazilian soccer, was enshrined by Pele’s skillful, dignified playing in the 1970s. “Everything’s changed,” he said.
His friend, Valdecin de Sousa, agreed. “When we were coming up, we played on the street and watched Pele until we got better and better,” he said. “Now the kids text each other to see if they can meet for a game.” He gestured to the beach. “We just used to meet wherever and play.”
He paused, and then launched into a litany of Brazil’s woes: a political crisis that is sure to end with the impeachment of President Dilma Rousseff; a collapsed economy; high unemployment; and a corruption scandal that involves a raft of politicians, including the interim president Michel Temer. De Sousa’s face seemed to mirror the national mood. “We have so many difficulties, winning isn’t going to make us forget anything,” he said.
“People used to think that Brazil was just this paradise, a country of Carnival and soccer,” Marcos Souza said. “We have another reality, and the Olympics are just a distraction.” The two men were in Rio from São Paulo for work, and were dismayed by the disorganization of the city.
“It’s theft!” interjected their friend Alusio, who like many Brazilians, only uses his first name. He gestured toward the favelas in the hills. “They’ve spent billions to build a park that’s going to be used by whom?” he asked. “Why not put that into hospitals or schools?”
Souza said the Olympics, awarded in 2009 to Rio during a time of unprecedented prosperity, were a missed opportunity for his country. “Kids watching this game today are going to dream of becoming the next Neymar,” he said, referring to the soccer team’s superstar, who has a powerful influence on everything from tattoos to haircuts. (He also has a charity that offers children in Praia Grande, his former hometown, a place to study and practice soccer. A pall fell over his good works when the charity was ordered to pay $52 million in fines for tax evasion.)
“They need to be thinking about how to learn more, how to become more educated,” he said. He finished his plastic cup of beer and sighed. “Who’s this all for?” he asked of the Olympics.
Saybon, who sat nearby, agreed. By then, the score was 4-0, and no one was worried. “Brazil’s in a mess,” he said. “I love Brazil and I love to watch soccer. But beating Honduras isn’t going to change unemployment, or fix our social safety net, or create more doctors,” he said. “We have all this beauty, all these resources, all this talent.”
“People used to say Pele played with ‘brains in his feet,’” he added. “What Brazil really needs is brains in its brain.”