Matthew Niederhauser is reporting from Brazil with support from the Pulitzer Center.
Fortaleza is a charmed place. Aside from its beautiful urban beaches and tropical climes, it was hosting the Brazilian team during the World Cup for a second time. Locals were definitely looking forward to the opportunity. Brazil tied Mexico in the last game they played in the Estádio Castelão. It was a frustrating moment, and everyone still wanted to taste the fruits of victory in their own backyard. The match against Colombia was not going to be easy, though. James Rodriguez and the rest of the Colombian side were doing well for themselves in the tournament and more than willing to knock off the host team in pursuit of their World Cup dreams.
I headed out to the Estádio Castelão early in the afternoon. A direct bus from the airport bypassed most of the heightened security that was tightening in case of a loss. Major cities across the country were preparing for potential riots if the Brazilian team made an early exit. Nationalistic sentiment was running high going into the quarterfinals but could easily flip. Most were still content to ignore the many broken promises made by the municipal government. There were no protests to be found. A giant Brazilian flag flew patriotically from dormant cranes at a construction site adjacent to the Estádio Castelão. Another infrastructure project left unfinished in order to concentrate on getting the stadium ready for FIFA. Fans gleefully snapped pictures as they streamed past, though. Everyone was focused on beating Colombia and moving on in the tournament.
The main throughway leading up to the Estádio Castelão quickly turned into a large street party. People were drinking, dancing, juggling, singing—partaking in all forms of merrymaking. At one point it seemed like riot police were going to clear the crowd so vehicles could reach the stadium. Others huddled around flat screens and watched France fail to score an equalizer against Germany. They were eliminated from the tournament, and Germany now lay in wait for the victors of the impending match. Colombians were out in force as well but lacked the sheer numbers. Chanting matches broke out between opposing fans, and the Brazilians consistently shouted them down. It was all done in good spirits, but both sides were hungry for a victory.
Everyone seemed ready for the big match except for an occasional group of old ladies giving disapproving looks from their plastic armchairs. The neighborhood around the Estádio Castelão remains rundown. The municipal government might have put down another layer of asphalt on the roads, but most of the houses and sidewalks were in relative disrepair. It was difficult to imagine how many of the families would see any economic return from the stadium. Some of them surely lined their pockets selling food and refreshments to fans showing up on game days, but other immediate benefits were not forthcoming. If anything the stadium made them a prime target for developers who would do little in sharing the potential profits of transforming their neighborhood. Local politicians would get involved in the process and make sure any compensation for the land was negligible.
As the crowd emptied into the stadium, I hopped into a taxi to the waterfront to begin a walk up the beach. Fortaleza thrives on the ocean. Little shacks and restaurants pepper the shore, providing umbrellas, snacks, and cold beverages to sun bathers. When Brazil was playing, the owners kept them open late to enjoy the match with loyal customers, friends, and family. Everybody was riveted by the action and shook the palm trees when they celebrated Brazil's opening goal against Colombia. Radios, televisions, and cellphones were all tuned to the game. The only people who didn't seem to care was a couple still laying out on the beach as the sun was setting, but they were most likely napping and unaware of the unfolding spectacle around them.
By the beginning of the second half, I made it back to the DIY Fan Fest on the street running parallel to the FIFA Fan Fest on Iracema Beach. It was increasingly hard to split my attention between the match and the wide spectrum of human emotion rippling through the crowd around me. I thought heads were going to explode after David Luiz's stunning free kick. Panic then took hold when James Rodriguez scored a penalty. After that it was all angst and fear until the final whistle. The party began immediately after. People jumped into the ocean. A concert started in the FIFA Fan Fest. More rounds of beer were procured. Then the news broke: Neymar was out for the rest of the World Cup after breaking a vertebra. The embodiment of the joy and spirit of futebol in Brazil was suddenly lost. It was almost unimaginable. People cried in the streets, and the celebrations took on a somber mood, one more fitting for a dirge than the local forró beat. It was a great loss, but sometimes out of such a loss, springs a new and greater hope.