Could there have been any better way for Brazil to highlight its farcical build-up to this World Cup?
It had to be an own goal. It just had to be.
When Brazil last hosted the tournament in 1950, the entire country was cast into sombre silence after rival neighbours Uruguay scored a shock 2-1 victory in the final.
That mood was replicated this morning in São Paulo – and right across this vast land – when Brazilian defender Marcelo cast himself into national infamy at the opening match with Croatia, scoring an own goal at just 11 minutes.
Poor Marcelo created the first own goal in Brazil’s glittering World Cup history – boasting a world record five titles – when he flicked a boot out on instinct, connected with the ball, and haplessly watched it slam into the back of the onion bag.
More than six decades might have passed since that seismic loss to Uruguay, but the Brazilian response to utter catastrophe remained the same.
On a day of tear gas, stun guns, blaring sirens and shrilling horns in São Paulo, this was perhaps the most deafening sound of all.
It was the sound of humiliation. It was the sound of fear. It was the sound of impending doom.
Even by the admission of the organising body, FIFA, no World Cup in the event’s 84-year history has been so disorganised. So what better than the height of shambolic defending from the hosts to open the scoring?
At regular intervals during the past 12 months São Paulo has been awash with protests and strikes over the merits of spending $12 billion on stadia infrastructure.
Brazil is not a country with free medical care, generous social welfare, or education. In São Paulo, much of the cost falls to private citizens. Even the maintenance of footpaths is the responsibility of individual shop owners. This is a dog-eat-dog environment. So when a juicy $12 billion bone is tossed to sporting infrastructure instead of basic needs, the government will be roundly accused of barking up the wrong tree.
Those accusations have manifested themselves in violent street demonstrations, right up until hours before this morning’s kick-off. Not far from the Arena de Itaquera, in the city’s east, protesters gathered with the intention of disrupting traffic around the stadium.
Hordes of riot police ensured they would not succeed, spraying tear gas and rubber bullets across the streets in scenes that provided an ugly start to the greatest sporting show on Earth.
The frenzied scene would have been more at home in the Gaza Strip; it was completely at odds with Brazil’s joyous brand of football.
The game had always been a uniting force for an often dysfunctional nation, a panacea to its many social woes. A month-long festival of the boot should have been the ideal distraction, but incompetence, complacency, procrastination and, in some extreme instances, corruption have shaken the country’s most profound faith.
There are only so many broken promises a jaded populace can endure. For the people of São Paulo, there was the promise of a monorail connecting the city centre with the airport. There’s been the promise of a high speed train to Rio de Janeiro, just 600km away, as well as new metro stations.
None of these promises have been fully delivered. The failure to provide basic social services has been placed in sharp focus by the Government’s obscene investment in new stadia in 12 cities across the country.
The price has been pure resentment. It hasn’t been enough to stop Brazilians supporting their heroes, but, in the week leading-up to this morning’s first game, there was no sense of celebration on the streets of São Paulo.
The decorations on shop fronts and businesses would barely rival those during NRL or AFL grand final week. It wasn’t until two days ago, when the city filled with arrivals from abroad, that the atmosphere finally lifted from disenchantment to random acts of unbridled joy.
One of the world’s most polluted cities, São Paulo somehow turned on a magnificently clear morning to boost moods even further. A public holiday was called, ensuring the traditionally congested streets were as clear as the sky above.
Walking toward the FIFA fan fest, where an estimated 80,000 people gathered to watch the game, tested the eardrums. Horns sounded, people screamed, more horns sounded and fireworks exploded.
This was more like the Brazil we expected. Even the live site – a mess of scaffolding and power leads the day before – was functional, apart from several bars running out of over-priced beer. A Bananas in Pyjamas convention could not have mustered so much yellow, although the many fair-skinned types wearing Selecao shirts would have been more accustomed to a bowl of cornflakes than Acai for breakfast.
The minutes before kick-off – the opening ceremony, the anthems, the absurd release of doves – had all the tension you’d expect from a major sporting event. Under enormous pressure to succeed on home soil, Brazil pushed forward early and eased the nerves of their compatriots. Croatia did not seem to trouble them.
Fittingly, the only moment of discomfort came from that monumental Brazilian misjudgment.
Marcelo scores for the opposition. He shoots his country in the foot, much as the politicians and organisers have done. The resulting silence tells how desperate their plight has become. If there was anger before a ball was kicked, one can imagine the fury that failure on the pitch might incite.
The silence of horrendous contemplation is not only deafening – it’s sickening. More than 80,000 people jammed into a tiny town square uttered not one peep for 15 minutes.
Then golden boy Neymar Junior steps up to salvage the situation, equalising before halftime and putting Brazil ahead with a 71st minute penalty. There’s still some anxiety as Croatia rally with waves of late attack, only for Oscar to settle the result with an injury-time strike that seals a somewhat deceptive 3-1 final scoreline.
Brazilians respond the only way they know how – with joyous noise. If their team keeps winning, it might even drown out the roars of dissent coming from the protesters outside. – Photo and report by Josh Massoud
Josh Massoud, Macleay College’s specialist sportswriting tutor, is on assignment in Brazil to cover the World Cup for News Corp.