Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images
Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images

In Brazil's biggest favela, passion for the Seleção burns brightly

Rocinha has an uneasy relationship with the state, but on match day all is a sea of patriotic yellow

RIO DE JANEIRO – Luiz Henrique, 48, took a swig from his glass of cheap lager and eyed the three police officers passing his roadside bar with their pistols drawn. “It’ll be three-nil to Brazil,” he said. “And I say that with confidence.”

It was 11.45am in Rocinha, the largest favela in Brazil, on the day of the national side’s quarter-final against Colombia, and a sense of national unity and pride was about to overwhelm all else, even in this most troubled corner of Rio de Janeiro.

The atmosphere had been building since the early morning. Most streets were decorated with copious bunting. Plastic Brazil flags hung from dreadlocked electrical wiring. A bus driver wore a yellow and green wig with his obligatory Brazil shirt.

Down one secluded passageway, a young mother carried her baby down the steep steps, soothing the impact of each stride with the words “Brazil, Brazil, Brazil.”

As she passed one house, she turned to look at how the outside had been meticulously painted with the starting line-ups of each of Brazil’s five World Cup winning teams – from 1958, 1962, 1970, 1994 and 2002 – while above was written: “Welcome to Rocinha. Welcome the world’s people. Smile.”

On an adjacent wall, this year’s team had been painted with the inscription: 2014.

Next door, Manoel da Silva, 53, sat in his tiny living room with his yellow canary in a cage next to him. The canarinho, as it is known in Brazil, is the motif of the national team. “He will be here watching with us,” he said. “I hope he brings us luck.”

This day, even more than usual, it was easy to forget that Rocinha is still a place of strife and violence alongside the happiness and laughter found on every street corner.

Long a stronghold for the powerful drug gangs that dominated Rio’s favelas for decades, Rocinha became a flashpoint in the bid to “pacify” the irregular settlements, often built precariously on city centre hillsides, ahead of the World Cup.

A pacifying police unit (UPP) was installed here in 2012 but unlike many smaller favelas, it proved impossible for the police to fully control Rocinha, which has a population estimated at up to 200,000 and is strategically important to the gangs.

The result has been regular shootouts within the bewildering maze of the favela’s uneven passages and staircases, littered with debris and low hanging electrical cables.

Community-police relations plummeted after the disappearance of a popular local bricklayer, Amarildo de Souza, following his arrest. Prosecutors would later allege he was tortured and murdered by pacifying officers, including the local police chief.

Such alleged abuses and long-running battles to bring sanitation and public services to Rocinha, which long ago outgrew its description as a shanty-town and has proper roads, shops and bus routes, have given residents many reasons to distrust the state.

But on Friday, there could not have been anywhere in Brazil with more national pride.

In Roupa Suja, the district where Amarildo was last seen being bundled into a police car, Luiz Henrique, 48, and his friend Paulo Pereira, 61, sat on the curb drinking beer while inside the bar a traditional Brazilian barbecue was prepared.

While the pair could not agree on the result, adopting a conspiratorial whisper they could agree that Rocinha was in a better place than four years earlier. “Before, when the traficantes ruled here, we did not have freedom. During the last World Cup they would fire into the air every time Brazil scored as a show of strength,” Paulo said.

Supporters in the Rocinha favela react to a televized World Cup match
Yasuyoshi Chiba / AFP / Getty Images

At another of the ubiquitous bars, barely more than a hole in the wall lined with cachaça bottles, Licerio da Silva, who was born in Rocinha five days after Brazil won their first World Cup in 1958, was inviting all comers to celebrate his 56th birthday with him.

Dressed in R$30 ($14) rip-off Brazil football shirt, he freely poured out Antárctica beer while refusing to let anyone else pick up the tab. Flashing a crooked smile, he said: “Here in Rocinha, here in Brazil, we are all family. All are welcome.”

At the Boteco do Arlindo bar, all the seats were filled an hour before kick-off with a sea of yellow. Ricardo dos Santos, a 48-year-old sporting a yellow and green mohican for the occasion, was aggressively betting with his friends.

“Two-nil, or three-one, with Neymar to score. I am certain!” he said. “One hundred reals!”

As kick-off drew near the streets emptied. Shops closed. Everyone – manicurists, taxi drivers, workmen – wore Brazil shirts. The last few motorcycle taxis raced to their destinations. One pulled up with seconds to go for the driver to run into the bar.

The fans – old, young, male, female – joined arms for the national anthem but soon the camaraderie gave way to cursing and shouting as the match began.

Brazil’s early goal caused pandemonium, with a sea of jumping, hugging and shouting as fireworks were set off throughout the favela. As darkness set in, the primary emotions were passion, anger and anxiety. The second goal was a pressure release – literally in the case of a fan spraying a beer bottle like it was champagne over fellow supporters.

“The championship returns,” was the universal chant at the final whistle, with anything other than a sixth triumph unthinkable for all in Brazil. Thousands of people spilled onto the streets, with funk music pumping from sound systems.

In one street – Travessa União – the celebrations were wild. The residents had spent two weeks painstakingly painting murals on every available surface to win the prize – 50 crates of beer and 34kg of meat – for the best decorated road in Rocinha.

They spent more than R$1,000 ($454) of their own money on materials in a city where many only earn the minimum wage of R$724 ($328) a month. “For us, it was worth it,” said Maria Jose Batista, 53, who coordinated the painting. “It is a special time.”

Alongside the national flags of all 32 countries and paintings of Neymar, Felipão and many others, one mural in particular caught the eye. An eagle depicting Fifa is painted next to Zé Carioca, a comic-book character synonymous with Rio de Janeiro, dressed in Brazil’s colours.

The text reads simply: “Now we are one.”

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