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.