THROUGH the drizzling autumn rain that has turned the hillside favela of Mangueira into a treacherous mud bath, the Maracanã Stadium gleams like a halo on the flat land below.
The stunning arena, which will host the World Cup final in July, is a beaming shrine to soccer, set deep in Rio de Janeiro’s city centre.
From the corrugated rooftops of the crude red-brick homes strewn across the mountain overlooking the city, the view is unrivalled. It is one of few privileges for the families that live in the poor community.
“It’s a great view,” says 29-year-old Thiago Santana, who lives at the top of the hill known as the Morro da Mangueira. “But we know that none of it is for us.”
In a country where soccer has the power to cross class divides, from the barefoot pickup football on the beach to the hugely anticipated 20th World Cup, the Maracanã is symbolic of the dichotomy between rich and poor that defines Brazil.
The iconic arena is a monument to Brazil’s recent and rapid economic growth. The nation has undergone a $550 million facelift ahead of the World Cup, which will be played out in 12 cities across the country.
In total, the bill for the FIFA tournament is expected to reach $14 billion in improved stadiums, upgraded public transport and new hotels.
Meanwhile, on the hillside, blue plastic water tanks top the homes of almost 20,000 people and a sodden football pitch lies empty in the rain. A pile of rubbish that has been burning for two days smoulders, sending up smoke in front of the picture-postcard vista.
The Maracanã and the favela of Mangueira lie side by side, but they belong to different worlds. “There are some people in the community who can afford to go to the World Cup, but we know it’s difficult,” Thiago says, looking at the Maracanã with a jaded indifference.
It wasn’t supposed to be like this: for onlookers, the announcement in 2007 that the event would take place in the home of the jogo bonito (the beautiful game) seemed like a perfect result.
But Thiago’s ambivalence is shared by many who feel excluded by the World Cup.
While the country has made significant improvements in recent years, owing to the commodities boom and subsequent economic growth, it has only made the lingering social inequality more apparent.
Across Brazil, more than 11 million people — around 6 per cent of the population — live in favelas. In Rio, the proportion is as high as 20 per cent.
Although some favelas have been gentrified in recent years, many remain poorly served by public authorities and are dominated by drug gangs.
Mangueira is one of dozens of favela complexes in Rio that has been “pacified”, receiving one of 38 dedicated “pacifying police units” (UPP) to improve security for the residents. More than 300 police officers are permanently stationed in the favela, carrying out community policing.
But critics describe the policing initiative as nothing more than “make-up” — designed to give the appearance of improvement as Brazil comes under the international spotlight.
Thiago and his family have lived at the sharp end of Rio’s reality. He was just a year older than his 12-year-old daughter is now when his father was killed in the drug war that rages on despite efforts to purge gangs from favelas.
His older brother — one of seven — is also dead. “He decided to enter a life of crime,” says Thiago, who had to leave the favela temporarily for fear of reprisals.
But he is one of the lucky ones. Having managed to study, he has travelled abroad and now works as the vice-president of his local residents’ association.
“I learned a new language, thank God. I’m passionate about the community,” he says.
In the home he shares with his girlfriend and her mother, deep within the warren of the favela, lies a Carnaval costume from the recent parade.
A typical Carioca, born and bred in Rio, he adores Mangueira samba school and supports the ever-popular Flamengo soccer team. He has even managed to see them play at the new Maracanã.
But like many in Brazil, he feels torn by the World Cup — he feels that if real change and improvements are possible, surely now is the time.
“I know I won’t go to the World Cup,” he says, looking over at the bright new stadium. “In principle, I’m against it, but there’s a mixture of feelings.
“Over there is the World Cup and my daughter will continue with bad schooling, no medication.
“All of this will continue, but if we want to improve anything, we have to do it before the World Cup.”
Despite Thiago’s reservations, there are signs that life has improved in Mangueira. Some members of the community have cars now and have been able to improve their homes in a way that would not have been possible before.
“This didn’t happen before — it was more precarious,” he says. “People didn’t even have basic sanitation.”
While the latest figures show 20 per cent of the Brazilian population lives below the national poverty line, it is an improvement from just five years ago, when the figure was 30 per cent.
In the decade from 2003 to 2013, the Bolsa Família social welfare program helped lift 36 million people out of extreme poverty.
In roughly the same time frame, 40 million people joined the middle class.
“There’s no doubt Brazil is now the world’s fifth- or the sixth-largest economy, all the numbers support that, but the question is, are we developed as such?” says Pedro Trengrouse, a World Cup consultant to the United Nations Organisation.
“The challenge is we have now experienced a huge growth in most of the Brazilian industry sectors but our infrastructure is still lacking a lot of improvements — the airports, roads, urban mobility — but we have the resources to invest in that. This construction takes time but we have the money now.
“If you look at Brazil 10 or 20 years ago, we were the country of the future. Now, the future has arrived and we have to catch up with infrastructure and now we have the money to do it.”
From the window of his modest apartment above a pet shop, he can just see the tips of the roof of the newly renovated stadium.
It’s not the grand view one gets from from Mangueira, but when the World Cup arrives, Raphael will be among the 79,000-strong crowd inside the stadium.
He managed to buy a venue-specific package, which means he will get to see five World Cup games in Rio, starting with Argentina versus Bosnia and Herzegovina on June 15.
“I love football. I’ve loved it since I was a child, and my father adores football, too,” he says, revealing he is a distant relative of Amarildo, the player who replaced the injured Pelé in the 1962 World Cup.
The son of a lawyer and a nurse, Raphael has grown up near the Maracanã, often going to watch his beloved Vasco de Gama.
And when the stadium was re-inaugurated after its reformation, he watched the crowds of fans pass by his home for a friendly between Brazil and England.
But during last year’s Confederations Cup — a tournament traditionally seen as a warm-up to the World Cup — crowds of a different kind filled the streets beneath his window.
Despite expectations that the soccer party would be unequivocally welcomed by a football-mad Brazilian public, dissatisfaction with the authorities spilled over during the tournament.
Growing frustration with poor public services, high taxes and spiralling investment in the World Cup led to the biggest demonstrations in a generation.
A million Brazilians — one in 200 — took to the streets as the focus of the discontent increasingly became the FIFA event itself, symbolic of misplaced priorities in a developing countries.
Among the complaints was that investment in education was so poor that Brazil — one of the largest economies in the world — remained 88th on the global ranking.
The World Health Organisation put Brazil’s healthcare system 125th out of 191 member states in its 2000 report.
“These mega-events (the World Cup and 2016 Olympic Games) were part of a symbolic construction of the big society, the Brazilian economy,” Professor Sonia Fleury, researcher at the Getulio Vargas Foundation, says. “People used this to magnify the problems they were still having. This was something that wasn’t expected.
“Everybody thought the people would be very proud of Brazil being considered one of the big countries in the world and this would join all the social classes and groups, but it’s not true. People were not complaining about the economic situation, they were complaining about their citizens’ rights.
“I think the fundamental issue is the decision-making process that doesn’t consider the priorities of the population and instead is putting money into things like airports. It’s something that people feel is very far from their lives.”
Many felt that 12 new or renovated football stadiums were less a manifestation of the country’s emerging global status and more a sign of greedy posturing.
But Pedro Trengrouse points out that the World Cup is as costly as a controversial hydroelectric dam currently being built in Brazil, which receives less media attention.
“The World Cup is tiny, it’s very small compared to all the other projects,” he says.
“I think there was somehow a mistake in the communication related to the World Cup. There was an expectation from the people that the World Cup would resolve infrastructure problems, but it’s not the World Cup’s tradition or its power to solve any of these problems.
“If you look at our natural resources and the basic infrastructure we have, I think we have a bright future ahead.”
Raphael, too, is philosophical about the protests and criticism levied at the World Cup. “I respect the opinions of others, who are against the World Cup because it’s not improving the city, traffic is absurd, violence is returning,” he says.
“There are people protesting against the World Cup, but this week everyone was trying to buy tickets.”
For Raphael, who works in advertising and lives in an area where a two-bedroom 85sqm apartment sells for $350,000, ticket prices are not prohibitively expensive given earnings in Rio. His ticket package means each game costs $28.
Yet even with the most recent increase in the minimum wage to $345 a month, the lowest-paid Brazilians still each day earn less than a third the price of the most expensive World Cup ticket at $30.
“The cheapest ticket is $28 and concessions are $14. To do anything here, any activity, you’re going to spend more than this,” he says, pointing to the rising cost of living in Rio.
One upshot of recent improvements is that major centres like Rio and Sao Paulo regularly appear in lists of the most expensive cities in the world.
Meanwhile, income inequality has repeatedly decreased in Brazil with research showing that the poorest 10 per cent saw their per capita earnings rise by 72 per cent between 2001 and 2008, compared with the richest 10 per cent, whose income grew just 11 per cent.
“If you go to the cinema, you spend $9 to watch the film and then $9 on popcorn — so it’s almost as much as you would spend to see a World Cup game,” Raphael says.
“And to watch a World Cup game is magical; it’s unforgettable. So I don’t think it’s expensive.
“Rio and Sao Paulo are big state capitals and so earnings are higher; maybe in other capitals, people can’t afford to buy tickets. The Brazilian economy was going well, then it stopped but we can afford the World Cup.”
With concerns that the economy is grinding to a halt, it remains unclear what the future holds for Brazil.
The World Cup is widely expected to draw more protests while many observers are also keeping an eye on its political implications for the elections in October.
“I think [the protests] will continue until the elections,” added Professor Fleury. “I think the climate is favourable to them continuing. The political parties are now starting to care about them.
“During the World Cup, it will be very strong because all the conditions are there. Nothing that was promised after June and July happened: a new constitution, political reform, and important changes in health, transportation and education. They were the main demands of the population.”
For all the appearances of a country on the edge of development, there is some distance to go.
The World Cup has put Brazil’s potential in plain sight, yet for many it remains out of reach. This is clearer in Mangueira than elsewhere.
“For most people, this is the closest they will get,” says Thiago. “If we make it to the final.”
Originally published by SA Weekend