Relief for Brazil after flawed victory
SAO PAULO -- Brazil's World Cup is one of the most ineptly organized major sporting events in history. It might yet prove to be the worst. Its inconveniences have been overshadowed only by its tragedies. Construction workers have died. Stadiums and infrastructure are incomplete. The field in Manaus, a first-order criminal folly, looks like something a beer league wouldn't play on. The airports and streets are overwhelmed. (If you have a friend in Brazil and you want to know what he's up to right now, he's waiting in some kind of line.)
Officials have warned visitors not to be out after midnight, that roving bands of muggers have been invading restaurants, that street violence is as inevitable as the sunshine. Long before the start of Thursday's kickoff between Brazil and Croatia, the concessions at Arena de Sao Paulo had run out of food, the wireless had gone down and the too-few elevators weren't working properly. Eighteen minutes after the first whistle, a large bank of lights went out.
But did you see that frigging game? It made it hard to breathe.
There had been a semi-collective sense in Brazil that maybe, just maybe, everything would be all right when the work finally made way for play -- that this proud country might be terrible at its planning and yet somehow flawless in its execution, some miraculous destiny overcoming every bad omen. On Wednesday afternoon, Luiz Felipe Scolari, the home team's revered old manager, had delivered a moving testament to the power of football as an eraser. He had lost his nephew in a car wreck the day before, and he talked about how watching his players, watching the game, made him forget about everything bad in his life and the world. At its best, football could release you from your heaviest burdens. It could save you.
Even when the Arena de Sao Paulo was half-lit, Scolari seemed a prophet. For every minute of that thrilling, relentless frenzy of a game, nobody watching it, in the stadium or at home, was thinking about anything other than the ball and where it might end up. The first of this World Cup's 64 games might still prove a parable for the entire tournament. It started out so badly for Brazil, with Marcelo's shocking own goal, a sinister moon rising ominously over the stadium. Then, Neymar's equalizer read like a metaphor for this country's most fervent hopes: the play was chaotic, the shot was left-footed and not fully struck. and yet the ball found its way to the perfect finish.
That Neymar put the hosts ahead for good on a penalty that was nearly stopped -- and that never should have been awarded in the first place -- was itself a kind of dual ideal for Brazil. Now, a single referee had taken an entire country's place in the spotlight's sting, the accusations of incompetency having found -- if only for one night -- a different target. Fireworks went off across Sao Paulo, each an expression of more than one kind of relief.
This is what almost always happens, of course -- what FIFA, what the International Olympic Committee, what corrupt politicians and commissioners and sporting officials count on happening. The games will begin, we will join Scolari in our watching and everything else will fall away. Whether you believe our short memories will in fact save us or doom us probably depends on which side of the result you're on. "And the winning team is Brazil," the stadium's announcer said after the final whistle, and he said it as though from a script, as though there had never been any doubt that he would.