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Shadowed by the Hand of God

FIFA World Cup

The Rio the World Cup didn't show

Editor's note: This story contains strong language.

RIO DE JANEIRO -- There's shit in the water.

Two days after Brazil crashed out of the World Cup, on Thursday morning, one of Rio's foremost sanitation activists, Leona Deckelbaum, came down to Copacabana Beach to work.

She couldn't help laughing.

Tourists swam in the ocean across the street, and up and down the coast in both directions. In a city with a terrible sewage system even in the fancy neighborhoods and no complete sewage or water service in any of the 900-plus favelas, this is a terrible idea.

She had numbers, and a twinkle in her eye.

The beauty of the scenes from Copacabana Beach conceals some hidden issues in Rio.

Last year, she said, the water at Copacabana was safe for swimming only half the time, and roughly the same at Ipanema, Leblon and Leme. In January, one of the busiest beach months, only two days at the famous Ipanema were safe.

"Because of fecal matter," she said.

Every second in Rio, she said, 4,700 gallons of sewage spills into the ocean. Up and down the coast, open pipes along the beach just dump the waste right into the water, and on bad days, locals call the visible stain of human waste the "black tongue." The amount of feces in the water, she said, is 195 times what the U.S. considers acceptable, and 78 times what Brazil considers acceptable, and while this is profoundly disgusting -- Leona stopped swimming when she learned the numbers -- it is also cosmically perfect. There is the Rio that visitors see, whether swimming in the water or watching a soccer tournament on television, and then the real Rio, beautiful but flawed, hiding in the cliché.

"Everything's turning to shit," Deckelbaum said, "and nobody here is doing anything."

Protesters in the streets asked a familiar question: Whose Cup?

A letter from Rio

The World Cup ends Sunday. The Brazil of last June's protest movement, when those two separate Rios briefly became one, seems like a different country from the one that has hosted this tournament for the past month. The people most invested in the outcome of that movement, the disenfranchised and those working to give them agency, are waking up this morning, looking at what happened, and what didn't, and trying to understand why. Some are looking for a miracle during the 2016 Olympics, as they looked for one during the World Cup, while the city's activists are back to fighting the daily battles they've been fighting for generations.

Before the World Cup began, those protests had created an expectation -- or a fear, depending on whether you were making money or having your tax dollars spent -- that, when the cameras turned on for this tournament, the protesters would return to the streets. That didn't happen, not on a scale large enough to scare FIFA or Brazil, or create meaningful change. Sports writer Dave Zirin, who was tear-gassed during this World Cup while covering a protest, wrote a few days ago about this disconnect between life on the streets and in the media coverage of that life, and he started the piece by quoting the head of FIFA, Sepp Blatter, mockingly asking, "Where is all this social unrest?"

As I typed that last sentence, at 8:59 in the morning on Saturday, I got an email from Patrick Granja, perhaps the bravest of the cadre of photographers and videographers who've covered the protests and police violence in the past year. A few months ago, a journalist was killed by a protester during a demonstration, with Patrick standing a few feet away. Last year, Patrick was wounded by an exploding tear gas grenade, and he proudly shows off the scar on his calf. He's been a guide into protests and shared his sources and also his credibility with the leaders of the movement.

This is what his email said:

"Dude policie went to 60 protesters houses this morning. We are in drci policie station and there are 12 people arrested here already. Dom Hélder Câmara Street, 2066."

Seconds later, he wrote a second email.

"F---ing dictadure."

On the surface, there has been no unrest or unhappiness during the World Cup, but beneath there's been a hidden battle to make sure nothing got in the way of the party Brazil was throwing for the world. There was an alleged shootout in a favela between drug traffickers and the Brazilian army a few hours after the Brazil match on Tuesday. Did you read about it? Did you see it on the news? Today, maybe there will be a big protest -- one is scheduled for the afternoon -- or maybe it won't escalate beyond a few hundred marchers because movement leaders are sitting in jail cells.

The saxophone proved to speak louder than any weapon.

Robocop versus a saxophone

The protest movement tried to find its legs in the past month, wobbling and ultimately falling under the yoke of police violence. The day of the opening match, Brazil against Croatia, a group marched from the traditional starting place of Rio protests, the Cinelandia Square in the center of town. The group, shadowed by heavily armed riot police known as Robocops, marched peacefully to Lapa. Police used tear gas and rubber bullets to break it up, sending a violent message.

Deckelbaum was there.

Amid the violence and fear, one moment stands out to her, a sign of hope. The protesters faced down with the heavily armed, and armored, cops. A musician, after a long gig the night before, stepped into the no-man's land.

Everyone watched, tense, and then he lifted his saxophone to his lips.

A fellow musician began to shake a tambourine, and another plucked out a rhythm on a mandolin, and together they began to play. For 20 minutes, in the middle of a standoff that felt as if it could become violent with one twitchy move by either side, the musicians played traditional music, called forro, which every protester and soldier knew. The songs sounded mellow and sort of like a eulogy, too, and then the saxophone player put his instrument down and approached the soldier.

Nobody knew what was about to happen.

"We are all on the same team," the musician said. "All you want to do is feed your children, and all we want to do is feed our children."

The cop took off his helmet, and the men looked each other in the eye. They talked. Leona started crying. People around her started crying, overcome by this tiny piece of humanity in a community that's felt increasingly under siege.

'They are not using rubber bullets'

The violence has changed how a generation views its country.

"We don't actually live in a democracy," said Theresa Williamson, of Catalytic Communities, one of the most respected groups working in Brazil.

Williamson wanted to meet me at a place in the cool hillside neighborhood Santa Teresa, where she and some friends watched the Argentina-Netherlands semifinal on a big television screen. They celebrated with caipirinhas because the joy of the World Cup had seeped into every corner of Rio de Janeiro, even among the political activists.

Williamson hasn't been to a protest this World Cup, not because she doesn't care but because she has a daughter and the parent won the internal debate against the activist. Last year, she saw up close what the government would do to protect the status quo, and it frightened her. She went to a large protest, then tried to get a metro home to her daughter. Station after station was closed, and she realized that the government had shut down the subway system. Later, she'd realize that the government had also turned off all the security cameras, leaving the police free to operate.

The attack against peaceful protesters seemed coordinated -- volleys of tear gas, rubber bullets. That was the largest protest of the June movement, and afterward, they kept growing smaller and smaller until what happens now can hardly be called a protest at all, sometimes feeling more like people talking a walk.

The police violence worked.

"I stopped going to the protests because I have a daughter," Williamson said. "People aren't changing their opinions. People are scared. … People are scared to death."

The night Brazil lost, the gunfight between the army and alleged traffickers happened in a favela called Mare close to the international airport. In May, just before the World Cup began, the government had sent more than 2,000 soldiers to occupy the neighborhood, establishing a forward operating base in an old factory. They ran razor wire on top of the factory walls and set up checkpoints, manned by soldiers holding automatic weapons. "We don't like them coming with the flag, as if they were playing war," says a young woman named Pie Garcia, who works for a nongovernmental organization in Mare.

I went to Mare this week, and it felt occupied, militarized. It seemed as if the postmatch violence there wasn't because the fans were lashing out over the loss but rather at the feeling of being a prisoner in the place they call home. On a community Facebook page, people reported that a soldier was wounded in the shootout. Local soldiers said they weren't allowed to talk about the incident, at a checkpoint and at the forward operating base, and then via a news release, the army responded to ESPN by saying that there had been a confrontation but that nobody had been wounded, and that the police had not shot at citizens, merely firing their weapons into the air to scare them. In his office, sitting next to Garcia, a photographer named Davi Marcos pulls up the Facebook dialogue of residents discussing what they were seeing and hearing. "It's difficult to know," Marcos said. "If he was wounded, they wouldn't let anybody know that, especially in this moment."

Three days ago, I met back up with Granja, the photographer who's been so helpful. We found a restaurant and ordered some sandwiches, and he described what life had been like the past month. Most of the protests had been small and localized, people trying to brave the violence and still go into the streets. Patrick said he saw good action only once -- like almost every war correspondent, he's an adrenaline junkie -- on the night of the first match in Rio, Argentina vs. Bosnia, in the Maracana.

"I can show you this video," he said, pulling out his phone.

He and a colleague shot the footage a block or two from the stadium during the game. It's shaky because he's running. Police clash with the masked anarchists. Patrick runs toward a policeman, zooming in on his hand, and he captures the cop pointing his handgun and pulling the trigger. Later, journalists pick up the spent shell casings from the ground and film them. It certainly appears, although it cannot be proved, that the police are firing live ammunition.

"They are not using rubber bullets anymore," Granja says, and he lets the video play, and the images don't look as if they are happening a block from a game watched by millions of people. The protesters being fired upon didn't see any of the match or cheer Leo Messi's goal. The fans watching the game on TV couldn't see the muzzle flashes or smell the burning Molotov cocktails thrown by protesters at police, or hear the unmistakable sound of brass landing on the street, bullets paid for by the people now dodging them.

It's like they were never fired at all.

A heavy police presence deterred protesters throughout Brazil.

Back to the long haul

With no mass protests, the activists returned to their small daily struggles, even as the World Cup played out in the country and around the planet. The day after Brazil lost to Germany, Jose Martins de Oliveira woke up in the Rocinha favela and handed out fliers, as he does every Wednesday, trying to make the government provide plumbing instead of constructing an enormous cable car that Oliveira says the favela doesn't want. The slogan is "No to white elephants, yes to basic sanitation."

Oliveira is a quiet man, with curly gray hair and a long beard, and he's been fighting this fight for decades. When he first started in the 1960s, he imagined it wouldn't take long. Deckelbaum, who works for a successful action group called Meu Rio and introduced me to Oliveira, understands. She started her citywide sanitation push last November, and finally stopped in March, focusing on just one favela rather than all of them. Sanitation is a problem that often seems too big to fix. She said that people working for equality in Rio have always understood that the road would be long, but the sudden swell of popular support last June allowed many of them to believe that perhaps solutions might come quickly. The lack of protests during the World Cup was disappointing. Change again appeared that it would come slowly.

On Thursday, Oliveira woke to find his sewage backed up again, so he called the city. In the 1970s, after much negotiating, the government agreed to install pipes for part of Rocinha if the residents provided the materials. That system, though old, remains, but the rest of the favela just dumps sewage into open drains that run eventually into the sea.

Oliveira led the way through Rocinha to one of those makeshift sewers.

As he walked the streets of his neighborhood, life moved in a familiar pattern around him. Favelas are often misunderstood places. I've certainly misunderstood them. The public violence between drug traffickers and police defines them, in the media and in the popular culture. People like Williamson who work every day in favelas are constantly battling stereotypes and misconceptions. Mostly, favelas are just neighborhoods, where people struggle with poverty, yes, but also with the things everyone struggles with. Chicken in Rocinha costs four dollars a kilo (2.2 pounds). Hot dogs are less than half that.

When we reached the drain, which led from the upper reaches of the favela into a big pipe that funnels sewage down to the beach, Oliveira said he used to drink fresh spring water from this place as a child. Now it is full of raw sewage, identifiable by the smell, and piles of trash, from discarded motorcycle helmets to empty packs of Marlboros. Fruit trees grow from the muck, and children eat the fruit. Infected mosquitos breed in the filthy water. When Oliveira arrived in Rio, decades ago, his first job was carrying buckets of water.

"Water is life for everyone," Oliveira said.

A year ago, the federal government gave 1.6 billion reais to the state to improve Rocinha. The residents wanted sewage and water. The state wanted to build them a cable car from the city to the top of the favela, as they'd done in a sprawling North Zone favela. The government agreed to do both, which residents knew was a lie because the last time a similar project took place, just four years ago, the government built all the things that could be photographed for campaign ads, like a sports complex and some public housing, but never got around to sanitation.

Activists did research about the cable car built in the North Zone and found that only 10 percent of residents use it and that more than 10 percent of the residents had to be relocated to build it.

They found out something else, too.

Many different companies can build the sewage system, and Brazilian law requires at least three bids. Only one company can build the cable car, which means the contract can be awarded without a bid, allowing the usual kickbacks and corruption to be buried in a budget that cannot be challenged.

Seeing a match at the historic Maracana remains out of reach for many Brazilians.

What now?

With just one more match to go and 13 months removed from a million people in the streets, none of the problems that put those people in the streets have been solved, which poses a question: What comes next?

The games have ended, but the consequences of them continue, pressure building, anger and discontent forming slowly into potential action, as it did a year ago.

"Now the Cup is finished and everyone is going back to reality," says Yvonne Bezerra de Mello, who runs an educational project for at-risk children in Mare. "In the favelas, nothing has changed. … I used to say we didn't have our French Revolution yet. But we are on the road to having big problems in Brazil. It started in June. After the World Cup, these are going to come back for sure, more and more."

She is trying for little victories, because what else can she do. Last week, she took a group of about 40 of her students to a World Cup match in Maracana. None of them had ever been inside the stadium before. "They've never been to the Maracana," she said. "They've never been to the Christ, the Sugarloaf. These things are forbidden for them. We have two cities."

Brazil remains corrupt, with a failing education system and one of the world's most unequal economies. The political action needed to solve these problems seems impossible given Brazil's current political system, which is greased by corruption and constant back-scratching needed to assemble a governing coalition. There are nearly 40 parties, a whole sea of acronyms, from the PT and the PSD, to the PMDN, PSDB, PSC, PPS, and on and on. There are Pentecostals, neo-liberals, conservatives, leftists, right wingers, socialists, communists, Marxists, anarchists, and a whole other swarm of philosophies and ideologies, and they feud with each other as much as they fight for actual change. Granja said the activism of last June temporarily united many groups and brought energized young people into the streets. But now the fad is over, and, although the real activists remain, some of the protesters have moved on to other things.

"It's not fashionable anymore," Granja said. "The TV turned them into criminals."