The Match: Brazil v. Croatia, the first game of the 2014 World Cup
The Date: Thursday, June 12
The Venue: Little Brazil aka Rua 46 — 46th St. between 5th and 6th Avenues in Manhattan
I didn’t know it until last week, but there is an area of midtown Manhattan called Little Brazil. There is a street sign in Times Square pointing down 7th Avenue where this neighborhood supposedly exists. It is indeed very little — just three restaurants and one small shop selling Brazilian candies, bandanas and Neymar jerseys.
When I arrived around 1 pm, about three hours before the start of the World Cup, the sky was gray, the street was gray, the gigantic office fortresses were gray. The only action seemed to be the men and women jostling in line at the lunch time food trucks. Their smart suits? Gray.
As my eyes adjusted to monochromatic Midtown, I began to accept that there would be no World Cup street festivities, no Carnaval dancers, no tents with free shit. The first yellow and green thing I saw was a Subway restaurant.
Next to Subway is Via Brasil, a real, live Brazilian restaurant partially obstructed by scaffolding. I peered inside and met a stressed out hostess who told me they were all booked up. I asked her how she was feeling.
“I am excited,” she said unconvincingly. “Don’t believe the newspapers.”
She didn’t seem excited as she turned away about eight Brazilians. She seemed flustered, especially when she told me I ask too many questions. I got the hint and left.
I walked under the scaffolding and encountered Tarsis Sosa, a 25-year-old from Salvador, a city in Brazil home to some of the World Cup matches.
Tarsis didn’t speak English, so we chatted in a combination of Spanish, Portuguese and Pidgin English until he handed me a flyer for a Brazilian shop on the second story of a building above a Sushi restaurant. I went inside and bought some Brazilian candy. I asked the store owner how she felt as she worked the cash register. “Busy,” she responded. I said business must be hopping today. She smiled and said she was glad, but she seemed tired and stressed like that hostess.
As I browsed the Brazilian merch, I saw three women who also got turned away from Via Brasil buying bandanas and face paint. I left the store while they were prepping in the mirror. They, at least, seemed ready for the World Cup to begin.
So this was a good sign! Tarsis decked out in a Brazilian clown outfit. Hot young Brazilian women painting their faces blue and yellow.
It was around 1:30, when the yellow jersey brigade arrived and I encountered scores of Brazilians and fans of the Brazilian soccer team. I imagined the view from the top floors of the office towers: Little canary-colored smudges punctuating the vast gray expense, convincing the office dwellers not to jump.
I walked into a second restaurant called Emporium Brasil where the manager, Bruno, told me that they too were booked up. A TV station was filming a segment and Bruno told me it was Rede Globo, the biggest TV network in South America.
Let me in Bruno! I thought. I’m 0-for-2 today, every Brazilian I meet seems worn out and the game doesn’t start for another two-and-a-half hours.
I moved on and tried Ipanema, the final Brazilian restaurant on the block. Here was my sanctuary! Ipanema was a lively little blue and yellow hot spring bubbling beneath the bland concrete desert.
The host told me every table was filled, but I was welcome to hang out by the bar and wait until the game starts. I asked him how he was feeling. He too seemed tired, but he smiled and told me he feels good.
I ordered a caipirnha from the bartender, who wore a Neymar jersey, and talked with two guys who seemed to be on a quest for an authentic soccer experience. One was a finance guy from London. The other was his friend from Brooklyn. Soon, more people joined the conversation. One older man explained that he was from Santos, the home of Pele. A Mexican woman named Ana hassled the bartender until he got permission from his manager to put the opening ceremonies, broadcast by Univision, on the bar TV. When he finally did, the crowd cheered.
Ana explained that she and her Brazilian friend argued about who would win the tournament. Ana said Argentina would get a boost from Pope Francis, a fan of his home team, La Albiceleste. Her friend’s dismissal of this divine intervention?
“It may be that the Pope is Argentinian, but God is Brazilian.”
That’s the type of National Exceptionalism that would warm the hearts of Brazil’s neocons like Paolo Wolfowitz, Guilherme Kristol and Ricardo Cheney.
Sanam, a Iranian psychologist, invited me to sit at the bar next to her. She was saving the chair for her friend, another woman from Iran, who arrived at the start of the match.
A group of three girls filed into the bar and stood behind us. One was Brazilian, another was Mexican and the third was Argentine. The Argentine had a Brazilian flag draped over her shoulders. Thus confirms the old notion that Brazil is everyone’s second favorite team.
During the Brazilian national anthem, much of the bar sang along proudly. I got goose bumps when the singer stopped singing and let the entire stadium, including the Brazilian players, finish the song. David Luiz was getting into it.
Throughout the day, members of the media stopped by to take photos. One writer from El Diario waited by the bathroom. New York 1 came by. A guy from World Soccer Shop handed out packs of stickers. I got lucky with a USMNT sticker, which I will cherish like a Charizard holographic card.
At this point, I will point out that Brazil did not play a particularly inspired game. They applied significant pressure for much of the first half, but they did not have many sparkling chances. Croatia’s keeper got a hand on Neymar’s first goal and then the ref bailed Brazil out by calling that phantom “foul” in the box.
Here’s the reaction to Neymar’s PK:
I bet Sanam one sticker that the score would be 3-1. So when Oscar netted his toe poke, a goal straight out of a fifth-grade rec league, I scooped up my winning sticker.
One final note — I asked about ten Brazilians who they think will win the World Cup. No one predicted that Brazil would win! The shop owner conceded that she thinks Brazil will make it to the final, but she wouldn’t proclaim them champions.
I’ll see if the Spanish fans are more confident tomorrow.
OVERALL ATMOSPHERE: 7/10 inside Ipanema. I feel bad for the tired, stressed employees throughout Little Brazil who I hope will find some joy in their country’s tournament, the first Brazilian World Cup since 1950.