As part of its cleanup for the World Cup, in 2008 the Brazilian government began a police crackdown to sweep criminals out of the urban slums known as "favelas." The government has boasted of its success in bringing down crime, but the patrolling squads have made life in the favelas’ crowded corridors feel like an armed occupation, with a sense of security seemingly more fit for international headlines than peace of mind.
For one week, I lived with the Costa family in Bangu, one of the larger slums in Brazil, part of Rio de Janeiro. They wanted me to experience daily life in the favela, a jumble of community, poverty, friendship, and a simple life united around their love — for each other, for God, and for soccer.
* * *
The bus station shrank in the rear window as I yanked on the seatbelt that wouldn't budge. Joao turned around from the front seat.
"Is everything OK?" he said, then saw me struggling. "Oh, we don't use those here."
My sense of freedom rose and with it so did the sun in a way only possible at 6:30 a.m. in Rio de Janeiro, grazing over the jagged green mountains that can be seen from everywhere in the city limits.
Joao Costa's older brother, Anderson, sped past the parts of Rio seen in movies like "The Twilight Saga," and into the parts of Rio mentioned only briefly in news stories, those about the crime and poverty that surround the more glamorous, shore-side communities.
Police "pacify" a favela ahead of the World Cup. (Getty Images)
The area has been "pacified" by the police, which means officers with machine guns marched in, killed a few bad guys.
Their favela, Bangu, is notorious for its sprawling prison, and their neighborhood is Vila Kennedy, named after JFK, who started a program to build houses for the poor there. But that was more than 50 years ago.
Up the hill toward the Costas' shack is a field with dilapidated cars, one of them toasted to a crisp and flipped upside-down. All were stolen.
Graffiti marked by Brazil's drug gangs dances across the beige walls of storefronts and homes. The area has been "pacified" by the police, which means officers with machine guns strapped across their shoulders marched in, killed a few bad guys, and the gangs moved to the other side of the neighborhood.
Joao's house is what you'd build the first time you play "The Sims." It's tiny and has just the bare essentials, and the minimum space needed for up to 10 people at once. A half-kitchen, a bathroom, two bedrooms, a loveseat and a 14-inch TV. No dinner table. No wallpaper. Fluorescent lights and electrical sockets jutting out of the walls. The ceiling, made of corrugated sheet metal, doesn't connect with the top of the walls in some places — which lets some sunlight seep in, and that's nice.
At any moment a half dozen or more family members seem to be passing through the cramped living room — and you can call it a living room because they really do most of their living there, sitting or standing, eating or drinking, watching soaps or tending to little children. The room is so small that I can walk its length in five steps, provided no one's in my way. All of the furniture could be dismantled and removed in under two minutes.
The house cost $5,000. Joao's grandmother bought it for them some years after his dad moved out and left five kids with his mother.
"If I want to be a good daddy, I need to do everything he didn't," says Joao (joh-OW).
Joao and his mother, Gorete, have their own small bedrooms, but they sleep together while I stay in Joao's bed (a twin-size slab as hard as the floor). The family built two smaller "houses" on the same tiny plot for two of Joao's older brothers. Their address, plot No. 260, is etched into a brick wall in bronze numbers; the zero is missing, but the engraving shows through. Privacy is a luxury no one can afford — the block houses on every winding road are stacked like a neighborhood of Legos, assembled to cram in the most people in the smallest possible space, with no room for parking. Those with cars simply leave them in the street or on sidewalks, if there are sidewalks.
Very few if any of the people who live in Bangu will be going to a World Cup game, but even here the hype is impossible to miss. Clothing and toy stores are draped in Brazil's colors of yellow and green. The Cup mascot, a childish armadillo called Fuleco (a mash-up of "Futebol" and "Ecologia") adorns so many aisles, crammed between jerseys, hats, tank tops, Brazucas, horns and video games.
Flags line the ceilings of businesses that have nothing to do with soccer. The face of Brazil's star striker, Neymar, is plastered on so many surfaces that it feels like I'm in Pyongyang and he's the Dear Leader.
It's still morning, so we let time flow. He beats me in a soccer video game on PlayStation, 3-0. We go to a farmers market with his 28-year-old brother Daniel, while the police stride through the fruit and seafood tents, decked out in military gear. At 11 a.m., Daniel uses the fruit to make the linchpin of Brazilian nightlife, a drink called caipirinha — made of fruit, sugar and an alcohol called cashasa. Daniel is unemployed and spends much of his time cooking and mixing drinks in his "Sims" starter home, and he's unbelievably talented. I tell him he could move to New York, start a Brazilian restaurant, called "Favela," and charge $15 just for the drinks.
We're listening to Madonna when Joao's girlfriend and her mother arrive. He's 19, and his girlfriend, Mayara, is 14. Her mother is just over 30. That's not uncommon.
After a couple of hours of preparing feijoada, a traditional meat stew eaten by rich and poor Brazilians alike, the 10 of us sit down in the outdoor space triangulated by the three shacks to eat lunch. Before I have time to take the first bite, six police officers in thick armor walk by the door to the lot, each of them looking in for a second.
A few members of the family glance up at me. "That's normal," they say. Then they resume eating.
One minute later, a quick burst of gunfire from farther down the block shatters the afternoon calm. The neighbors creep onto the street to see what's happening. Another quick ta-ta-ta-ta of bullets. The Costas poke their heads around the side of the doorway, the way that Fred, Daphne and Velma do in "Scooby-Doo." The police are standing with their machine guns drawn outside a home around the corner. The neighbors linger until they get back to whatever they were doing before.
"It hasn't been like this in a while," Joao says.
Joao and I are planning to see a game, the classic Brazilian soccer rivalry between Flamengo and Fluminense ("Fla-Flu"), at the massive Estádio Maracanã, the stadium that will host the final game of the World Cup. As a lifelong fan of the Rio club Vasco da Gama, Joao has long nurtured bitterness toward their city rival, Flamengo. Even though Vasco isn't playing, he wants to go just to root against Flamengo. His girlfriend and her mother tag along, on the condition that we visit their church for a service that evening.
Those are two things Joao loves: Jesus Christ, and soccer. His narrow bedroom is barely decorated, but by his bed he keeps his Bible, and above it are two posters for Vasco and Brazil's national team.
Both of these things give Joao salvation. In God he finds a separation from the gangster's paradise that seeps into the favela. And in soccer he finds relief from tragedies. Eight years ago, his family lived in a different neighborhood, at the bottom of two hills. One day, during the deluge from a storm, water rushed down the hill, and crashed through the gate to their home. The bottom floor became a pool. They lost almost everything. It left Joao emotionally wrecked. The one thing that kept him from falling apart was soccer.
For 90 minutes that's all that matters and there's order in his world.
Fluminense fans cheer their team on against Flamengo. (Getty Images)
He puts it like this, in his near-perfect English that makes up one-third of his Bible: "When I'm not OK, I watch soccer."
When he's in a soccer stadium, any stadium, it doesn't matter who's playing. For 90 minutes that's all that matters and there's order in his world.
Getting to the stadium from the favela takes determination and guts. After the downhill walk through Bangu's winding roads, we climb into a minivan to take us to the subway. The van has 16 seats. There are 22 people. We are the last on board, so we stand in the strip of floor the size of a balance beam between the door and the people sitting down. The van careens down the highway like a Hot Wheels car down the racetrack. After 20 minutes of nausea, we stumble out of the van and onto the train and chug toward the stadium.
Maracanã — what a place. In 1950, the last time Brazil hosted the World Cup, and where Brazil famously fell to Uruguay in the finals, 2-1, the stadium held 200,000 people, nearly the population of Bangu. After a couple of renovations, the stadium is still massive, but now contains only about 80,000 pastel-colored seats.
The Fluminense fans are outnumbered by the great red-brick wall of Flamengo supporters fanning behind the goal, ascending stories as if to the heavens that peer down into the stadium through an eye-shaped oval at the top. But after an early Fluminense goal, and four yellow cards, the wall loses its mortar and crumbles. The red fans stop chanting with vigor, and eventually quiet to a murmur that sounds like a buzzing fly from our position on the other side of the field.
At the end of the match, Fluminense seals the finale with a goal on a fast break. The fans on our end spring into organized action. Off come the shirts. Then come vulgar chants, and the methodical thrusting of pelvises. Although more than 40 million people call themselves Flamengo fans, they are stereotypically regarded as Rio's slum dogs. As they brood in defeat, Joao and the Fluminense backers hurl an insult across the field:
"Favela! Favela! Silence in the favela!"
The subway ride back is still like a mosh pit, but the minivan trip to Bangu is even more claustrophobic. Still 16 seats, but 33 people this time. I'm squished between so many, I can't turn my head. I'm staring at a stuffed animal, a monkey, its arms tied over the dashboard, mimicking me as I struggle to grab something on the ceiling to stop me from falling over onto this poor woman and her kid on her lap. We're flying at somewhere between 60 or 6,000 miles an hour, it doesn't matter. At least the driver isn't texting, I think to myself. As I look toward him, he clairvoyantly reaches for his phone and starts typing.
Not killed, we tumble out of the van's sliding door like clowns and walk to the evangelical church where Mayara's mother sings. Nothing inside suggests it's a church other than the pews and a lectern that serves as an altar. Wiry, white lights — I have not seen a single bulb — stick out from the walls like hands. Behind the altar is a confusing Jackson Pollock-like wall painted in red and white that looks like splattered blood.
That's when a gunshot booms just outside the door of the church.
The chaos starts immediately. The pastor ignites the service with a loud call to worship and is answered by calls of "Hallelujah!" from the three dozen people in the pews. But they can barely hear themselves over the rap and rock music blaring from a bar next door, so loud that it's distorting.
That's when a gunshot booms just outside the door of the church. The police car sirens oscillate as they zoom past the open door and brake so close that the flashing red lights dart into the sanctuary. Dozens of people crowd into the street again to see who's been shot or who's been shooting.
The police have drawn their pistols and machine guns. Inside, the faithful sing "How He Loves Us." Even the pastor walks outside to look — a dark street in a favela, with red lights dancing across the makeshift walls, and a horde of confused people, half naked, blasé to be so close to the scene of a past and possibly future crime.
Five officers move down the street carrying machine guns. The crowd looks at them, but they don't move. This is "pacification," and tonight that means that maybe a stray gang-banger got popped, or maybe he got away, but for the rest of the evening the police have invited themselves to the 24-hour block party.
The pastor walks inside the church and reads from Romans:
"And we rejoice in the hope of the glory of God. Not only so, but we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope."
Joao drops $2 in the donation basket.
After an hour of singing, the pastor begins his sermon, which rises and falls for another hour, just as the crowd of fans at the stadium did a couple of hours before. He crescendos at the very end with a final emotional spiel about Jesus dying for our sins. He's sweating through his dark red shirt, and tears are rivering down his neck. The congregation whoops and hallelujahs and claps and whoops some more, so loud that the sounds of God eclipse the sounds of guns, at least for a minute.
Waking up to Joao playing his soccer video game reminds me of playing video games before breakfast with my brother, when we were young enough to have those sorts of priorities. Joao is playing as Brazil's national team in a fake World Cup match against Canada, which is totally unfair. Canada is so bad they didn't even qualify for the real World Cup that will begin in less than a month, only 20 miles away.
Joao is wearing a soccer jersey. He may never go to college, because it's too expensive, but as we sit on a cheap loveseat in our pajamas playing video games on a weekday morning, I wonder, what's the difference? What use is education without hope?
Sun-baked Bangu residents. (Meeri Koutaniemi)
Their skin accepts the sun that bakes the favela every day.
Daniel pours beer for his boyfriend, Eduardo, and Joao's older half-brother, Jonathan. Bangu is perhaps the hottest place in all Brazil, regularly topping 100 degrees in the summer, and even now in the inverted winter, none of them are wearing shirts. Their skin accepts the sun that bakes the favela every day. They're hungry.
"We want to eat your American bacon," Daniel announces.
"Bacon!" Jonathan repeats, pinching Daniel's flabby stomach.
I agree — bacon it is. Joao starts the car after a few seconds of engine complications — no seatbelt, no shirt, no problem. Can I bring my beer in the car? "No problem."
"I don't have a driver's license, but I know how to drive," Joao assures me. He stutters down the hill to the market, where we buy the pork, and return to the car to start it again. This time it takes more of a fight. Joao pushes the key hard into the ignition as if that will do it.
"C'mon, baby!" he commands, pumping the gas pedal. The car starts.
Bacon is sizzling, beer is flowing, Daniel is making more fruity drinks — lime, with tangerine. His boyfriend makes one with melon and peppers. We eat chicken, rice, beans, and salad for lunch, and life is good. Hell, life is great. There is nothing to do but live.
Joao is surfing Facebook on the impossibly slow Internet flash drive when he turns his laptop around to show me a picture of a father and his two sons, all of whom were killed by the police down the street. They stole cars and sold drugs.
"I don't care about these guys," Daniel says, "because they chose this way. It's easy to get money. They are thieves."
Lunch is over.
We're on our way to the center of Bangu to pick up food for the family's snack bar, their way of earning money. Joao and I are scrunched up in the back of a van that only counts as a van because of its shape and because it has four wheels and an engine. There are no seats. The "key" is a knife. The dashboard holds what's left of the steering wheel and a hole where a radio once was.
"This is real life!" Daniel screams as the car bounces comically over the obstacles of the favela's unkempt street, our heads bumping the ceiling and our drinks spilling onto ourselves. "Welcome to the jungle, baby!"
Joao and I are "sitting" on the raised part of the floor that covers the wheels. The speed bumps feel like mountains.
"What year is this car?" I ask.
"We don't know," Daniel says. "It's a classic!"
"HOLD ON!" Daniel screams as he launches us over an enormous bump in the road, and for a moment, we feel like what astronauts must experience when the thrusters kick in.
Not killed, we woozily step out of the van at a parts shop, where Anderson is buying a new, unwieldy machine to grind the sugarcane that produces a super-sweet juice. It costs $1,000.
"This machine will make lots of money," Daniel says. For a year and a half, they've owned the makeshift snack bar that they fold up onto and into a van six days a week. Still, it took months to save up for the new machine, which looks like it should be in a "Saw" movie. We drive to a house tucked into a dead-end that belongs to an older woman who cooks Brazilian comfort food. Every Monday she makes vegetable soup for homeless people in Bangu. The Costas also pay her to make chicken dumplings to sell at their snack bar, which is what we're picking up today.
They make about $200 a day selling juice, dumplings, doughy cheese pastels, and other snacks. But the sweet juice is the real money maker — a sugarcane costs 20 cents to buy, and each one produces a cup of juice that they sell for a dollar. The new machine to grind that golden sugar proves effective, as Anderson pushes the sugarcane through the gears. The unprotected grinding of metal on the stalk is the sound of profit.
After trundling up the steep roads to what's as good as any home, Daniel parks the van, with a triumphant "We are alive!" Lucas, Anderson's 6-year-old son, starts the PlayStation to play the soccer game. He's chanting for Brazil's team as Joao and I leave for downtown Rio again.
A man bathes in a favela near Rio de Janeiro. (Getty Images)
"Brazil is not OK. The World Cup is cosmetic. They use it to put makeup on Brazil."
On the subway, Joao repeats a desire he's voiced to me before — that he wants desperately to live outside of Brazil. And if he cannot leave, he wishes he could be a tour guide, so at least he can bring the world to him, by talking with foreigners every day. He despises the Brazilian government's policies on health and education, things that governments everywhere promise to address, but rarely do. In front of him, an electronic ad for the World Cup is streaming high expectations in all its FIFA glory.
"Brazil is not OK," Joao says. "The World Cup is cosmetic. They use it to put makeup on Brazil.
"After the World Cup, I don't know what will happen," he says. "The criminals may come back. I don't want to be here when that happens."
We spend the evening with two photographers at a restaurant known for its acai, a bittersweet Brazilian dessert made from berries. But the company is dessert enough for him — the photographers are not Brazilian.
"This is great for me!" he says, hugging me afterward. "I'm sitting at a table with an American, an Italian and a Finn."
Back in the streets where he's comfortable, and where at night the favelas in the mountains twinkle like reflections of the stars, Joao talks about his faith, which he found three years ago when he was 16:
"My first experience with God, I was in bed. I was praying and God told me this - he said, ‘Joao, I need you to do something for me. You need to talk about me at your school.' I said, ‘God, are you crazy? Everyone will think I am so crazy.' But I did it.
"His voice is so different. I don't know how to explain it. You just need to listen."
He recounts one story in particular: Two girls he knew at school were dating each other, and told him they broke up because God told them it was wrong. "And now they are fine," he says. "The holy spirit changed their lives.
"Daniel — I love him. I know that what he's doing is wrong. But I love him. There's no problem. If he asks me what I think about it, I say, ‘It's wrong. God doesn't like this. You need to stop it right now until you die.' But if he wants this way, I know where he is going. To hell. Hell is the place he is going. He knows where he is going, but he can't stop it.
"I don't understand. My mother also doesn't like it. But he's my brother and her son. He needs love."
Daniel wakes up next to a closet with three compartments reserved for dozens of bottles of cologne. On his dresser are more, and on a shelf in the short hallway are a few extras that won't fit.
For a home the size of a large walk-in closet, Daniel has built and arranged things with beautiful precision — spare, but neat and clean. The kitchen has just enough space for one person to stand and cook; the counter separates it from a couch that is so close to a wall-mounted TV that if the TV fell it would hit anyone sitting down; the bedroom is just to the left; and a curtain divides the bathroom between a toilet and sink, and a shower nozzle. Go ahead, take a two-hour shower — nobody in the favela pays for water or electricity. It is all stolen.
Every morning Daniel watches TV, either in Portuguese or in English (today it's "Two and a Half Men" and "Friends," both which make a joke about IKEA that doesn't register), and blasts music while turning the volume up as loud as it will go. Today he's listening to a Brazilian singer who, he notes, died of AIDS.
Daniel's father is coming to pick him up. A year ago this wouldn't have happened. When their father left, Daniel was 15. His older brothers were mature enough to deal with it on their own, and Joao was so young he didn't know what was happening. Daniel hated the world and held a grudge against his father for 12 years, a relationship that was truly nuclear. Only last year he began rebuilding it.
"Leave the past behind," is what Daniel says.
His father, Valdir, is a stout taxi driver who carries three phones in one pocket and makes $130 a day, good money.
On the radio, Bruce Hornsby's "The Way It Is" crackles through the speakers when the antenna is in the right position. It's one of Joao's favorite songs, though he likes the version with Tupac dubbing over the piano riff. Daniel prefers the original.
"This music is so good," Daniel says. "I like it."
As the comforting chorus rolls through his ears, Daniel gazes out the window at the passing neighborhood, which used to be his, until the family moved after the flood destroyed their home in 2006.
That's just the way it is
Some things will never change
That's just the way it is
Daniel's father still lives in that home, now with his girlfriend instead of his wife. Before Daniel goes in, he shows me the watermark on the wall where the rainwater rose, higher than his head, eight years ago.
"I am afraid to live here again," Daniel says, as we walk inside to meet his father's girlfriend, Sebastiana.
"This is my woman!" the father booms.
She's a good cook, even according to Daniel, which is high praise. While we eat, a flat-screen TV displays yet another preview of the World Cup. Valdir is excited for it to start, because he'll be able to double his taxi prices for a month, maybe more.
For this one part of the world, the story of soccer is the story of freedom.
Kids play soccer on one of many makeshift pitches around Brazil. (Getty Images)
The World Cup means many things for Brazilians. It's a business opportunity. It's a party. It's a stage for protesting. It's a chance for redemption, for those who remember the 1950 loss to Uruguay. It's a logistical nuisance. And it's a chance to mingle in a swarm of soccer fanatics from 31 other parts of the world.
For this one part of the world, the story of soccer is the story of freedom. The English introduced soccer to Brazil, but when slavery was abolished on May 13, 1888, making the slaves the last in the West to be freed, Brazilians claimed the sport for themselves.
On the anniversary, Daniel and I drink cans of beer in the sun while watching a concert to celebrate the freedom of the slaves. It's a modest event — a handful of families relaxing on a concrete soccer court. Many of them wear T-shirts that show dark hands breaking free from chains. Behind those hands is a World Cup stadium with Brazil's team competing in front of thousands of make-believe fans. In the run up top the Cup, there is a tie in to everything.
That night Joao, Daniel and I walk through Vila Kennedy.
"Don't step in the water," Joao advises — but it's not water. Stepping around the sewage trickling down the curbs is like playing "lava" as a kid, trying not to step on certain colors on the ground. Except here you never win.
Except when you do. At the end of our lava-hop, we stop at the most exciting soccer game I've ever seen.
Each team of a half dozen kids, all of them barefoot and most of them without shirts, are playing on a dirt "field" the size of half a basketball court, and they're fenced in like a cage match.
It's 14 to 14 when we arrive. The first team to score 15 goals wins 20 bottles of Coca-Cola. But if you didn't know they were playing soccer you wouldn't be able to tell. Most of the game consists of a goalie throwing the ball as far as he can toward the other goal, where the opposite goalie catches it and throws it back. It looks more like volleyball.
When the ball actually touches the dirt, the kids scamper toward it, fighting each other with their entire bodies to push it forward. There is no passing backward, ever. One kid gets stuck with the ball up against the fence, and a kid from the other team kicks at his shins to poke the ball away. In retaliation, the first kid jumps, clings onto the metal fence and wraps his legs around the other kid's neck, hurling him toward the ground.
They argue over almost every play. Everyone is using their hands, because giving the other team a free kick is better than letting the ball move toward their own goal — for a free kick, anyone can stand as close to the ball as they want. So the kicks go nowhere.
At one point the ball doesn't touch a foot for a full 30 seconds. The goalies just hurl it across the dirt to each other, four times, as if they're playing catch. Three intentional handballs later, the ball finally drops to the ground, and the players slam into each other so hard that nobody has clear possession. But the best part is that they're not flopping to the ground like professionals, because there's no ref to fool. Even when they knee each other in the abdomen so hard we can hear the bone colliding with muscle, they catch their breath and return the favor.
On one "free kick," three shirtless players stand so close to the ball that their toes are on its shadow. One of them shoves another hard, out of the way, and then kicks the ball before he can get back into place. This is the way the game is learned.
A dozen other guys on the dirt are cheering, just behind the goal, but when the ball approaches them in a corner, one of the "fans" runs over to get a kick in for himself. This interference, however, draws no outrage.
"They come to kill," Daniel says of the police. "They don't talk."
A few girls holding babies are watching outside the fence, as finally, one team scores, and in celebration 15 people stream onto the dirt yelling and jumping and possibly fighting the other team, it's hard to tell.
On every block, there's some sort of party. Old guys drinking or playing snooker or dominoes, young adults playing video games, kids dancing as bands play funk, cars with bass beats coming out of every part of the vehicle — there is no week, there is no weekend.
Rio's SWAT police, "BOPE" (Batalhao de Operacoes Policias Especiais — "Special Police Operations Battalion"), have set up cones with tires on them and iron roadblocks to slow down cars through certain parts of the favela, like one block where drugs and weapons were sold on a couch.
"They come to kill," Daniel says of the police. "They don't talk."
That's just the way it is.
Joao found God lying in bed, and I found God playing soccer on a patchwork turf field in a favela.
For a few bucks to cover renting the shoddy field for two hours, we get to play on a six-man team. Four teams rotate on the half-size pitch in Bangu, boxed in by a towering chain-link fence.
As we warm up, Joao gets in goal and tells a group guys to shoot at him. I'm wildly out of place, not just because I'm the only person who's not Brazilian, but because, despite 12 years of weekly practices and games on a suburban neighborhood team, I'm a terrible soccer player. I think in my entire soccer career I scored two goals. I don't know why my parents didn't stop me from playing every season. The worst player in all of Brazil is probably better than I am.
Joao makes a catch and bounces it back to the scrum at midfield. The ball rolls to a stop and nobody approaches it. One of them gestures to me, because I'm the new guy, and they don't know I'm American yet. I wave the offer away, but no one else steps up.
I stutter-step up to the ball and boot it.
The ball rises, about as high as the crossbar. It's spinning the way it spins when real soccer players kick it, never the way it does when I do. It looks at first as if it will miss the goal completely, over Joao's head, then it curves down toward the left post, and lands in the top of the net — the most difficult spot to defend. Joao can do nothing but watch. It was perfect and it will never happen again.
The others turn toward me and yell as if I've scored in a real match. When they realize I don't speak Portuguese, they're even more baffled. When they realize I'm American, they give up trying to make sense.
"Americano?!" they all scream.
I wish I had played it cool, but I really was as surprised as they were.
The ball bounces back, and they all point to it and tell me to kick it again.
"Neymar!" one of them shouts, absurdly linking me to Brazil's star forward for the only time in my life.
For an awful soccer player who flails about on the pitch, this is the worst thing to have — high expectations. I approach the ball hesitantly and kick it again. It arcs, curves down again, and misses over the crossbar — not a terrible shot, but I knew that godly spin wasn't returning, because I had no idea how I did it the first time.
"Oooohhh!" the Brazilians cry, apparently expecting me to swish it again.
Warm-up is over. It's time to choose teams.
Choose teams?! Like every person who went to grade school in the United States, I know how this works. We stand around meekly making eye contact with the team captains, hoping we don't get chosen last. I got chosen last every time, for soccer, dodgeball, basketball, probably even ski ball if that were an option.
But this is the day that I'm the exotic American footballer, and I'm not last. I'm not first — I'm a respectable fourth. Fourth out of six. The blue team.
We huddle before the first game. They're all speaking Portuguese and even if I understood it, they're going way too fast. The guy taking charge points at me and asks — "umdoistresquatrocincoseish?"
"Uhh — wait, numbers? Did you say seis?"
I'm seish. Six. Six means striker, apparently.
"Matt? Messi!" one of them demands, linking me now to maybe the best soccer player alive. Everyone screams "Messi!" I'm screwed.
Kickoff. I'm running around like an idiot playing soccer for the first time. The rules are warped, and I just don't want to touch the ball for the first minute so I can understand why you're allowed to kick it in from out of bounds sometimes, or roll it with your hands but only on certain plays.
The guy who gave me "seish" has the ball near the other goal, and I run up to the net. He floats it to me. It's a perfect pass. I jump up to head it — and I just miss it.
A minute later, the same guy sends me a hard pass. I'm near the goal again. The ball bounces, and I try to do some fancy thing I probably saw Messi do on YouTube. I spin around and kick my heel behind me like a ballerina with vertigo. I miss the ball entirely, but it bounces again, and it lands in the net ... divine intervention.
They're all clapping and celebrating the Americano. From everyone's angle, it looks as if I scored the goal. I try to tell them I didn't do anything, but it's no use.
We're not playing for Coke; we're playing to stay on the field and play the next team. It's a tie, and we win a coin toss, so we get another game.
Halfway through the next match, the ball lands at my sneakers, and just as a defender is rushing toward me, I send a pass across the field to a skinny teammate who can really carry the ball with his feet. He deposits it for a neat goal and points to me knowingly. A little too knowingly.
We get a third game. There's good news and bad news. The good news is I get to rest. The bad news is that's because they put me in goal. The fairy tale is about to unravel. I do not belong here.
Try not to die, I tell myself.
Kickoff. They pass the ball back to me and tell me to pick it up so I can throw it down the field. Easy enough. I send the ball as hard as I can ... straight into the fence on the left, out of bounds. My team looks back at me. The emperor has no jersey.
Two minutes later I give up a goal that was probably not that difficult to defend. They take me out. We lose and have to sit on the sidelines for a couple of matches.
The skinny guy who scored on my pass points to me.
"America," he says. "Frango."
I know that word because I ate it for lunch.
I felt like a real thread in something much bigger than a ball, a place where even I can feel like I belong.
"Yeah, I'm a chicken," I say.
They're laughing, and I'm laughing, relieved that I don't have to pretend to be some sort of actual soccer player for the next game.
The teams get shuffled, and Joao and I end up on the same squad. We get a fast break, and Joao passes me the ball. This time there's no angelic assist, no lucky bounce, no ripple in the wind. I kick the ball into the corner of the goal. This one is real.
Joao collapses in celebration on the quilted field, his arms spread out. "Favela!" I jokingly scream at him, remembering his taunt from Maracanã. It's so easy to feel comfortable here, to embrace that kind of self-deprecation while knowing that soccer is the fabric that holds so much of this community together. I've played soccer since I was in elementary school and have watched it since the 1994 World Cup, but it wasn't until I became a member of the blue team that I felt like a real thread in something much bigger than a ball, jerseys and a net where once in a lifetime the upper-left corner is the most welcoming place on Earth, a place where even I can feel like I belong.
Eat, drink, kick, sleep, sometimes work. When those are done, walk. So many places to walk. Through soccer fields, market streets, sewage creeks, cobblestone boulevards, highway shoulders, steep climbs, backyards.
Alleys. The poorest part of Vila Kennedy is a row of holes in a solid wall where families try to live. It's called the viela. On the wall is a spray-painted face of a woman wearing a blood-red grimace, and these elegant words surround her:
"I have faith because in the garbage a flower is born."
Elaine Cristina's daughter smiles. (Meeri Koutaniemi)
"I have faith because in the garbage a flower is born."
In the garbage is where we meet Elaine Cristina, living in a hole with six kids and no money. The door is detached, leaning on an inside wall uselessly. Her house is one room, and it's brighter than the other caves because her roof collapsed two months ago during a storm.
"I woke up with the sun in my face, so that was a little nice," is her idea of a joke.
Her husband has no job. They are each 36 years old. Their oldest son is 20 and cleans cars. That's the only way they get any money.
They have one bed, and one couch. Every night, this family of eight rotates — four sleep on the floor, two in the bed, and two on the couch. The bathroom has no door. Pipes are leaking with no hope of ever getting fixed. The smell of sewage reaches every corner of the room. Water spreads across the floor and forms puddles that are impossible to step over.
She has a stove, but it's broken. No lunch today. None of them have eaten.
We're standing in this excuse for a residence interviewing this poor mother, taking poverty-porn pictures of her kids, and nobody is going to help her. I think about that famous photograph of the bony Sudanese girl crouching by the vulture, and the collegiate media-ethics classes it prompted.
I tell Elaine we're going to the market. It's painfully close — a two-minute walk, but for her, normally out of reach. When we walk in, we put her 3-year-old, Alexander, into the shopping cart.
"I'm embarrassed," she says, in Portuguese.
Elaine starts with the essentials she doesn't have — rice, beans, sugar, pasta, tomatoes. She looks up from the cart, with the food and her child inside.
"What can I get?" she asks.
I tell her to get whatever she needs. She goes to the meat counter and orders pounds and pounds of chicken, beef, pork. The man preparing it asks how she's going to pay, and she points at me. She says she's going to make roast beef and pasta for lunch. I smile and she smiles back.
Soccer cannot save the favela, or transform a world of half-built homes into calm suburbs, but for fleeting moments, whether on patchwork turf or standing far above manicured fields or dreaming of stardom, soccer brings peace. Buying groceries for three or four days won't change anything either, but it can fill a few bellies and quiet the hunger.
"God sent you," she said. "I prayed to God and he answered."
Now Elaine looks like one of those winning contestants on a shopping spree. She grabs olive oil, yogurt, more pasta, and diapers. Alexander opens one of the yogurt containers in the cart and buries his face in vanilla.
When Brazil won the rights to host the World Cup, the politicians said everyone would be better off, even Elaine. It's pretty clear that's not going to happen. A half-mile from Elaine's place is a barren field with a government sign that promises a hospital will soon be built. Instead, there's a burning pile of garbage.
That day I showed Daniel a Forbes article that said Brazil's tourism ministry predicted the World Cup would boost the Brazilian economy by $3 billion, maybe more. Daniel just laughed.
"I don't think so," he said. "Because the government — they take the money. How do you say that?"
"Corruption?" I said.
"Yes," he said.
World Cup buzz is everywhere, even at the unemployment office where Daniel and I go to collect his monthly $500. Dozens of people are waiting in the drab office, and only four workers are available, even worse than the local DMV in the United States. Hours can go by with no progress.
The TV on the wall is showing a World Cup promo. Some amped-up sports reporter has set up a soccer field the size of a coffee table with paper placards for each of the starting players for Brazil's just-announced team. He plops Neymar down first, up front.
"Look," Daniel says. "The man stops to watch TV."
Sure enough, the unemployment worker is just standing there, staring up at the screen, for a full minute, which can feel like an hour if you're waiting to get an unemployment check.
The worker's gaze is laser-focused on the promo. Brazilian TV networks are obsessed with the Cup, and not just Brazil's national team. TV screens around the country rotate through other nations' squads — their history, their players to watch — and some sort of tournament-related news pops up on the evening broadcasts every night. In the weeks before the Cup, the U.S. team probably receives more coverage here than on American television.
In the weeks before the Cup, the U.S. team probably receives more coverage here than on American television.
Even Daniel, who doesn't care much for soccer at all, is excited for something — whatever it is that will happen in June. But as we take a bus back from the unemployment office, we get a reminder of the strides that Brazil seems unwilling to overcome: The driver stops to use the bathroom for 10 minutes, stranding 50 passengers outside. "Only in Brazil," mutters a woman next to us.
Daniel's in a good mood when we get back; he got his check and now he has money to spend. We're walking to the snack bar when he starts singing:
"Sometimes I feel like I don't have a partner ..."
It's "Under the Bridge" by the Red Hot Chili Peppers. He knows all the words.
Under the bridge downtown, is where I drew some blood
Under the bridge downtown, I could not get enough
Under the bridge downtown, forgot about my love
Under the bridge downtown, I gave my life away
As we sing together, it's unclear if he knows what they mean. But then again, maybe he does. We get to the bridge that crosses the highway to the snack bar. It's a good spot to sell snacks, right by the pick-up/drop-off site for the vans. Joao tells me that eight months ago a woman jumped off the bridge and killed herself; the highway was shut down.
"We made a lot of money," Joao said. "All the cars had to stop, and everyone was hungry."
Joao helps Anderson close up the snack bar. Then after dinner, which is the same as lunch, Joao and I go for a walk in the dark. This time we're headed to a neighborhood he's only been to twice. They call it "Congo," because it's where the bandits who have been driven out by the police try to re-enter to sell drugs.
Unlike most of the crowded, loud avenues in Vila Kennedy, the road that the bandits use is quiet, ominous. The street lamps disappear as the incline rises. Up the hill it narrows into a dark mountain, where the SWAT-style police camp out, ready to shoot.
"Here it is very, very dangerous," Joao says. "At any moment, you can hear shots."
A block later, Joao is even more nervous — he's never been to this part before. A man approaches us and simply says, "The boys are here." He's talking about the bandits. The normal favela sounds have returned — a cacophony of barking dogs, boys playing drum sets in church, motorcycles honking, and stereos blaring Latin techno.
Two police officers, one with a machine gun, are standing on a corner, as they are in most favelas surrounding Rio. The police know that the "pacification" policy has driven criminals out. They know they'll probably stay in the favelas until after the 2016 Olympics in Rio. They don't know if the gangs will return after that. But the police also don't want me to use their names.
Joao takes me through a loop back to a place he knows. He wants to go to the top of a mountain where he goes to pray. We stalk through a labyrinth of alleyways, passing exposed wires, dismembered dolls, a soccer court with six boys and one girl playing barefoot. Before the police arrived, the gangs used the court to host parties.
Up and up, over stone steps and dirt ridges, into puddles and uncut grass, through the lives of people who don't care about hard climbs, closer to the almost-full moon we hike, into a sanctuary of untouched trees and grass and rocks until the world twinkles beneath us and the things that are living there are but a din, and for just a moment, for those who want to find it, there is silence in the favela.