Copacabana Beach a World Cup draw for fans
POSTCARD FROM RIO
The last time Samantha Medney visited Copacabana Beach, she refused to walk along the dimly-lit promenade.
"When I came here 13 years ago, there was no chance of my aunt and I taking a walk along the beach after 10.30pm," said the American-Brazilian journalist. "But we're doing it now. The World Cup has made Copacabana a safe place. It's always been fun, but now it just feels much safer."
Safety is a popular issue along the tree-lined, freshly-laid pavements of Rio's most famous destination.
Incessant traffic crawls along at a snail's pace. Police posts pop up periodically in the middle of the avenue, with a couple of bored uniformed officers covered in more weapons of significant destruction than an old Schwarzenegger movie. And drunks stagger along the street, singing multinational songs. Sometimes, they even remember the words.
All in all, Copacabana is a fabulous destination. Safer, comparatively sanitised and full of foreigners, Rio's beach strip could almost be Marina Bay with cheaper beer and more graffiti.
When teams get knocked out or the cash runs dry, armies of supporters are uncontrollably drawn towards the Copacabana for one last hit; one final hedonistic high before a sobering flight back to reality.
Whether it's toasting a team or drowning sorrows, this is where they end up. Even Barry Manilow's showgirl kept returning with feathers in her hair to do the merengue and the cha-cha.
Now they blow plastic horns. The finesse has gone, but the fanaticism remains. They keep coming back to the Copacabana.
"It's always been Brazil's party place," said Gustavo Klavin, who once worked in marketing but quit his job to head back to Copacabana for the World Cup.
The golden beaches retain their gravitational pull.
"But since the World Cup, my God, with the Fan Fest here, there's nothing else like it. The fans come from all over the world. Even Brazilians come from all over. This is the only place to be. Everyone mixes and it's much safer than it was five years ago."
There's that word again. It's almost a mantra. If nothing else, Fifa and the Brazilian authorities have succeeded in adjusting local mindsets. The suffocating police presence around the Maracana Stadium is less obvious along the Copacabana, but then the clean-up was carried out before the tournament began.
According to the International Business Times, Fifa forced several bars to pull the shutters and restricted TV viewing at local eateries that were operating within a one-kilometre area of the sponsored Fifa Fan Fest, which is only allowed to sell one brand of beer.
When I visited, tenacious local vendors with warm, craggy faces and deep tan lines were selling non-official beers and soft-drinks from ice-filled, plastic coolers and doing a roaring trade. Police largely turned a blind eye. Calm exteriors are the order of the day at the Copacabana.
Before the World Cup, there were high-profile police raids targeting vice rings. A popular bar among English speakers was shut down. It was a preferred hangout for local prostitutes. The bar also happens to be opposite the Fifa Fan Fest.
Whether similar vice crackdowns are maintained once the World Cup roadshow leaves remains to be seen. Besides, the grubbiest criminals can never be fully removed from cleaner streets.
A day before I visited, retired English footballer Chris Kamara apprehended a snatch thief.
The Sky Sports TV pundit chased him through the Copacabana streets before catching him and turning him in to police, taking plenty of photos for Twitter along the way of course.
"Every single night, people ask me where the nearest police post is because they have been pick-pocketed," said Klavin, who is currently volunteering as a World Cup tour guide.
"The streets are safer, but the Brazilian mentality remains. If they see a foreigner, they see money. They mostly steal phones because they're easier to sell. So you've got to be careful. But still, the place is much safer now."
That's the mostly positive vibe that runs through one end of the curved, panoramic vista to the other. Sugarloaf Mountain looks down imperiously upon a contented community of partying foreigners and pragmatic locals.
"I'll admit my own family are split right down the middle on the World Cup's impact on the Copacabana," said Medney. "Some of my relatives argue more of the money should be spent on hospitals and schools. But others are proud that we are putting on the world's greatest party. When Brazil played Mexico, thousands of us celebrated together. I've never seen such a sporting atmosphere before. And I'm American."
On the beach, young couples stole kisses beneath parasols, drink sellers pestered sun-bathers, and everyone kicked footballs around. Men, women, children and grandparents from all over the world displayed disturbingly competent ball skills on the unstable surface.
The mood wasn't contrived, but convivial. More often than not, fans generate the most authentic World Cup atmosphere when left alone.
Mathew Feirara was kicking a ball around with his father and some random kids when I interrupted him.
"I am very proud to see so many people come to Copacabana," said the 14-year-old. "They can see that we are more than just football. When it looks so beautiful, Brazilians look beautiful."
And then, he went back to knocking a ball around with his father. Some new kids were eager to join in.
Everyone wants to play at the Copacabana.
It’s always been Brazil’s party place. But since the World cup, my God, with the fan fest here, there’s nothing else like it.
— Gustavo Klavin
(Some people) are proud that we are putting on the world’s greatest party... I’ve never seen such a sporting atmosphere before. and I’m american.
— Samantha Medney