Artist João Paulo Asfury has spent the past three weeks covering a half-mile stretch of this remote Brazilian city in World Cup-related graffiti.
But Mr. Asfury's not tagging in protest at the estimated $11.3 billion price tag for the tournament that kicks off today in São Paulo, where hundreds of demonstrators clashed with riot police. Instead, he's celebrating the return of “the beautiful game” to Brazilian soil and rooting for his nation to break a 12-year dry streak and win another World Cup.
More than 61 percent of Brazilians believe the World Cup is bad for the country because it takes money away from schools, healthcare, and other services, according to a recent survey by the Pew Research Center. But in Rio Branco streets bloom with colors, cars don national flags, and monuments display yellow-and-green banners.
In 2009, the city bid to host one of this year's World Cup matches, but was rejected. Yet, given the anger boiling up in many host cities over event-related costs and corruption, the initial disappointment over being rejected as a host seems to have preserved Brazil’s old soccer spirit here.
Every four years, no matter where the World Cup is held, several dozen streets in Rio Branco compete to be named the best-decorated city block. Rua del Mar Pismel, a quiet street of quaint cinderblock homes, is now painted green and covered with Asfury’s giant cartoons of team players. The sidewalks are smothered in bright yellow, and every house is transformed by images of soccer stadiums, cheering fans, and the orchids and toucans that represent the forested state of Acre, of which Rio Branco is the capital.
Other cities that would normally also be breaking out decorations and competing to show their World Cup spirit have seen muted excitement. Brazil last hosted the competition in 1950 (and lost in the final to Uruguay.)
“People here didn’t want to throw wood on the fire,” says Asfury, his t-shirt drenched in sweat and covered in spray paint. “One house didn’t want to participate, but they came around once the decorations started going up,” he says, standing beneath a canopy of green-and-yellow streamers that street residents cut and glued together.
Asfury’s most controversial image, in fact, was simply the phrase “World Cup 2014,” which he had to erase because it’s trademarked by FIFA – a far cry from the anti-World Cup street art seen around Rio, such as a hungry boy being served a soccer ball.
Families pitched in about $40 per household to pay for Asfury’s time and supplies, while residents spent nights and weekends wielding paintbrushes and hanging decorations ahead of tonight’s visit by judges from the chamber of commerce. The winner will be announced by Friday.
“Everybody came together and did it,” says teenager Thayana Brasil. “It’s a tradition.”
Balancing atop a ladder one night this week, Joaquin Cavalcante meticulously wrapped yellow-and-green ribbon around each bar of the security gate in front of his mother-in-law’s house. Brazilians are justifiably embittered over the World Cup costs, he says, but those feelings will fade “once the ball starts rolling.”
“We dance in the middle of the street when Brazil wins,” says his mother-in-law, Nazare Rufino, who has been decorating her home for more than three decades. “Even if [Brazil] loses we won’t take the decorations down – it’s going to be a party until the end.”