As World Cup starts, feverish Brazil stops

Durban: Their fanaticism a little dampened, Brazilians will nevertheless still duck out of work, close businesses and bring the country to a virtual halt during soccer’s World Cup which kicked off on Friday.

In Brazil, where everything from the national Congress to the currency market stops in its tracks for Brazil games, it is safest to assume that nothing will be working as normal during the month-long tournament it has won a record five times.

On the days Brazil’s yellow-and-green shirted players take to the pitch in South Africa, banks have permission from the central bank to close early, the currency market will operate on shortened hours, and most government agencies will shut down.

Many companies will allow staff to go home early on those days, the first of which comes on Tuesday when Brazil’s team, known simply here as the “Selecao,” faces North Korea. Others install big screens at the office.

Investors breathed a sigh of relief this week when Brazil’s Senate passed the key points of an overhaul of the country’s oil laws seen as a vital reform step ahead of national elections in October.

Analysts had been warning for months that a delay in the approval past the start of the World Cup could have dashed hopes for getting the bill passed for months. Congress will shut down on Brazil game days and many lawmakers treat the tournament as an unofficial recess period.

As banks and companies close, the slack in economic activity is taken up by fans flocking to buy big TVs and, on game days, beer and food in restaurants where the best tables have been booked long in advance.

Sales of televisions at the Eletroshopping retail chain in northeast Brazil are up about 30 percent in the past month, its vice-president Fernando Freitas told Reuters from the city of Recife.

“The Cup-related consumption is really big, especially of the latest generation digital TVs because this World Cup is seen as the most high-tech so far,” he said.

The boost is a timely one for retailers, coming shortly after the government withdrew tax breaks on home appliances that have helped fuel a frothing recovery in Latin America’s biggest economy.

Samba Spark Lacking

The party spirit could quickly be doused by a poor Brazilian showing, however. Expectations of a sixth World Cup triumph are high, but they are mixed with misgivings over a team coached by 1994 Cup-winner Dunga that is seen by many as betraying the beautiful, samba style that long defined Brazilian football.

Socrates, a midfielder who was part of the dazzling but ultimately unsuccessful Brazilian team of 1982, was quoted this week as saying that today’s more utilitarian style is an “affront to our culture.”

Brazilians have taken longer to warm up for this year’s tournament than in the past, when expectations of victory and flamboyant football were higher, said 45-year-old factory worker Antenor Assis.

He was watching the opening match on Friday between South Africa and Mexico on a mammoth screen set up for fans on Rio de Janeiro’s famed Copacabana beach.

“It’s only started to infect the country in the past few days. At other times, everyone was really excited from a month before the start,” he said.

But he said a sixth World Cup would be welcome regardless of how it was won.

“Other times, the team has had players the people wanted but we didn’t win. There’s not much time in a World Cup to get it right -- playing beautiful or ugly, you’ve just got to get the goals.”

Bureau Report

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