World Cup 2014: Strikes leave São Paulo frozen rather than at fever pitch

Traffic woes have sparked predictions the tournament may start with the most chaotic opening to a Football World Cup ever

What rain is to London and rudeness is to Paris, traffic is to São Paulo. It is the city's defining cliche, the one all tourists comment on in wonder and locals roll their eyes at in acceptance. Until this week, that is, when what could politely be described as the city's "ambivalent feelings" towards the World Cup boiled up to a volcanic peak centred not so much on traffic chaos – if only traffic was moving enough to be chaotic – but traffic stasis.

On Monday, the fifth day of the metro workers' strike, traffic jams created a 200km matrix of solid gridlock, like a heaving, seething tumour suffocating the entire city. The workers, who are demanding a 20% pay rise, voted on Tuesday night not to strike on Thursday and disrupt the first day of the World Cup. Nonetheless, in Rio de Janeiro's two main airports were beginning a 24-hour strike at midnight, leading to what many predict to be the most chaotic opening to a World Cup ever.

"The traffic has been an absolute nightmare, especially for the past three years but particularly in the past 20 days," Janiana, a nanny who lives next to São Paulo's Arena Corinthians, said on Wednesday, waiting at Itaquerao railway station. "There have been bus strikes and train strikes and you can't move anywhere. And look at it! The stadium's not even done!"

"Tomorrow," her friend Patrizia added, "we're all going to stay indoors. Brazil will stop tomorrow – not because of the game, but because it has to."

Anyone coming to São Paulo with a headful of cliches about Brazilians prostrating themselves devotedly at the altar of football will be as disconcerted as any tourists who arrive in England expecting to find Hogwarts. If football is a religion, São Paulo looks, at the very least, agnostic, and there is little excitement in the city about the impending World Cup at all. Partly this comes from the lack of outdoor advertising, which hasbeen banned in the city since 2006. (Surprisingly, Fifa has not overturned this law ahead of time in order to placate its sponsors, as it did when it came to Brazil's law against selling beer inside stadiums. As comedian John Oliver remarked on his HBO show over the weekend: "Fifa are anxious to protect Budweiser from Brazil's law designed to protect people.")

Thus, the few billboard advertisementsdeterminedly trumpeting the World Cup are relegated to the city's outskirts, like sad cheerleadersbrusquely evicted from the actual game. But even that aside, where you might expect flags and banners to fill the hole left by contraband advertising, you find next to none. It's easier to spot anti-World Cup graffiti in the town centre than it is to spot any sign of Brazil's fabled love of football.

How in which Brazil and Fifa have managed to snuff out even this country's excitement about hosting the World Cup are, by now, after months of protests, well known: the exasperation with the venality of Fifa, the jarring disconnect between the poverty in the country and the massive over-expenditure on the event, the seeming lack of anticipation about how to prepare a city like São Paulo for the World Cup. And then, there is the dread of impending national embarrassment – not about the football, but the stadiums.

At São Paulo's Arenas Corinthians on Wednesday, 24 hours before the opening game, there was a distinct lack of what could be described as festive feeling. Orange cones were being hastily assembled around giant patches of wet cement on the walk from the railway station towards the stadium and scaffolding was still being built. Inside the station, workers were hurriedlypainting the rafters the obligatory yellow and green, and tourists and journalists walked around in circles, bemused by the, shall we say, not entirely reliable signage, with signs promising the stadium in fact leading people in the opposite direction towards a shopping mall.

But not even four-hour traffic jams can entirely kill Brazilians' love of football (Fifa, of course, is a different story). On Wednesday a giant football had been erected in Itaquerao station and, even though it was clearly an advert for a particular trainer, adults and children alike couldn't resist posing next to it for photos, fluttering like moths around one giant flame.

"Brazil has always had problems, and the traffic has always had been bad in São Paulo – Brazilians should stop complaining," said Jose Mereiles, who lives by the stadium and one of the aforementioned moths. So was he going to any of the games, seeing as he lives next to the stadium? He looked astonished: "Of course not! Too crowded."


Hadley Freeman in São Paulo

The GuardianTramp

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