Welcome to Brazil?

So this is Brazil. Spiritual homeland of football, the beautiful game, beach soccer, World Cup, football with a smile. And so it is, literally. But in truth, you're never far away from a darker side. 

Just 24 hours in Brazil is all it takes to get a double-edged taste of reality. 
 
Not even 9am on a Sunday and the locals are playing barefoot on the beach in the blinding glare of early morning sunlight. (And true to the national stereotype, one team cheekily tries to score straight from kick-off. Despite being denied that, the side are still two up within as many minutes...). Welcome to Brazil.
 
Wander just a 100m further up the beach though, and there is another side of life here. A line of red crosses are being knocked into the sand. 
 
A joke about it marking where England's chances in the World Cup are buried turns sour when it's revealed each one marks a murder, just since January, here in this stunning beachside city of Vitoria and Esperito Santo where the Socceroos have set up camp.
 
Line after line stretches out in the sand. They have been knocking in the crosses since dawn, and there is still hours of work ahead of them. 
 
Those behind the demonstration say so far in 2014, 758 people have been killed in this apparently gorgeous oasis, more than Rio de Janeiro, more even than than notorious crime-ridden São Paulo.
 
And this is the reputedly fourth safest, best quality of life city in Brazil.
 

"Don't believe what they tell you," says the blonde Brazilian supporting the demonstration. "We are a small city and no-one listens to us. Police here are underpaid and under-manned...they are being killed and so are their families as well as drug dealers and gangs."
 
As the football game continues on the beach behind, photocopied posters on the lampposts show pictures of the latest casualties - young girls smile for the camera, now just protest ghosts by the beach but always a cherished memory for some heartbroken family...welcome to Brazil.
 
On the city's outskirts, the Socceroos have invited local kids to watch them train. They fill the far stand and scream at deafening volume whenever the squad runs close to them.
 
None of them can speak a word of English but they know all the names of the Socceroos - and out of them all, rookie Roo Bailey Wright has his own fan club, with one group hoping the young defender will give them a signed shirt.
 

When you walk among them, they crowd you and treat you like a rock star if they find out you're Aussie, and demand to have their picture taken with you. Their welcome to Brazil engulfs you.
 
Across in the opposite stand there are some Aussie indigenous kids, flown in from a community 800km outside of Darwin to follow the Socceroos' fortunes at first hand in Brazil.
 
When they meet the local kids, neither of them knows each other's language, but within seconds, they are flinging the names of World Cup stars at each other. "Neymar!" "Messi!" "Cahill!" The language of football. 
 

A ball appears and instantly they try to show off their skills, heading, balancing, spinning. When they get pulled apart, the high-fives and gap-toothed smiles underline the common bond forged already.
 
Overlooking the stadium the Socceroos have commandeered, ramshackle buildings cascade down the hillside. Just out of sight behind the freeway are slum favelas, Brazil's scabby poverty-stricken underbelly.
 
Two Aboriginal elders are among those who traveled with the lucky Aussie youngsters and yesterday they ventured into the favelas to get a taste of life for the local under-privileged.
 
"It's very like home," they said today. "There is 11 people living in one room, terrible over-crowding... we have similar problems in our community."
 

And then there's the football. 
 
In the town centre, in shops, in cafes, in the streets, in hotel lobbies, on the beach, there is football everywhere.  TV screens show it all the time, last night a beachfront bar had it projected in giant size on the side of one of the skyscrapers opposite.
 
There are so many pitches, big and small, that it's genuinely hard to take a scenic snap without a set of goalposts getting in the way.
 
In the city centre entertainment strip - already dubbed the Bermuda Triangle by Aussie press as journos are likely to get lost in here thanks to the giant 600ml longneck bottles of Brahma beer ($3) and the virtually pure rum Mojitos ($5) - there were so many screens tuned into the England game, it was literally impossible to count them (although that may have been because of the Mojitos...)
 
Meanwhile, the Socceroos continue to prepare for a World Cup. They look mean and very lean, having apparently "been flogged hard" in training until today - the rest of their training schedule will now focus on shape and strategy apparently.
 
After weeks of intense scrutiny, press conferences are becoming more of a cosy chat, and as much time was spent discussing tactics as was spent on the size of the spider in Ben Halloran's hotel room last night.
 
There's talk of Ange keeping something back as a secret to surprise Chile, but unsurprisingly no-one's talking as that would probably somewhat undermine the whole "secret" side of things...
 

Meanwhile, back on the beach, the last of the 758 crosses is knocked into the sand, casting a lengthening shadow over the football pitches behind as the winter sun falls back down to the horizon. 
 
Welcome to Brazil.
 
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