HARARE (Reuters) - Brazil’s Samba Boys brought joy to long-suffering Zimbabwe on Wednesday, causing euphoria on the streets despite inflicting defeat on the home side in a World Cup warm-up match.
Zimbabwe has been tormented by a decade of economic collapse, political crisis, violence and isolation and good news has been rare. The once buoyant tourism industry has collapsed.
Until this week its dream of some benefit -- especially tourist revenue -- from the World Cup in neighbouring South Africa had been dashed.
Then Brazil, one of the favourites to win the biggest trophy in football, agreed to come to Harare for a match against the football minnows of this country, rated 110th in the world.
The joyful mood was scarcely punctuated by the 3-0 victory of Brazil. Zimbabwe pleased their fans by performing creditably until tiring in the second half.
The excitement was palpable in Harare before the game, with everybody from passport officials to hotel bellboys saying they would try to get into match.
Seats to the 60,000 capacity national stadium, refurbished recently by China, were said to be sold out, although there were empty spaces. Fans without tickets poured into the area and had to be held back by police at the gates.
Ticket prices, at $10 (6.8 pounds) were triple the normal rate.
“Today is a momentous occasion for Zimbabweans. We never thought we would have an opportunity to see Brazilians locally,” said one spectator, Dean Chikukwa, a local staff manager.
“We are quite grateful that they decided to pass through this country. For some of us, given our age, this is probably our last opportunity to see Brazil live with our own eyes and not on TV,” he added.
“This is very special for Zimbabwe. This match raises our profile as a country and I am sure the Brazilians, when they go back, will be able to testify that this is a wonderful tourist destination and they will also agree we are hospitable people as a nation. I believe it will encourage more people to come,” Chikukwa said.
Another spectator, banker Felix Tanatswa told Reuters as he left the game with his wife and son: “It was brilliant. It shows all those who believe Zimbabwe is a country that should be separated from the rest of the world that it is actually a great country.”
A traffic jam built up on the road to the stadium, on the edge of the capital, more than two hours before the 3.30 p.m. (2:30 p.m. British time) kick-off.
Government offices and schools declared a half-day holiday to allow people to see the match, which local media suggested was a favour from Brazil’s President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva to Zimbabwe’s leader Robert Mugabe, long ostracised in the West for what is seen as his brutal repression of political opposition and rigging of elections in 2008.
Tourism Minister Walter Muzembi said last week the game would be a major boost for Zimbabwe and that three companies, including a local unit of the world’s second largest platinum producer, Impala Platinum Holdings, had paid 70 percent of Brazil’s appearance fees. He gave no details of the amount.
The match was front page news in Zimbabwe’s newspapers, usually exclusively devoted to political and economic events.
Staff at Harare’s exclusive Meikles hotel said it was full for the first time since the 2008 elections.
A long political impasse after the disputed result of that poll was finally broken by the formation of a power-sharing government with the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) last year.
But Mugabe’s ZANU-PF party is still considered to hold real power in the country, with control of the police and army.
Even so Sports Minister David Coltart, from the MDC, told the BBC: “This is the biggest sporting event ever in Zimbabwe. It is a unique opportunity to rebrand Zimbabwe.”
Both Mugabe and power-sharing Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai arrived to greet the teams and watch the match just before kick-off, to cheers from the excited crowd.
The Zimbabwean fans adopted South Africa’s noisy vuvuzela trumpets, sounding them incessantly long before the match began and some wore Brazilian colours. In one corner of the stands Zimbabweans held up a banner reading “Welcome Brazil.”
Another spectator, printer Dennis Muyambo, said: “Zimbabwe is seen by many people as a very risky country to come to but as you can see everybody is smiling and it is a peaceful environment. It is a memorable day. The happiest day for years.”
Editing by Marius Bosch and Kevin Fylan and Alison Wildey