In a Rio favela, Brazil's soccer gold unifies a divided country

— -- RIO DE JANEIRO -- The bar is easy to miss. It is compact and narrow and it sits on a crooked favela street with no sidewalks and many worn storefronts.

It appears to be tucked inside the hillside. Its exterior is made of grungy white cinderblock. Painted on a wall is a green and blue Brazilian flag. A humble sign hangs above a pair of wide, front doors: Bar do Maia.

Maia's Bar.

What sets this place apart, making it impossible to miss on this fevered Saturday night, is the river of constant roars from the patrons -- "Vamos! Vamos! Vamos!" Let's go! Let's go! Let's go! They are men, all of them -- working class men in Rio's Vidigal favela -- their faces straining, their eyes fixed to a flat-screened television perched high against a back wall.

At the start of the game. Only this is not just any game. This is Brazil against Germany, in Rio's famed Maracana stadium, for Olympic soccer gold.

Brazil against Germany, whose national team, during the World Cup of 2014, came to this craggy seaside city and dealt the home team such a resounding defeat that the score still evokes something akin to a national sense of dread.


"We have had it up to here with 7-1," says one of the men, disgust flashing across his face as he utters those two numbers. "It has been with us long enough. Ever since then, if we see someone who does not look so good, the saying is, 'You have the face of a seven-to-one.' But tonight it will be different."

Inside Bar do Maia, the customers say this is a chance to exorcise a demon. Winning will mean Brazil's national sport -- the touchstone drawing people of every class in a society burdened by stark division -- is back in its rightful place, striding step for step with the world's great soccer powers.

It will also mean a chance to find a meaningful moment of joy in an otherwise tough life. These men drive taxis, work as office clerks, sell goods to tourists on the nearby beaches. They are not nearly the poorest of the poor, but many have been in the favela -- with its poverty, its crime, its dense stack of homes -- for their entire lives. They make it through. "Tudo bem," they say. Here, "all is good."

At the game's beginning, the bar sways with confidence. "We will win," says Nelio Santana, who describes himself only as a local entrepreneur. He taps his fingers nervously against his knee. "Brazil will win 2-0, I know. I know."

How do you know?

"Here in Rio," he answers, "lightning does not strike two times."

Everyone agrees that this time will be different. And when a Brazil players lines up for a potential score, it feels as if they will be right. They rise in unison, arms in the air, only to collapse back in their wooden chairs when a goal doesn't come. "It will be all right, it will be all right, we are pressing the action, it will be all right."

With every passing minute there is more tension -- as thick as the cigarette smoke and the acrid smell of oil burning from the fryer in the back. Someone brings out a massive bowl of beef and potatoes, but nobody is in the mood to eat. Instead they pour shots of Antarctica beer and they take long swills of it and they watch in awe as Neymar lifts a free kick into the net and the Brazilians lead 1-0.

"This is a dream," says Robert Pacheco, a youth soccer coach who wears a green Brazil cap. "This is a night for our country to come together. We can forget our differences. This is our chance to hug. You might be from one class, and me from another, but tonight we can be one."

Pacheco's thoughts are echoed by the other men. It becomes a theme. The beautiful game has the power to heal Brazil's divisions. Soccer can bring about national dread, but it can also create collective healing. If only for 90 minutes.

There's something else they talk about: The Olympics have not really been embraced by the people in the city's favelas. Only two in the bar have gone to any of the events -- one to a Brazilian basketball game, the other to track and field.

"The Olympics are not part of our lives because most of the people here don't have the means," says Santana. "Most people are taking care of their families and trying to survive. The tickets cost too much. The transportation costs too much, so a game like this, we watch on TV."

True, nobody at the bar -- nobody in a place as soccer savvy as Brazil -- will trade Olympic gold for a World Cup. The Games, after all, are age restricted in soccer, and no team in Rio was allowed to have more than three players above 23. Most of Germany's top players didn't make the trip to Rio. Neymar was the only player from Brazil's national team who had played in the 2014 World Cup, and he missed 7-1 because of injury.

Winning gold? That's certainly important on this night in the favela. Brazil, after all, has never won soccer gold at the Games. But after just a few conversations it becomes clear that this match is important for an entirely different reason. "To put us back on the stage," said Sebastiao Tavares de Alelulia, the president of the Vidigal neighborhood association, a smiling, round-faced man who ends up watching much of the game while standing on the street, several feet from the crowded bar.

Talking to Sebastiao outside, one can sense a gentle, salty sea breeze. Vidigal, one of Rio's estimated 1,000 favelas, is a hillside community that bumps against the Atlantic ocean. It's location embodies the divisions of Brazil's rich and Brazil's poor. To get to the wealthy neighborhoods of the white sand of Ipanema requires no more than a short jog.

The favelas are places of overwhelming poverty, but there is also tremendous variation in their quality of life. In the middle of town, for instance, tucked behind Rio's botanical gardens, is the Horto favela, which has a calm, quiet, backcountry feel.

Not far from Horto is Rocinha, the largest of the city's favelas, a swelling, vertical jumble of matchbox homes, a community strewn with flowing waterfalls of open sewage.

About a 10-minute drive from Rocinha and you reach Vidigal, which despite it's woes is known as one of the city's most stable, most welcoming favelas - a dense neighborhood of roughly 30,000, hardscrabble, but with stunning views and a few hotels. Drugs and gangs still have a foothold here, but their power has been stunted in the run-up to the Olympics by a saturation of strong-armed police. That much is evident Saturday night, with young drug dealers operating openly on a nearby stairwell until a trio of machine-gun toting officers stride by, stone-faced and menacing, not bothering to pay any attention to the game flashing across the TV screen in Bar do Maia.

The patrons inside the bar don't notice. Nothing can keep them from the moment. They feel every minute of the game, bending and twisting, cursing and clapping. Germany ties the score and they grow sullen. The ghost of 7-1 is alive.

"Apprehension," says Sebastiao, straining to make himself heard above the action. "We all feel it now. They are playing worse. A tie score is not good and it is making everyone tense. Tonight, losing cannot happen."

Sixty minutes turn to 70, which turn to 80 minutes gone.. The men pound fists against tables. "I believe! I believe!" they shout.

And then, the shootout. Sudden death.

In the small bar, whoops and whistles split the air like an axe. And then, finally, with Neymar's last approach and strike of the ball, Brazil wins.

7 to 1?

No, 2 to 1.

Good enough.

Bar do Maia erupts. The men dance and hug like children at a birthday party playground. One of them shakes a chair above his head. Another cries. Everyone sings. "Ole, ole, ole! Neymar, Neymar!"

"We needed this," says one of them. "We needed it to win back our soul."

After a while, the din dies down. Soon the men begin packing up and some of them quietly leave the bar. Following them down the slim, dark streets, it is impossible not to notice that Vidigal, tense with anticipation before the game began, has quickly returned to normal. There are no chants and there is no singing. Dogs run by in a pack.. A woman pushes a cart full of oranges. Cops with machine guns stand outside a restaurant, where there appears to have been a fight. Life is grinding in the favela, and the joy of winning gold lasts only so long.