According to the locals, it’s the bar capital of the world, with more than 12,000 catering for the five million citizens of Brazil’s third city. Others will recall Belo Horizonte as the scene of England’s most humiliating football defeat, when a hearse driver and teacher from the US stunned the national team at the 1950 World Cup. But if the 5,000 or so English ticket holders expected here for England’s final group game against Costa Rica in a few weeks’ time look a little more closely, they may remember it for something else. As is the case across Brazil, peer behind the mask and another reality stares back at you.
In downtown Belo Horizonte are 23 brothels, known locally as zonas. They are hidden up narrow staircases between shops in the grim city centre, a place so grey, in parts, that you could be in the old Soviet Union except for the scorching sun above. Nearby, in an empty office on the top floor of a shopping centre, a handful of the 2,000 or so prostitutes who work the city are getting English classes from a volunteer in order to cash in on the six matches the city’s Mineirão stadium will host (including one semi-final). All the while, tucked away at the back of an indoor car-park, is Aprosmig – a union for those within the industry in the state of Minas Gerais (the name is a contraction of the “Minas Gerais association of prostitutes”). “For sure [the city’s prostitutes] will get more money with the World Cup,” says the fiftysomething woman working the desk. “In the nightclubs they’ll be earning a lot. It’s normal for foreign guys to look for them, they always do, and now there’ll be more foreign guys. They’ll do very well.”
Inside, pasted to a grubby wall are erotic photographs and charts of the body, notes about diseases, numbers for doctors and timetables for psychology sessions. As the woman potters about, she tells her story, a familiar narrative. Having become pregnant and seen the factory she worked in shut down, she took a job as a cleaner. But the family she worked for put pressure on, insisting they should adopt her child, and she felt she couldn’t keep both job and baby, but neither could she go hungry. There was one avenue to walk down. “I prostituted when my child was sleeping,” she sighs. “But it was weird, lying there in a room as guys looked in your door before deciding. I just remembered I had to bring food to my house and I had to pay bills so there was no choice. But I spent my life working in that room. I missed out on so much.”