RIO DE JANEIRO -- Wait a minute, wait a minute. What the hell happened here? We outsiders thought there'd be protests, giant protests -- sprawling, compelling, eye-widening World Cup protests. We thought those protests might mesh with World Cup visibility and wind up helping the strapped masses of Brazil, if just a tad. We thought those protests would provide the best backdrop yet for that global discussion about governments splurging on fleeting sporting events and gaudy one-night ceremonies and near-useless stadiums and great-big whatnot.

Then the World Cup came and the discussion came only in bits. A decent-sized protest played Sao Paulo at the outset. Several hundred filled the plaza Saens Pena in Rio de Janeiro on the day of the final, and the military police blocked them into the plaza for a few hours, a police strategy monumentally unwise.

Otherwise, we all had another humongous sporting event. Months after some protest groups had proclaimed with runaway implausibility that the World Cup might not occur, one of the best World Cups to date, sports-wise, did occur. Protests proved not only too insufficient to elbow into the narrative but too inconsiderable to offer any accompanying musical notes. With one gigantic global sporting event down (2014 World Cup) and one to go (2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics), the protests really didn't even play a bass.

How do you pretty much dissolve demonstrations that once involved hundreds of thousands, anyway?

Ask the wide-awake young who knew the protests so well -- young adults any country would be lucky to have -- and six answers come in strongest. The biggest manages to be both predictable and astounding.

Here's one. It's not the biggest. Its keenest description might come here: About 56 minutes into an evening interview, A., aged 29, halted mid-sentence. In his commendable second-language English, he said, "Um, one guy take a picture of me and you, now." He pointed to the back of the restaurant. "There's the guy. This one. He just got the phone and he take our picture. This happens some of the time."

Continuing: "They know where we work and where we go, yes." I asked if the authorities hire such people. "Could be any people," he said, "but it's weird, when they see me talk with someone that they never see, and in English. Maybe to create a lie, they can create a lie easily like you are American spy and I'm working for American government," which could prove timely after American spying infuriated Brazilians. 

So there's one force of dispersal: fear. There's a fear of the police, especially the military police who have lingered, entrenched, from the military dictatorship of 1964-85, and who don't jibe with a democratic society. "Why there is a military police in Brazil, I don't understand," said one protester and student, L., aged 25. Students who participated in protests ask for anonymity, or first-name anonymity, or anonymity with an initial such as A. A protester in a nice suit -- he's a law student -- can show you his photo from last year with his head cracked and his handsome face bloodied to jarring degree. A young woman and student can recount the days-long sickness that can spring from tear-gas exposure. A journalist in the midst can suggest that a visiting reporter talk to other people but then those people decline. A protester might tell of seeing a car repeatedly outside his residence, checking its plates and finding "Police Department" as owner.

"With this police that we have," A. said, "the people are afraid to go to the street, make a protest and get shot with, I don't know the name . . . like a paint ball. (Rubber bullets have appeared.) They use that. They use spray pepper" -- and he laughs right here -- "a lot of spray pepper, a lot of gas, and, I don't know, that stick that police use, what do you call this?"

That stick -- you know the one -- went onto his head once last year after, he said, he tried to shield a protesting teacher from the same stick. He also has a scar on his calf and, he said, a purple area on his inner thigh from a kicking on July 13 at Praca Saens Pena. 

One day before that, police had arrested 19 people on the suspicion that they would foment dangerous protests on World Cup final day. Those 19 joined four other imprisoned as the "23" in the common reference of recent weeks. Said a female student and protester during 2013 who requested anonymity, "We know that civil rights are not being respected here. I know some of the people who are arrested and in prison." While a police spokesman had claimed "robust proof" of bad intentions, a judge freed the 23 late last week on habeas corpus grounds. Long and winding trials await. 

Before their release, I sent an interview request to a lawyer I saw on video and found impressive even as I understood none of her words. I did not expect, but did hope for, a reply. In one of those moments of, Sheesh, what a dunce I am, I soon noticed that she could not reply for a strong reason: As a human-rights lawyer, Eloisa Samy was among those 19 arrested and jailed.

Yeah, sure, I forgive her for not replying.

Good grief.

Here's another reason. It's also not the biggest. A curious thing besets human beings in a world of borders. Visitors come across those borders, and we want visitors to say we're all right, even if we, ourselves, don't necessarily think we're all right, or maybe especially if we, ourselves, don't necessarily think we're all right. That impulse -- or that need -- will override even a yearning to embarrass various local and national politicians who might just warrant some embarrassing. 

In conversation after post-World Cup conversation, this pride kept bobbing up. Brazil's World Cup worked. It worked! The people liked it! Some Brazilians took particular comfort in the televised assessment of a German reporter who said he had taken 18 flights while in Brazil, and that 17 had arrived on time, the other barely late.

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Brazil's 2013 protests drew massive crowds into the streets. (Getty Images)

One protester said she, too, felt the glow of the favorable assessments of the foreign, and that the glow gave way to a regret at having felt the glow. Told of the 18 flights, she said, "Yeah, that kind of bothers me, because it's not like that . . . For me, all the flights were just on time, and goddammit! Because normally they are not! Yes! They are not. I used to work in a bank and then I was always traveling to Sao Paulo, and oh my god, I never, I never got a flight on time. They were not on time. They were cancelled. Everything happened. And now they come to us and, 'Oh, everything's good! The flights are on time.' And oh no! It's not like that!"

Smack amid all of this, yanked every which way, yearning to remain independent with gathering popularity and note, there's Midia Ninja. It's a collective of independent journalists that has earned a gathering reputation covering the protests, often using mobile-phone videos. Its members cohabitate -- a house in Sao Paulo, an apartment in Rio with mattresses on the floor and five or six residents (18 at one point during the World Cup). They even share money. From their little office at a Rio university, Felipe Altenfelder took a break, walked across the way to some cement steps and spoke with measured reason, plus eloquence-in-a-second-language. 

A 29-year-old who has loved soccer all his life but takes heart that the FIFA brand took some whacking (and really, who wouldn't want that effect?), he said, "We were very critical to the World Cup and FIFA. But we are also very critical when the massive media and the FIFA try go put the social movements against government. Because people are not fighting against Dilma [Rousseff, the president]. People are fighting for more rights. And I think that we need to have these things clear, you know. So I can recognize lots of good aspects of the experience to host the World Cup in Brazil. You know, it was interesting how we could feel, how foreign people were enjoying the country, and how we opened doors to keep this relation going on. And now, because it's not very usual for people from Brazil to travel to other countries, and I think now that much more everybody's feeling more excited about this possibility. So it was very good to increase our global conscious, for example.

"The stadiums were all ready. All the national teams were happy with their hotels and concentrations . . . All were talking about the country. Here in Rio you're walking in the streets and the first week, five thousand Argentinians, five thousand Colombians, Belgians, Americans, Germans, Algerians, Bosnians . . . People, it was a kind of civizilatory (sic) meeting going on. And the international press, saying, 'Oh, we love Brazil,' the players saying they loved Brazil, the supporters saying they loved Brazil. And I don't think that this is problematic, that people are being made a fool. No. People are smart. OK, OK, we're living a nice moment here, there's lots of competitions, but the World Cup will finish, and the fight will go on. We need to keep working to have a better country, independent of these 64 football matches. Let it happen. We will have to keep fighting."

You might say human beings like to complain about their countries, then take a break and hope other people will extol their countries, then resume complaining about their countries. Besides that, the compliments fed well into what L. calls the "slumdog complex" of Brazilians, who expect that nothing will work, so when it does, Wow.

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Brazilian protesters were harshly cracked down upon during the World Cup. (Getty Images)

Here's another reason. It's not the biggest. We outsiders and international media had this thing wrong. We took 2013, especially June 2013 with the mind-boggling protests around the eight-nation Confederations Cup in Brazil, and we projected 2013 onto 2014 without acknowledging the interim. Some of us even apologized for slighting Brazil enough to feel surprised that only 52 percent of Brazilians -- Brazilians! -- could support the World Cup in a poll last March, with a hefty 38 percent against. 

"You know, June of last year was a unique moment," Altenfelder said. "It's a sum of factors that generated that big wave. So it's not the kind of thing you can repeat every year, you know? You press 'PLAY,' the thing starts? No. You need this and that and that and that and the other, you know."

For one thing, you need a brand-new bus-fare hike proposal -- as came back then -- in a place where the bus system is "like a hell, because the drivers are so crazy," A. said, and where a metropolis like Rio de Janeiro somehow still has two metro lines after decades of steep taxes, and where the cost of living has gone scary. 

Once that ire fades, well, none of the protesters interviewed expected much World Cup protesting, even as one, who requested anonymity, said she feared the unlikely prospect because the high emotion could have wreaked high casualties. 

That dovetails into another reason. It's also not the biggest. Between the clamor of 2013 and the whispers of 2014 came splintering. It's everywhere in conversation.

Initial-A., who grew up largely in a favela and witnessed police violence as a child (especially toward black teens), notes a split between those who favor violence toward the police and protesters like himself, his heroes including Mahatma Gandhi (who appears in statue near the Cinelandia square in Rio), Martin Luther King Jr. and Nelson Mandela. Initial-L. saw a split between people who wore masks to protest anonymously and those such as herself who don't favor the same as it may alienate the undecided. Altenfelder notices what he dubs the "11-months-people," the "people that say, 'Oh, I'm fighting for the last 11 months!' And you say, 'Eleven months?' There are movements that are active for the last 40 years.'" This group often tends to view the corruption and espouse shirking politics rather than engaging in it, a bent Altenfelder finds misguided. 

Even in the heights of June 2013, L. began to notice something. "As the days passed, you started to see people that were really opposite of what I believe," she said. "You know, I believe in the legalization of abortion. I believe in gay marriage. I believe in lots of things, and you started to see people that did not believe in the same things. They were just against the government." 

When once she carried a gay-rights sign, a protester behind her began shouting about a "gay cure." While everyone has a distinctive memory of the gargantuan protest day of June 20, 2013, often involving tear gas or disconnected Internet, L. started looking around and came upon an educated guess.

It seemed as if some were thinking, "'It's fashionable. Let's go protest,'" she said. 

In the week after the World Cup ended, the Homeless Workers Movement staged a protest in Sao Paulo. It was an example of a fragment of a bygone mass even in great worthiness. 

Here's a reason. It's also not the biggest, but it's the last one before the biggest. We earthlings do love Brazilians. We love being around them. Maybe they love that we love being around them and their general ebullience.

Maybe they can't sustain disgust on a grand scale for a good while. 

"We are used to being calm and friendly and always saying, 'Yes,' and always to forget things like the amount of money spent on the World Cup," said one protester. 

A. told of a past president from the early 1990s who lost that gig on corruption charges only to win a Senate seat later on. "This president stole our money," he said. "Now, he's a politician again. Why? Because people give him votes. Just forgot? Brazilian people have this problem. If you give them some happy things, they just forget. It's easy. It's very easy. You can do with a World Cup. You can do a lot of things with bad, but if you put a good, 'Oh, thank you!' They forgot everything you did." 

Fueling this further: your proverbial generation gap. Many in that next generation up disliked the protests for their disruption. Many parents argued with grown-up offspring, labeling the protests hopeless. Said A., "A lot of these parents lived in the bad time, the dictator time. That time was so much worse than now, so to these people you don't have anything to say. 'We have a good life.' Helloooooo. We don't have a good life. Maybe it's better than the past, but it's not that good. 

"It's not a good life. If you compare with another place, you can see that it's not a good life. If you compare with Uruguay, they change a lot in the last years, so it's better." He quotes Brazilians: "'I have a good salary. I can buy beer. I can pay TV, my cable TV, so I don't need more. I don't care, and at the same time, I care that I pay too much tax (and get bad services for it), but I don't want to suffer to change that.'"

Every culture has contradictions; Brazil has phantasmagorical ones. It can be a place of mind-boggling topographical and human beauty (as in Rio) but with people who have grown accustomed to living easily amid grime and trash (as in Rio). It has unusual violence and unusual merriment. It has Sao Paulo where people walk fast and value punctuality, and Rio where people walk sooooo slllowwwwly and refer to "Brazil time." (Note: not punctuality.) It has an intermingling of its races that's visible daily and a shocking capacity to treat the poor and black barbarically. It has some public sexual reticence -- it just had its first gay kiss on the wildly popular night-time "novelas" (soap operas) -- but then also men of better-than-the-NFL musculature who proudly work as rent boys for other men with their wives' approval (so long as they're not with another woman). It has the world's largest Catholic population and the world's greatest collective comfort at being nearly naked in public at the beach. It's a place where, in a favela, you might see an armed drug dealer getting a manicure.  

Hell, Brazil has both a military police and a Carnival. 

It's such a tangle that it's bewildering that any force could galvanize the whole, riveting stew of nearly 200 million, but one force can. It's the biggest reason the protests scattered, even if narrowly ahead of the fear. What could clear the streets? Of course, sports could, and as big as we thought sports were on this Earth, we just learned it's still bigger.

It just spent a month of 2014 coursing over the world's fifth-largest country like . . . "Like a wave," said Midia Ninja's Altenfelder, who loves soccer. "A wave. A wave. A wave. A wave."

Or, as one university student put it, "Roll out the ball, and everything changes."

This is predictable as a reality but astonishing in its totality. "Unfortunately in our country, soccer is a drug," said a protester. Said A., who loves the game, "I know the people were not going to come [to protest], because the soccer, it's a passion, it's like a sickness. People get sick about soccer. People fight because soccer. People kill each other because soccer in Brazil. So people, it's like a crazed passion. So if you use soccer it's very easy to make a distraction."

A trainer in a gym in Sao Paulo said he had absolutely no one -- zero, zilch, no one -- who would discuss with him real-life concerns such as rising electricity costs during the World Cup. If he did mention such things, friends belittled him. A student said he made a political Facebook post that garnered upbraiding and defriending. Support for the World Cup shot upward in polls. A. said that in his office, people said, "'Oh, it's time to take a break, it's World Cup, guy. Let's get fun.' I cannot get fun with people dying because to make a stadium, when a lot of people lost the house and the government doesn't pay to [them]." 

Altenfelder from Midia Ninja said, "One afternoon, when Brazil played against Mexico, we went to favela Rocinha, the biggest favela [slum] here in Rio. We went to cover the match there." 

Here was a place rife with rational grievances, yet: "The situation is that everybody was wearing yellow, with their televisions in the front of their houses watching the game and, the one thing: I think it was kind of a pretention of the [protest] movement oh, that, 'We are here in the streets, against the World Cup, representing Brazilian people.' No, sorry. You are not. Brazilian people are watching the match. 

"You know, so, I thought people should be more creative, use more humor, be more festive in the squares, get people together. It would be much more effective than, you know, wear a flag and try to break the security line and get close to the stadium. It's insane. With 300, 400 people, with this insane military police that we have here, you know, using tear gas, the gun bullets, pepper sprays. It's impossible. It doesn't work."

A resident of that same Rocinho, Eduardo Lopes, 45, expressed through an interpreter his happiness with the World Cup. He rented out a room in his house and earned in one month what he would have in six. He enjoyed the tourists and noted the calm from the upgraded police presence. "I think there was no outbreak," he said, "because people love football and want to welcome tourists and wanted that they liked Brazil. Even with the problems."

Some of the durable protesters do express weariness. Some discuss moving elsewhere, such as Canada or Europe, because of the exorbitant costs and limited opportunities even for the college-educated. Elections will come in autumn. That brings a fresh fight.

"I don't think that people are discouraged," Altenfelder said. Because of the 19 arrests, "The meetings are bigger now. So everybody's conscious now. It's like, literally, 'F--- FIFA,' 'F--- the World Cup,' it's finished, the life of the country keeps going. Let's get back to reality and keep working now . . . It's very complex, it's very dynamic, things are changing all the time, and we just want to guarantee basic principles of democracy, of the right of freedom of speech, and to try to end with this completely insane military police that we still have in Brazil. And next week, I can have a thousand of new things, but the priorities of the moment are that."

To some, there's also the relief of a calamity avoided. Oddly, that potential calamity dissipated this way: Germany 7, Brazil 1. Had Brazil won the World Cup, this thinking goes, the populace might have streamed into autumn in a fine mist of futebol intoxication, what with the "drug" so powerful as revealed again. Said one protester whose heart roots for Brazil, "I was extremely happy because Brazil lost." Had it won, she said, it would have been, "Oh, Brazil's the best!" Said another, "I think the humiliation also helped." And said the first one, "Because Germany came to us and said, 'Even in your best way, you suck. Even in something that you say you are the best in the world, you suck. And we saw that and we said, 'Oh, my god.' We suck in football, we suck in education, we suck in this other thing. It's time for us to wake up."