Brazil is one of the strongest growing markets in poker worldwide and PokerStars team pro André Akkari never tires promoting it.
He's become so popular in Brazil, in fact, that people recognize him in the streets. And the Brazilian Olympic Committee asked him to carry the Olympic torch through the streets of his home city, Sao Paolo.
Now in Barcelona for the EPT after spending the past two weeks revelling in the Olympic spirit, Akkari spoke with PokerListings about how he feels his nation handled the global spotlight.
Most importantly, Akkari says, despite the controversies it reminded his homeland of something they’ve almost lost.
André Akkari: They invited me to take the torch after having a poll with several names of players in mind sports. I got over 90% of the votes.
It was a great experience. People at the side of the street were shouting and screaming my name, absolutely incredible.
I carried the torch for about 200 meters, so it’s really just a couple of minutes, but I went extra slow to have a little more time.
PokerListings: Looking back at the games and the controversies that unfolded around them, do you think they were successful?
AA: I think they were amazing. But there are two sides to everything in Brazil. The one side is politics, corruption, the economy. We seem to be great at making the wrong decisions in all these fields.
The other side is about people. The way we took care of the athletes, both ours and the others, how we partied and so on. Even the organization of the games was good, and particularly the volunteers coming from all over the world were fantastic.
They don’t make any money, but they are so engaged, I’ve never seen anything like this before.
It’s important for me to keep these two things separated – the money and politics on one side and the people on the other.
PL: When Brazil received the Olympic Games in 2009, things were looking good. President Lula said this would be the step for Brazil to move "from a 2nd to 1st-class country." But when the games began the country was in all sorts of trouble, including a bizarre impeachment campaign against president Dilma and police demonstrating at the airport with a sign saying “Welcome to Hell."
AA: That was pretty much the worst thing I have ever seen (shakes his head) “Welcome to Hell.”
Still, all the bad things that happened in the last two years in Brazil are still going on. The corruption is still there, the economic crisis is still there.
The biggest surprise about the Olympic Games is how well everything went despite all the trouble we faced. Before the games nobody believed this would be possible, but it happened.
Worth it, after all.
PL: So was it worth all that money to bring the games to Brazil?
AA: I think so. The growing problems in the last three years have crushed the Brazilian soul. I believe that many Brazilians have lost their love of their home country, they’ve lost their pride, and they lost their passion.
These Olympic Games gave us some of that back. The people wore the green and yellow again and they passionately supported the athletes.
We’ll see if it’s possible to channel this new energy in the right direction. The next couple of months are going to be crucial because we’re still in a terrible spot.
Congress has already taken the opportunity and pushed unpopular decisions through while everyone was watching the games – and I was one of the watchers, too.
PL: Pretty sure other countries' parliaments tend to do the same -- using sports events for their own purposes. It’s probably not a Brazilian thing.
AA: Yes, but when they do that in England or Germany, the country is still solid. A bad decision there wouldn’t be crucial for the future of the country.
Yellow and gold flies again.
In Brazil, we’re at a crucial point in time. Violence is rising, poverty is rising, it’s critical. But still, regarding love and pride, the games were amazing.
PL: Brazilian fans are traditionally passionate but during the games many athletes and spectators complained about them being unfair. Did you see it the same way?
AA: No, I didn’t. I went to the Michael Phelps ceremony and the football finals, and there was lots of applause for everyone.
What happened to the French guy at the pole vaults was bad, and maybe a little desperate, because nobody had imagined a Brazilian could win.
But I think that was an exception. I wasn’t there but I heard about it.
PL: Is this maybe reflecting the thin red line on which the Brazilian nation is balancing at the moment?
AA: It’s a signal. It shows how devastated the people are. Which is why the last days were so important, when Brazil won the football and the volleyball competitions.
Volleyball is the number two sport in Brazil and it would’ve been a disaster if we’d lost these.