In Brazil, we all watch the World Cup

By James Young

It is a Thursday night in a bar on Avenida Amazonas in downtown Belo Horizonte, the day after Atlético Mineiro have beaten Independiente Santa Fé in the Copa Libertadores. 

“What about that pass from Guilherme to set up Jô’s goal?” I say to Thiago.

“Pure class. And Berola’s bicycle kick at the end!” says Thiago. 

“Magic,” I say. 

We both turn to Rafael, who is watching the girls go by.

“You’re very quiet,” I say to Rafael. 

“I don’t like football,” he says. 

“Not at all?”

“Not at all. In fact, I hate it.”

“Can’t be much fun, hating football in Brazil.”

“It’s not. It’s all anyone ever talks about.”

I turn to Thiago and get back to talking about football.

But Rafael is not alone. Although Brazilian history and football are inextricably intertwined, the idea of Brazil as “o país do futebol” does not always stand up to serious scrutiny. The average crowd in Serie A last year was just under 15,000, lower than MLS and only slightly higher than (gulp) the Australian A-League. Although clubs such as Flamengo and Corinthians point to market research surveys and boast of their 25 million or more fans, only a tiny fraction of those “supporters” have the means or the motivation to commit to regularly attending their team’s games. 

And the same market research surveys show that around 20% of the population of Brazil, about 40 million people, don’t like football at all, or at least don’t support a club.

“The idea that everybody in Brazil loves football is an exaggeration,” says Tostão, who starred when one of the most evocative Brazil sides of all time won the World Cup in 1970. “And it has got worse in the last 20 or 30 years, with violence increasing both in society and in football, and a lack of trust in those responsible for looking after the game, creating a feeling that football is all about business, that it’s immoral. Average crowds lower than the USA or Australia? What kind of país do futebol is that?” 

Flashback to 2007. Another bar, this time in Recife. The Seleção are playing on TV, though I can’t remember who against. It is a friendly, or an unimportant qualifying game, and Brazil are winning at a canter. The bar is crowded but nobody is paying much attention to the football. 

I turn my back on the TV, not to watch the girls go by but to call over the waiter. As I do so, Brazil score. Everybody around me jumps up from their seats and cheers.

“Yessss!” cries the man beside me, who is wearing the red and black stripes of local club Sport. Then he notices I have remained seated.

“You’re not from here, are you?” he says in a friendly enough way.

“No,” I say, “I’m from Northern Ireland.”

“Northern Ireland! Ha! Do they have a football team? Have they ever qualified for the World Cup?” he scoffs. 

“Who just scored for Brazil?” I ask, choosing to ignore the questions.

“What? Dunno. Wasn’t watching. Don’t really care about the Seleção. It’s all a sell-out. I’m Sport.”

“Right,” I say.

Cazá, cazá, cazá cazá cazá!” he shouts in my face. It is the Sport battle cry, and in some places this would be considered poor manners. In Recife, it is normal enough behavior. Soon most of the bar has joined in (even if it is normal enough behavior, it is still very annoying, especially if, like me, you support Santa Cruz, Sport’s local rivals).  

Even in football hotbeds, the Seleção often takes second place to the tribalism and club rivalries that are the lifeblood of the Brazilian game, and the religion of gozação, or mickey-taking. Among many Brazilian football fans there is the feeling that the Seleção is other-worldly and remote – its players ply their trade for the European super clubs, and the team has sold its soul to Nike and big business, becoming not much more than a money making tool for the CBF and its noxious president Jose Maria Marin (according to the Folha de Sao Paulo newspaper the entity will earn more than U$128 million in sponsorship money during World Cup year).

In the world of Brazilian football the Seleção is the plush gated community and the local clubs are the favela or the periferia (the scruffy outer suburbs). And a lot more Brazilians live in favelas and the periferia than live in gated communities. 

Then there is the World Cup. The World Cup is different.

Back to Tostão. “When the World Cup arrives,” he says, “there is a feeling of nationalism, a sense of patriotism, which the press and the CBF play on to create an atmosphere of great drama. So lots of people who don’t like football get caught up in the mood, and cheer on the national team.”

In other words - like Coldplay are for people who don’t really like music that much, so in Brazil the Seleção is for people who don’t really like football that much.

This mood is tangible when Brazil are playing in the Mundial. Everything closes early and apart from the shouting from bars and apartment windows, the streets grow eerily silent as the normal infernal racket of the country’s chaotic urban traffic fades away. 200 million people, many of whom don’t like football that much, are watching the Seleção, and it’s so quiet that if you’re quick, you might see the ghosts of Garrincha, Vavá and Nilton Santos enjoying a pelada (kickabout) on the street corner. Poor old Barbosa, who let Uruguay’s winner squeeze past him during the disastrous Maracanaço defeat in the 1950 World Cup final, and who has existed in footballing purgatory ever since, might even be in goal. 

“I was eleven in 1958. We didn’t have a TV, so my dad took me and my brothers to a nearby bar to listen to the game on the radio. Afterwards the whole neighborhood had a party,” says Tostão. Cao Hamburger’s 2006 film about life under the country’s military dictatorship, The Year My Parents Took A Vacation, set during the 1970 World Cup, features just such a scene, as kids and adults alike crowd into a local bar to watch the final. 

The nationalism and patriotism that Tostão refers to is most likely a product of Brazil’s enduring vira-lata (mongrel) complex, as the great writer (and Fluminense) fan Nelson Rodrigues put it. Social inequality, high crime rates and ramshackle infrastructure and services, plus the failure of the often corrupt governing classes to heal the country’s ills, means that away from the stereotypes of sun, sea and samba, Brazilians are often pessimistic when it comes to the present and future of their country. 

The Seleção, for an afternoon or two at least, can make everything seem alright. It may just be football, but when it’s football as good as this, it is a cold heart that does not swell with national pride. 

Flashback to 2010: Another bar, this time in the Mercado da Boa Vista, a crumbling open air market in the dilapidated heart of Recife. Brazil v Holland in the 2010 World Cup kicks off at 11am, but by nine there are already hundreds of people in the bars that dot the central courtyard. Everybody is wearing yellow or green, and the women and children, as numerous as the men, have daubed tiny Brazil flags on their cheeks.

Brazil are in control and ahead at half time. Robinho’s early goal was met with a deafening burst of shrieks and roars, repeated every time the Seleção even vaguely threaten the Dutch goal. 

“We’ll win easily!” cries a girl beside me. “We’ll be hexacampeões!” (six-time world champions). She has been bouncing up and down non-stop throughout the game, her face reflecting possibly dangerous levels of emotional tension.

Then the World falls apart, as Julio Cesar has his own Barbosa moment (or two) and Holland take over. The bar grows quiet, and the only noises from the crowd are groans of frustration and disappointment. When the final whistle blows, and Brazil are out, the silence is total and the faces of a number of drinkers are wet with tears. 

It stays like that for a few minutes. Then someone at my table breaks the silence by ordering a beer. Over in the far corner, a gang of Sport fans start to chant “cazá, cazá, cazá cazá cazá!” A group of youths at another table stand up and begin shouting “Tri-tri-color! Tri-tri-tri-tri-color!” the Santa Cruz haka. It is possible there may be a fight.  

For a few short weeks, the World Cup is everything in Brazil. But when it’s over, real life begins again.

This piece was written by James Young. James has lived in Brazil for the past 8 years and writes about their football for several distinguished sites, including his recent piece 'Futebol = Life' for ESPN. Follow him on Twitter @seeadarkness. Comments below please.

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