It’s difficult to convey exactly how fanatical Brazilians are about futebol. One measure is the fact that when you ask someone which club they support, they will say “I am Sao Paulo” or “I am Corinthians.” When I told my new, but temporary friend Andre about how a family friend had showered me with Chicago Bears merchandise as a kid in Alabama, where we had no local NFL team, he said, “and so you became a Bear.” Although Andre was a Dolphin, he was pleased to learn that “we are both Sao Paulinos.” I met a college kid named Kyle. One of the funnest things about Brazil is that someone might be named Wladisney and they might be named Kyle. I told Kyle that I supported Sao Paulo he reacted as though I had confided about experimenting with crack. He became very serious and tried to explain to me that I had chosen poorly, as Sao Paulo was founded and supported by a bunch of apathetic rich folk, while Corinthians was a team of the people. Kyle seemed to feel that with his reasonable guidance, I might understand that I had made a terrible error and get my life back on the right track
The language used in these conversations was evidence of just how accommodating Brazilians can be. After learning that I was American, they began referring to futebol as ‘soccer.’ Most Europeans would sooner get a tatoo of John Wayne fisting their monarch than to allow the s-word to pass their lips.
When the world cup began, club loyalties appeared to subside. It seemed as though all of the people of Sao Paulo were in love with SPFC’s goal keeper, Rogerio Ceni who was (controversially) the back up on the Brazilian national team. Ceni’s not only an outstanding keeper, but a fucking terrorist on free kicks and penalties, which I think explains his popularity. There’s also the fact that he was one of only three players on the national team who played for a Brazilian club. The others had gone to Europe to make bigger money. There were also two Argentinian internationals who played club ball in Brazil, but they both played for Corinthians. From the perspective of a Brazilian Sao Paulino, this combination is like a member of NAMBLA registering with the Nazi party. In any case, one of the chants that would rise in the bars during the World Cup games was in support of the back up goal keeper. There were no specific chants in support of say, Ronaldo, who became the all time leading scorer in the world cup, but Ceni was loved without reservation.
Brazilians share common ground with the English in this respect. They are very hard on their stars, and embrace their more underrated players. As a waiter passed my burger to me during the first game of the world cup, a fan said, “Careful If Ronaldo sees your sandwich he might jump off the TV and eat it ” It was just a joke, but it was predicated on the real belief that Ronaldo, the most prolific scorer in world cup history and three time world player of the year, is overrated and overweight. When Ronaldo was yanked in favor of Robinho during the first game, Andre led an ecstatic Robinho chant. Even “The Easter Bunny,” the lovable Ronaldinho, who had just lead Barcelona to victory in the Champions League was not safe from criticism. Many felt that he should not have been on the field for Brazil’s final game.
During World Cup, futebol fanaticism becomes fevered.. Storefronts almost invariably have some sort of patriotic decoration. Fast food restaurants have strings of Brazilian flags. My hotel had huge green and gold banners. The gas station attendants have special uniforms made to resemble Brazilian jerseys. Even the trendiest of nightclubs and the hipsters within are displaying Brazilian colors. These things are not exceptional at all. It would be very unusual to go into a store and not see some kind of flag or streamer. It’s said that world cup is the only time that Brazilians are patriotic, which is true if you associate patriotism with flag waiving. But Brazilians are very proud of their country, even independently of soccer, and very concerned with foreign perceptions.
Forgive a moment of heavy handedness, but aspects of the Brazilian patriotic fervor got me thinking about American flag waiving. It struck me that Brazilian patriotism represents the country at its best, while American “patriotism” represents our country at its worst. The world cup mania is a joyful celebration of a wonderful country and of the most talented and accomplished team in all of sports. It’s also about unity. Brazilians are proud to point out that there is far less racial animosity in Brazil than in most other countries. There is certainly racism, and a racial/class hierarchy, but interracial marriage is frequent (with gorgeous results) and you are unlikely to encounter automatic hostility from someone who’s of a different race than you are. During my time in Brazil, I almost forgot what it was like to get an, “and what the fuck do you want?” look from a black person. The fact that the Brazilian team is significantly darker than the general population, but are the country’s greatest heros, is important. I think that Brazil is proud to unequivocally celebrate such chocolaty idols. Meanwhile, in the US people are generally waving flags because they want to see chocolaty people in another country killed and they want to silence their countrymen who disagree. The irony is that we have such a wonderful and rich culture that we could and should celebrate. Jazz, blues, rock, punk rock (fuck off limeys, the Ramones invented it) hip hop, Southern cooking, peanut butter and California cuisine, the First Amendment, bourbon and California wine; An endless list of names like Twain, Kubrick, Woody, Whitman, Magic, Dewy, Mingus, Edison and Hasselhoff. We have our own achievements in tolerance, like our acceptance of the Jews. Fuck the people who made our flag stand for napalm.
America has many points of superiority over Brazil and they are generally pretty obvious, so I’m not going to run through the entire list. But as bad as our ghettos can be, the buildings are actually made of bricks and cement and horses are toys for rich people, not coworkers. In the worst Brazilian favelas, Menace II Society would be an escapist fantasy that could be introduced by Robin Leech. But when people asked me what I thought the biggest difference between America and Brazil is, I had to say that the Brazilians are a much warmer and more gentle people, whereas, for all our good fortune, Americans are too often governed by anger, fear and hatred. Of course, I largely blame the low brow element of the right and their endless string of horned well poisoners du jour. But the difference runs deeper than that. In Brazil I ran across a crippled beggar who looked genuinely happy. When he was told that we didn’t have any money for him, he said “well, thank you for considering me. Have a good night.” That spirit, which I prefer to napalm, is what I now associate with the Brazilian flag.
Ok. The jubilance on game day is infectious. Early in the day cars decorated with Brazilian flags start exchanging honks and people wandering the streets start up with the noise makers. More than half of the population of people at any given spot are wearing Brazil shirts, pants, face paint and/or wigs. One boutique was displaying a Brazil wedding gown. About 1% of the population of dogs are decked out. Virtually anywhere where clothes are sold, you can pick up your own Brazil gear. The supermarket was selling Ronaldinho flip flops. The whole city of Sao Paulo felt like a gigantic tailgate party that lasted for about ten hours. The only environment I’ve ever encountered that was in the same ball park is the more bellicose insanity surrounding the Alabama/Auburn college football rivalry. Although I moved away from Alabama at age ten, I’m compelled to insert a “Roll Tide ” here. But even in Birmingham, you are not going to walk into a random grocery store on game day and see check out clerks with painted faces.
Then there are the games. Every bar is packed to the back with fans who have come to celebrate. When the Brazilian team took the field for the first game, fireworks were set off in the streets. There were more fireworks for each goal and victory throughout the tournament. During the group stage Brazilian success is a foregone conclusion. There was a possibility of Brazil not winning their group, the same way that there is a possibility of Hilary Clinton being elected president, but there was no danger of Brazil being knocked out. Still, many of the fans were gripped with anxiety, especially as Brazil gave a poor showing early in the tournament. They won every game of course, but they failed to really beat someone down until Ronaldo turned out Japan in the final game of the group. As Andre said before the first match, “everyone here knows Brazil is going to win, but we can’t help but be nervous.” He also admired our reverence for the founding fathers (I agree, but it was a pleasant thing to hear from a foreigner) and said, “‘The Simpsons’ proves to the entire world that the Americans are not assholes.”
I was a bit nervous too, as it is impossible not to be swept along. I’m normally a contrarian and a Scrooge but there is so much happiness and fun surrounding the team that only I couldn’t resist the pull even had I wanted to. Do you want to see hot chicks jumping up and down with joy or not? Do you want to see a semi-spontanious parade? Trucks of cheering fans following drum lines? Those things only happen if Brazil wins. More importantly, when you get to the knock out stage, a Brazil win means the chance to see another game.