Soccer In Their Souls
by Elizabeth Willoughby
Brazilians play soccer everywhere: on the beach, on the street, on any patch of grass including those at the cloverleaf entrances and exits to highways. Rich or poor, male or female, player or spectator, they are out there.
With the 2002 World Cup approaching, the powerful memories I have of the '98 games resurface, including Brazil's painful final match loss to France. Prior to residing in Brazil, I never had much of an interest in the sport. But the emotion and excitement built up in this country regarding soccer does not allow one to be a passive by-stander. At work I was unable to escape the buzz about the World Cup. A selection of office personnel remained hardwired, incognito, from ear to protable radio or miniature television hidden in desk drawers, providing colleagues with constant updates of scores and achievements of the day's games.
One morning I was surprised to learn that the office was shutting down at 11 a.m. to allow people time to get home to watch the match on television, and our office was not the only one doing this. I surmised that it must be one of the final matches. Rather than fighting the overcrowded streets, my partner and I decided that we'd go to a nearby churrascaria (Brazilian-style barbecue restaurant) to bide our time over lunch.
As I dithered by the roadside waiting for my ride, I studied the favela (shantytown) across the street from the company's parking lot. There were shacks built upon shacks all the way down the slope, one-room shelters of brick and block with corrugated tin roofs and an occasional front or side window. Colorful laundry was strung throughout, adding a bit of life to the slum and detracting from the shallow stench of sewage and refuse. Then something caught my eye. Sitting on wooden boxes just outside the front door of a shack were two youths. They were watching the previews to the game on a large colour television, anchored on a stand against a wall.
My ride arrived. We could feel the tension already building. It was in the air, growing as the game drew closer. Sketches were colorfully chalked on crumbling roadways and banners were strung across streets. The cement walls separating private properties from the public, normally reserved for graffiti and political slurs, now promoted individual players and the Brazilian team in general. Progress to the restaurant was very slow. Street vendors traipsed happily amongst the vehicles, selling soccer paraphernalia, Brazilian flags or a cold beverage to help the motorists overheating in the rising excitement.
When we finally arrived at the restaurant, we realized that we had escaped nothing. There was, in fact, no escape. The same excited tension filled every establishment. This churrascaria was an enormous room with long rows of tables surrounding a central fruit and vegetable buffet. Various cuts of roasted meat were brought to each table and sliced off long skewers onto plates by boys dressed as gauchos (cowboys).
But today there was an added attraction: televisions, nearly one per table, each tuned into the game. I watched the Brazilians watch the game. So engrossed they were on the screen, so tightly wound. When Brazil scored there was an explosion of deafening hooting, hollering and pounding on tables; firecrackers went off outside amidst honking horns and cheering.
My second surprise came the next day when I found out that that was only Brazil's first game in the series. The following weeks were filled with talk of soccer: rehashing the previous game plays, Ronaldo their star player, an upcoming game, the impending Brazilian victory yet again, party preparations, statistics, predictions and so on.
The semifinal against Holland
We decided to watch the semifinal once again in a restaurant - this time in a pizzeria closer to home. The audience was highstrung to say the least. A player on the screen had only to run towards the ball to send the crowded room into hysterics. After two periods of overtime, the score was still tied 1-1. A penalty shoot-out would decide the game.
It was surreal. In a dreamy slow motion I watched the watchers in their delirious frenzy as Brazil won the shoot-out 4-2. The live band played, the crowd danced and sang and congratulated one another, hugging and kissing strangers and friends, the firecrackers outside again, chaos, screaming and yelling, cheering and crying, people pouring into the streets blocking traffic.
Less than a week later, the unexpected loss of the final game to France hit profoundly. There were no firecrackers or cheering, no horns honking and no congratulating. This time it was the silence that pierced. Tears were bravely held back, disguised by forced smiles. Voices strangled as lumps in throats swelled. A front-page photo of a fan said it all - the crackling green and yellow paint on his face could not hide the caustic anguish of Brazil's defeat.
No more noise, no excitement, no discussions. It was back to business in silent torment. A few days later the coach was fired and nothing more was mentioned about soccer.
But this year...
Published in Brazzil magazine in 2002.
© Elizabeth Willoughby 2002
A good travel piece is fun, informative and factual,
not a place for hackneyed embellishments.