Brazil's Soul Sport

real football

I have been a soccer fan for many years, having played extensively in my youth, in high school, and even some in my university's intramural league. Brazil is collectively in love with the game of soccer. I have met very few Brazilians who don't have the love of soccer in their "blood." I have already had the awesome opportunity to be here when they won the World Cup this year (2002). Yet, I wanted to see a soccer game first hand and really experience the action that incites such a frenzy in these fans. During my time here the opportunity just hasn't arisen for me to attend a game. I got very close once when a friend invited me and John Jackson to a game, but unfortunately I was sick at that time and wasn't able to go. I thought I wouldn't have another chance. However, one evening as John and I were eating dinner with this same Brazilian friend of ours he mentioned that the "ultimate" soccer game was coming up and that he planned on going. He wanted to know if we wanted to go as well. We both jumped at the opportunity.

Brazil, like the United States, has a professional soccer league, but the fans are of a different breed. Many of the fans are ravingly passionate about the teams they support. I have even seen children fight over who was the better team, yelling the names of their respective teams in each other's face. Since I arrived in Brazil I have been asked over and over again which team I support. In order to avoid offending anyone and thus building a barrier against my ministry here I have never supported a specific team. However, if you go to a game, you must pick a side. In most instances the stadium's seating is divided equally between the two teams. This being the case, you will be surrounded by fans of one of the teams and if you don't cheer with them they become angry. Before attending this game everyone we talked to told us to be very careful. Many people have been beaten by fans for saying the wrong things or being in the wrong place.

Four days before the game we got the tickets. My Brazilian friend and I had to wait in line for an hour and a half to get tickets. They actually sold each team's tickets at separate locations to avoid fights between the fans. This was to be the "ultimate" game because it was the last game in the series to determine the national champion of Brazil's premier soccer league. It was the Super Bowl of Brazilian soccer.

The day of the game (12-15-02) we readied ourselves. Because each team's fans usually identify themselves with a replica of their team's jersey we were careful not to choose any offending colors for the clothes we wore. We didn't carry our wallets and only one of us wore a watch. We only carried a bit of money and some identification in case something bad happened. One of our Brazilian friends came over to our apartment and then we went to meet our other Brazilian friend at a mall near the stadium. When we arrived at the mall the friend that we met there gave us a short briefing on what to do and what not to do during the game. He said that some of the fans might ask us where our jersey is, trying to provoke us to a fight. He told us to just ignore them and stay as close to each other as possible. The team whose side we were to occupy is known for it's particularly passionate fans whose excitement many times boils over to violence. For this reason, along with the many other warnings we received, we took safety very seriously.

Getting to the game was almost an adventure by itself. We traveled by foot from the mall to the stadium due to the traffic problems from all the fans. The street was filled with fans for over a mile. It was a sea of black and white jerseys and flags. Beer was sold out of the backs of cars or from makeshift stands on the side of the street. Many of the fans get their fill of alcohol before they enter the stadium because it isn't sold inside. We stuck close and avoided looking like fans for the other team.

The pregame events were interesting. We were frisked before we entered the stadium. Once inside we encountered an already lively crowd two hours before the game was even supposed to start. Apparently, before a game starts the fans for the opposing teams provoke and mock each other. Each team has it's own unique "hymn" and various other related songs and chants many of which are laced with profanity. The fans sing spontaneously but in surprising unison. I soon tired of the din and was ready for the actual game to begin.

The game started on promptly at five. Once the game started the 80,000 fans got surprisingly quiet. They concentrated carefully on the game until something positive happened and then they erupted into chants and cheers. The fans in my section were deafening, but the most amazing thing was that the fans on the opposite side of the stadium were deafening as well.

The game was a good one. The opposing team (Santos) scored the first and only goal of the opening half, but in the second half our team (Corinthians) came back with two back to back goals igniting the fans into a jumping, chanting, arm-waving insanity. The way the scoring works in this particular tournament is that all goals against your opposing team are added up over multiple games and the one who has the most goals total at the end wins. Corinthians only needed one more goal and about 20 minutes of good defense to clinch the national title. However, Santos was the better team, and they proved it by scoring two goals in the final 15 minutes of play. For a little while many of the Corinthians persevered and continued singing the team hymn in spite of the loss. It was a touching display of loyalty. However they weren't able to keep it up and many fans sat down and put their head in their hands. I even saw one young man crying.

When the game ended many Santos fans poured out of the stadium and onto the field despite the rows of police blocking the way. Many promptly came to the Corinthians' side and began mocking the fans. This outraged the fans around me and they soon began breaking the benches and hurling the splintered pieces of wood at the offending fans. Some even shot their fireworks at them which sent many of the mockers running. After seeing these developments, which occurred fairly rapidly, we quickly filed out of the stadium and into the street to join a flood of dejected fans. All the Santos fans were still inside celebrating when we left.

We carefully made our way back to the mall. We thought that we might have to walk back to the apartment, but we luckily flagged down a passing taxi and made it back to the apartment in no time. Once back at the apartment we relaxed, talked, and ordered some pizza to refresh our wearied bodies.

All in all the game was one of my most memorable and most enjoyable experiences in Brazil.