The first World Cup I can remember watching was in 1982 when it was in Spain, I was ten years old at the time. The famous players of that era were Paul Breitner, Bryan Robson and Zbigniew Boniek. However, for my friends and me it was all about Brazil: Socrates, Junior, Eder, Falcão and of course, Zico. I was mesmerized by the artful way they played the game. Part of me died when Italy knocked them out before reaching the semi finals. However, the seed was planted. My first experience with the nation of Brazil as a kid was watching what may go down in history as the most beautiful football ever played.
When I first arrived in Brazil I was already a Flamengo fan, mostly based on the mere fact that Zico played for Flamengo. I remember feeling slightly disappointed that the quality of football was not on par with what I was accustomed to in Europe. The players that would have been playing for Flamengo (or in Brazil) twenty years ago were now stars in the European leagues. The astronomical salaries of modern times are just too high to pass up. On the other hand, I was surprised and fascinated that fans in Rio did not seem to let this bother them. The standard of play may have diminished but the animosity of the fans and their support for their teams is as strong as ever. Loyalty is important. At the bar, at the Maracana Stadium, at work or amongst friends you must always support your team. You can be cruel when judging the performance of certain players or the team on a particular day but your team must always get the overall support.
Football can always be used as a topic of conversation, particularly among men. I tried to never miss an opportunity to discuss the sport with my taxi drivers, the vendor at the newsstand, the guy drinking a cold beer at a corner bar or the security guard at my apartment building. For one, it was a good opportunity to improve my Portuguese. I was quick to become familiar with the football vocabulary and for awhile was the only subject I felt comfortable discussing. And two, I got to know more about the local football culture, the teams and their supporters.
Flamengo has the largest support base in Rio, and throughout all of Brazil for that matter. The fans are called urubus (vultures in English). You either love Flamengo or you despise them. There is no middle ground. The next largest fan base in Rio Vasco de Gama. Like Flamengo, Vasco has a large and aggressive fan base which makes the rivalry between these two teams tense to say the least. One must always have their wits about them when watching this match up at the Maracana as fights are likely to break out. The most anticipated “classic” match up in Rio is the Fla-Flu game: Flamengo vs Fluminense. Fluminense is the oldest team of the four major clubs in Rio. It is said around Rio that Fluminense is the club for the wealthier classes and their supporters tend to look down upon the “brutal” and “lowly” behavior of the Flamengistas and Vascaianos. Though Botafogo has a smaller fan base the club is steeped in tradition and the fans consider themselves to be more loyal and “cultured” than the other fans from the other Rio clubs. The stereotypes add color to the rivalries and conversations but the reality is that the fan bases for all four of the major Rio clubs are made up of all walks of life, race, creed and class and perhaps are more diverse than any other fan bases in the world.
In recent years it has been the teams from Sao Paulo that have taken all the glory in the Brazilian Football league. The Paulistas have won 7 of xem bong da truc tiep the last 10 Brazilian Championships. Contrary to the 1980s when it was the Carioca teams that won the majority of championships. However, there are recent signs that the tide may be turning again. Flamengo has been looking strong this past year and currently sits at the top of the Brazilian League and Fluminense plays in the finals of the Libertadores next week after beating Sao Paulo and the Argentine giant Boca Juniors.
There is one thing that can unite all the fans in Brazil. It can cause a Flamengista to hug a Vascaiana. It can cause Paulista to buy a beer for Carioca (person from Rio) and bring together all Brazilian football fans into one swarming sea of yellow, blue and green: The National Team (or the “Selection” as its called in Brazil). The Brazilian World Cup teams are often a focal point of discussion. Which is the best team? 1958? 1962? 1970? 2002? Of course people always bring up the cup winners. However, to my eternal satisfaction it is the 1982 team that most consider the best Brazilian team not to win the cup and perhaps the best overall. It was a special team. It was a team that exemplified the “jogo bonito” (the beautiful game). Teary eyed cab drivers still talk about back heelers from Socrates and free kicks from Eder.
There were the disappointments of 1986 and 1990 that nobody wants to talk about. It is not easy for Brazilians to admit that the football world and the ‘beautiful game’ were being defined by an Argentine, Maradona. The Brazilians were finally able to return to past glory with a World Cup victory in 1994, however, there is a strange sense of shame in that victory. Although Brazilians were again able to claim themselves on top of the football world they won the cup playing defensive football, not jogo bonito. The return to the jogo bonito that Brazilians adore was in 1998. It was meant to be the official return of the Brazilian style and dominance. However, the artistic style didn’t work in the final and the Brazilians were over matched by the French playing on their own soil. The Brazilians did not take this loss lightly or gracefully. Many Brazilians go as far as blaming the loss on a conspiracy within FIFA or Nike paying off the Brazilian players to lose.
The Brazilians not only want to win, but win playing the beautiful football that epitomized the teams of the 50´s and 60´s. They do not want to be seen as another Italy: skilled players suffocated in an over-defensive system. Unfortunately, Brazil hasn’t won a World Cup playing the jogo bonito since 1970. In 2002, Brazil was once again the champion and playing a step closer to the beautiful game with the play of Ronaldo, Ronaldinho, Cafu, Roberto Carlos and Rivaldo. The problem this time around was the cup itself. Many consider it to be the most boring cup of all. The lack of football tradition in the host country (as was also the case in 1994), the viewing times of the games in Europe and South America were difficult and the fact that the greatest and most traditional teams failed to make it to the final round: Argentina, Italy, England, Portugal, Spain and of course France didn’t even score a goal in the entire tournament.
2002 left Brazilians with another cup victory but still thirsty for the ultimate combination of jogo bonito and a classic World Cup atmosphere. I was really expecting a lot from the World Cup in 2006. The build up was intense and the buzz surrounding The World Cup was in every corner of Rio. The problem in 2006 may have been the over expectations of the Brazilian fan. It seemed as if nobody in Brazil even considered anything less than a cup victory, as if it was already theirs. The boisterous talk, aggressive opinions and lack of respect for other teams actually became irritating during the lead up to the cup. It seemed that Brazilians had forgotten that their team actually had to win the games. As a result the nation was humbled when Brazil was eliminated in the second round, playing really bad football. Unfortunately, I would not experience the party on the streets of Brazil that follows a World Cup victory. But at the same I felt a smug satisfaction that the Brazilian fan learned a lesson in humility and hopefully would not make the same mistake again. Nothing is guaranteed in football. Championships, especially the World Cup, need to be earned. Let’s hope we see Brazil play well in the next World Cup. When Brazil plays up to its standards, it’s good for the sport