As everyone will tell you, particularly the people at Nike, Brazilians are mad about futebol. Soccer is so popular, it has co-opted other sports: Futevolei is beach volleyball without hands, played by your average Brazilian office worker with more skill and control than the U.S. men’s soccer team displayed in this year’s World Cup. Rio’s Maracana stadium is one of the world’s largest, with room for more than 100,000 inebriated, soccer-crazed fans. The Brazilians even have a special word— ginga (literally, “sway”)—to describe the samba-infused, feline, swaggering grace that characterizes the style of their best players, like Ronaldinho and Robinho.
As everyone will tell you, particularly Brazilians, they are mad about their country. Everything is better here: the beaches, the music, the chopp (“beer”), the entire lifestyle. Even when they were greeting me with a thumbs up, there was a faint patronizing pity in their smiles, as if to say, “How sad that you only get to visit paradise while we get to live here.” One of the most important words in their language is saudade, often used to describe the homesick longing Brazilians living abroad experience for their samba and their Antarctica lager, their futebol and their billion free condoms.
Therefore, I expected to be able to tell you—using syllogistic logic—that Brazilians were mad about their World Cup team. I went to Rio anticipating some sort of mass celebration, huge projector screens, a gathering of thousands, and maybe the burning of cars for the Brazil-Japan game. Imagine my surprise, then, when every Brazilian I asked about the location of the best place to watch the game answered, “I don’t know. Your hotel?”
Unable to accept this, I wandered up and down Ipanema and Copacabana beaches looking for a crowd. What I found instead was Jack and Marge of England on a similar quest. We joined forces and turned inland. Jack, already well-lubricated, tried to flush out a flock of Brazilian soccer fans by singing clever Newcastle fight songs like “We are top of the league. WE ARE TOP OF THE LEAGUE!” and “Newcastle. Newcastle. NEWCASTLE!” The best we could find was a half-empty pizzeria with three moderate-sized televisions. Of the spattering of spectators, less than a dozen were Cariocas (natives of Rio), the rest foreigners—the only people in Rio besides hotel employees wearing yellow, green, and blue Brazilian soccer jerseys.
“Could it be they’re watching at home?” Jack wondered in slight disbelief. “Could it?”
Cariocas’ lack of overt enthusiasm for their team seemed to mirror the attitude of the team itself, which showed up late for training, quickly garnered a reputation for partying through the night, and expended just enough effort in its first few witless matches to scrape by against vastly inferior opponents. Chief among the sinners was Ronaldo, arguably the greatest striker the world has ever seen. Only three goals away from the record for an individual player in World Cup play (15), Ronaldo was visibly out-of-shape and overweight. The only thing swaying in his first two games was his gut.
As if to add insult to injury, Japan scored first. After an initial intake of breath, the Brazilians in the crowd cheered, “Zico! Zico! Zico!”
“That’s very polite of them,” Jack said in a minor state of shock. Seeing that I didn’t understand, he went on to explain that Zico was Japan’s coach this year and, after Pelé, the most-revered figure in the Brazilian futebol pantheon. Jack had heard a rumor that, since Brazil had already guaranteed a spot in the next round and Japan was already out, the Brazilians would take it easy on the Japanese as a courtesy to Zico.
True or not, the courtesy ended right before the end of the first half when Ronaldo headed his first goal of the 2006 World Cup into the back of the net. As he trotted off the field, he looked directly into the camera with a prideful smirk that seemed to say, “Kiss my fat ass.”
As Ronaldo scored his second goal and a ripple of applause went round the cafe and a few horns blew, I finally put it together. In World Cup play, Brazil has the most championships (five), the most goals scored by a single player (15), the most appearances (18), the most appearances in finals (seven), the most matches played (92), the most wins (64), the most goals scored (201), and the most consecutive wins (11). Brazilians are like New York Yankees fans. No wonder they weren’t riled up about a silly little first-round game against Japan. Call them in October.
Which brings us to the quarterfinals against France. Having given up hope of rowdy crowds, I ensconced myself in the hotel bar behind a growing wall of empty caipirinha glasses. After a strong start by the home team, a certain shock settled over the hotel employees, who had discreetly wandered over from their posts as it became clear to their trained eyes that Brazil had lost control of the game. When France scored, the air was sucked out of the room. Everyone could tell Brazil was outmatched and would have to rely on luck to win. The French, led by Zidane, had the ginga.
When the final whistle blew and Brazil was unceremoniously knocked out of the tournament, I gathered my notebook and camera to search for the holy grails of journalism—riots and burning cars. What I found instead was life going on: Cariocas shopping at local merchants, eating at restaurants, partying at clubs. Sure, there were some long faces and the occasional tear, but how depressed can one get in paradise? Just don’t ask them about their team.
“They are too rich, too arrogant, and too lazy.”
“We are sad but not surprised. They believed they couldn’t lose, so they didn’t train hard enough.”
“They are ja era,” one merchant told me, using one of the harsher Brazilian put-downs. “Has-beens.”
The best line, though, went to a U.N. consultant I met at the airport bar as I was leaving. “We haven’t had a good team since 1982. But just wait until the next World Cup.”
Spoken like a true Yankees fan.