You have to hand it to London Transport. It’s six o’clock on a Wednesday evening and we’re stuck at Victoria. The District, Piccadilly and Central Lines are out and we’re due to check in at Heathrow in a little over an hour. For weeks I’ve been reading of the need for calm and patience when getting public transport at our destination. For the moment my reserves are running thin and we’re only thirty minutes from home. For this is a flight we cannot miss, destination Rio de Janeiro, first stop on a three week trip to South America. Thankfully the problems resolve themselves and we make Heathrow in time to check in and are soon in the air. Eleven hours or so later we are setting foot on Brazilian soil.
Why South America? The question was asked by many when we planned the trip. Wasn’t it full of crime, violence, drug cartels, pitiless poverty, unstable politics, terrorism and corrupt bureaucracy? If the man-made pitfalls don’t get you, how about the earthquakes, landslides and tropical diseases? Perhaps we were slightly crazy to want to go to this volatile sub-continent. But many of the people who voiced such concerns think nothing of going, complete with their children, to destinations such as Miami, which must rank as one of the most violent crime-ridden cities in the world. Besides, sometimes you have to get a little crazy to stay sane. As with most such trips we were relying on a lot of common sense and a little luck to see us through. Because we knew when we got there that we would experience some of the true natural and man made wonders of the world. Also, the fascinating culture born of a three-way racial melting pot that has created some of the most energetic, vibrant and sophisticated music in the world. And then there’s the football….
Images and Enduring Myths
If the rich countries of Western Europe can lay claim to be club football’s economic powerhouse at present, there can be no doubting South America’s claim to be it’s most successful constituent on the international field. Eight of the fourteen post war World Cups have been won by teams from south of Panama. In particular, one nation has encapsulated all that we find exhilarating and exotic about the world game – Brazil!
Every football fan has their favourite memories, several of which will not feature their own team. Timeless moments which transcend club or national loyalty and live on in the memory, reminding one of why football has no peers as the world’s greatest game. It’s a solid bet that for the vast majority of fans, at least one of those vivid recollections will involve the men in yellow, green, blue and white. It might be the image of Carlos Alberto arriving like an express train on the right of our television screens to rifle Pele’s perfectly weighted lay off into the helpless Dino Zoff’s net for the fourth goal in the 1970 World Cup final. Or the great man himself attempting to chip the goalkeeper from inside his own half in the same tournament. The goals of Zico and Falcao in 1982, and the orgasmic expression on the face of the latter as he ran away after scoring with a scorching shot. For some in Wales it might be Ronaldhino’s run through the English defence to set up Rivaldo’s devastatingly accurate finish last summer, although the same people might also remember with awe, if not affection Cafu’s wickedly swerving half volley past Roger Freestone at the Millenium Stadium in May 2000. In any word association game, most football fans immediate response to the word “attack” would be “Brazil”.
So much for the myths and legends. Sadly, the reality these days is a little tainted. The mystery of the fate of Ronaldo before the 1998 World Cup Final, and the role of Nike in events is the subject of dark rumours. Reports of corruption at the highest levels of the Brazilian Association are rife. If such stories have worn the polish from the legend, the state of Brazilian domestic football strips away the veneer. The Brazilian club scene is a mess, and the public have reacted to years of cynical manipulation and corruption by abandoning it in droves. Many of the clubs are in states of financial decay as the result of mis-management by self serving owners and the influence of agents. Most of the country’s best players now play abroad, many transferred for exhorbitant fees which are dissipated before they reach the club’s coffers. Fixture schedules are a mess as clubs play in a glut of competitions resulting in mind-boggling duplication. Relegation is frequently avoided by “name” teams who petition for league reorganisation to avoid the drop. Rules of competitions are perceived as being made up as the authorities go along, in order to protect the larger clubs’ interests. The public smelt a giant rat, and declining attendances have followed.
In an effort to stem this credibility flow the authorities have once again restructured the league, this time with the novel idea of all 24 teams in the top division playing each other on a home and away basis, whilst the traditional “state” championships are now to be played as a pre season curtain raiser. Surprisingly, both Botafogo and Palmeiras, two of the historic names of Brazilian club football, have not been admitted, paying the price of relegation last season. Time will tell whether these “radical” steps will bring the public back to the club stadiums. Brazilians are used to having a “final” to the league, and the “European” formula may not succeed in recapturing the public imagination. What’s for sure is that credibility will never be regained as long as the organisers continue to administer farces such as this year’s Sao Paulo State Championship where the rules were changed between the two legs of the final. The association beggared belief by explaining that they did this on the basis that the original rules had been “badly written”. Corinthians, who were 3-2 up from the first leg, understandably appealed to the national association, and at one stage the spectre loomed of the state champions being decided in a committee or court-room.
Big Four, Big Man, Big Task
Our first sight of a club stadium in Rio came from the aerial urban motorway as the airport bus passed the ground of Vasco de Gama. As one might expect of a team with such a name, Vasco were founded by the Portuguese community. The only one or Rio’s “big four” to own a stadium capable of hosting all their home matches, their 40,000 capacity three sided open concrete bowl is situated in the heart of the Zona Norte, a run down working-class district. Close by, Rio’s notorious favelas rise up the city’s distinctive conical mountains. Haphazardly constructed brick houses compete for space on the hillside with ramshackle tin huts. Brazil has a new President who assumed office on New Years Day 2003, the socialist Luiz Inacio Lula de Silva, who believes it is possible to combine fiscal efficiency with improved social conditions. “Lula” has stated that his aim is to ensure that every Brazilian can eat three times per day. One look at Rio’s favelas would leave nobody with any illusions as to the size of that task.
The brunt of the burden of the country’s poverty falls on the black population. Despite the superficially ideal race relations and lack of overt discrimination, income statistics in Brazil reveal that the possibility of a black person attaining wealth and status outside of the traditional escape routes of football and music are severely limited. In view of their location in the poorer Northern Zone, it was of little surprise that Vasco also attracted support from the black population. However, many such supporters shunned the white and diagonal black barred shirts for the red and black hoops of Flamengo, ironically due to historic events at Fluminese.
“Flu” are traditionally the team of the Rio upper classes. The purple, olive green and white stripes could derive from a public school tie. Their ground is a quaint affair, reminiscent of the County Cricket ground at Canterbury, holding a mere 10,000. The “gentlemen’s club” atmosphere historically extended to an abhorance of both professionalism and black players, not that this prevented them from fielding members of either group. Shamateurism prevailed, whilst black or mixed race players were obliged to lighten their skin by rubbing rice powder into their faces before taking the field. Tired of this treatment, members of one of Flu’s most successful teams decamped en bloc, and found a haven in the grounds the Flamengo Rowing Club, becoming their football section. The majority of this team were black, and the “founding” of the new team attracted many black supporters from the Northern Zone. Ironically, the Flamengo district itself, or the lagoon area where the club’s own ground is situated in the Southern Zone would be well beyond the pockets of most such fans. Flamengo grew to become the most widely supported team in both Rio and Brazil, although in recent seasons financial maladministration has sapped their strength. The last of Rio’s major clubs are Botafogo, the team of Garrincha and Jairzhino. Traditionally the club of students and leftish intellectuals, the black and white stripes suffered the ignominy of relegation last season, and for once the authorities gave no reprieve.
Fixture information had been difficult to obtain in advance, possibly because of the league restructuring, which was the subject of contention right up until the commencement of the new season. However, luck was in, and Flamengo played Coritiba at home on the Sunday that we were in town. Due to the fact that their own ground near the Leblon district holds only 10,000, “Fla” play most of their home fixtures at the Maracana. Suffice to say that the oppurtunity of seeing Brazil’s most popular club at the world famous stadium was not one to pass up.
The Maracana is reminiscent of Wembley in that both lie, or lay, in the midst of large industrial estates. Common sense suggested that with favelas nearby, this desolate sector of the city was not a place to linger after dark. Accordingly we paid to go to the match with an organised tour, which involved a rather over the top price for tickets, but had the advantages of a lift to and from the ground, and guidance as to which part of the ground to go. This was after all a ground where there had been reports of gun battles between rival factions. The match was the opening round of the national championship, against Coritiba, a young team whose official ranking last season was eleventh. Coritiba had also won the Parana state championship the previous week, and were starting the game slight favourites against a Flamengo side who had performed disappointingly in the Rio or “carioca” championship. Rocked by allegations of misapplication of club funds by their former chairman, the rubro-negro are a shadow of their historic selves, and were widely tipped to struggle. This may have contributed to the paltry crowd of a little over 10,000 who were swamped in the vastness of a stadium which once held 200,000.
A vast concrete bowl constructed for a different age, the Maracana’s circular shape leads to the stands being a long way from the pitch save at the corner flags. A few years ago the condition of this national monument had deteriorated to the extent that part of the upper tier collapsed during a match, resulting in death and injuries. Privatisation by the city authorities has seen some improvements, and metal seat have been fixed to the terraces on the lower levels, but toilet facilities were predictably rudimentary. In Europe a debate may have began about the future of such a stadium, but with Brazil’s economic situation it is unlikely that any major changes will take place in the near future. Current capacity stands at 134,000, and question marks remain as to how often that capacity will be tested in the foreseeable future. Flamengo hoped for 25,000 for this match, but even that number would have been lost in the spaces. Whether Fla will play out the season at the Maracana, or retreat to their own ground for all save the biggest matches remains to be seen.
Not So Pretty Flamengo
The game itself was something of a disjointed affair, as ‘Mengao struggled to break down a well organised Coritiba side who should have led at half time. Unsuprisingly, the level of individual skill is far higher than in Britain, with just about every player on the pitch capable of controlling the ball, running with it and passing accurately. The exception was Baiano, the Flamengo target man, whose play resembled Steve Torpey, and whose every effort drew howls of derision from the crowd. The other noticeable trend was for just about every member of both teams to attempt a “Roberto Carlos” and shoot from wholly unfeasible distances, normally giving the ball boys more work to do than the goalkeepers. Athirson, the rubro-negro’s impressive sweeper brought the ball out of defence in a manner reminiscent of Ante Rajkovic at his peak, but most of the quick passing moves broke down at the edge of the Coritiba penalty area. The palpable sense of frustration amongst the home fans familiar to Swans supporters in recent years was exacerbated when Coritiba scored the breakaway goal they had threatened all afternoon with around ten minutes left. That appeared to be that, until deep into injury time, when a good delivery of a free kick from deep on the right saw Fla defender Andre Bahia leap salmon like to send a classic header inside the far post of the Coritiba goal. Cue as much mayhem as 10,000 people can make in such a vast stadium.
As to the fan culture, there were several huge flags on lengthy poles in evidence, and much of the top tier was decked in red and black banners. However, the majority of the Brazilians in our section came in family groups, and there were a high proportion of women present. This was certainly in contrast to the lurid images portrayed in certain quarters of Brazilian matches being the natural home of such traditional latin male pastimes as rioting and shooting. This may have had something to do with the low key nature of the fixture, and also the almost complete absence of away fans. Brazil is a huge country, almost as large as the United States, meaning that many fixtures can be several hours away by plane. The poverty of most fans precludes anything but purchase of the cheapest entry ticket, let alone plane tickets to an away fixture. I was personally rather disappointed by the lack of dead chickens thrown onto the pitch, which is reputed to be a regular occurence. Oh well, I guess you can’t have everything.
One thing that was very much in evidence was the “hawker” culture of Brazil whereby throughout the match we were subjected to a non-stop barrage of offers of drinks, sweets, nuts, shirts and other souvenirs. Cans of the weak but refreshing chopp (lager) are readily available. More poignant were the down and outs who collected up the dropped cans from beneath the seats, jealously protective of their haul. We had seen the same phenomenon on the beach front at Copacabana, and could only surmise that there was some sort of scheme in place whereby money was paid to those who delivered tin for recycling.
Yellow, Green, Blue and White
The previous evening we had gained some experience of football coverage on Brazilian television, when the national side played a friendly in Portugal. If interest in the club game is currently luke warm, the same cannot be said of the national side, who form a very strong component of national identity. Fans crowded around television sets in local open air bars for a sight of their heroes in action. Only around a quarter of Brazilians personally own a television. Economics, together with the alleged effects of the Nike sponsorship deal, mean that the national team play most of their matches on foreign soil, particularly in the richer countries (the cynical would say “markets”). The losers are almost certainly the Brazilian public, who have relatively few opportunities to see their all conquering heroes on home soil. Indeed, there have been many questions raised as to the commitment of some of the European based stars to the national cause, and Brazil have been either forced or chosen to field sides for home international matches using only domestically based players. The growing influence of the big European clubs who are reluctant to release players for international dates has no doubt exacerbated the trend.
It therefore makes of lot of sense to the Brazilian coaching staff to play friendlies in Europe where they can guarantee the presence of a healthy proportion of the star names. For Nike the commercial advantages of this strategy are obvious. Indeed, the interesting aspect of the controversial sponsorship deal is that it is aimed at the world market rather than the Brazilian. In England or Wales kit manufacturers would hope to sell most of their produce of national team shirts in the respective home countries. Genuine replica tops retail in Brazil at around 100 Real ( £26 ), which sounds relatively cheap until you consider that 40% of Brazilians earn less than 2 Real (65p) per day. Consequently most fans make do with the cheap unofficial t-shirt versions, whilst Nike’s sales pitch is directed at the foreign markets. What are available are “official” Nike t-shirts in the style of the current kit, and 35 Real secured me a Flamengo top at the evening market on Copacabana beach front. These “compromise” kits are certainly more affordable to both the average Brazilian and the average tourist than the genuine up to the minute article. More debateable is the tangible benefit to domestic Brazilian football of the Nike deal, particularly when searching questions are left inadequately answered as to where the money paid to the Brazilian federation actually ends up.
As to the Brazilian team, an entertaining affair between two of world football’s more enterprising sides brought a 2-1 win for the former colonial masters. Brazil’s second half equaliser, care of a rather dubious Ronaldhino penalty, brought the classic “gooooooo-aaal” cry from the commentator. If the description of Brazilian play as “samba-style” is a tired cliché, the adjective could be accurately applied to the commentary, in which the Portuguese language rises and falls in musical cadences with a sense of rhythmic intensity rarely heard in European counterparts. Elation turns to outrage as Roberto Carlos is sent off for a foul apparently committed by Rivaldo. Portugal score directly from the free kick, and the prospect of a night of wild Brazilian celebration disappears.
If the national team and domestic club scene are tainted by allegations of financial impropriety and skulduggery, the heart of Brazilian football still beats strongly on the beaches of Rio on a Sunday morning. Full size pitches, complete with goalposts with nets, are marked by posts in the Copacabana sand. These are no informal kick arounds on the beach, but seriously competitive matches in which former internationals and professionals are rumoured to take part. Teams wear kit, save for their bare feet. Attributes such as defensive organisation are contemptuously ignored, and only audacious skill is admired. One goalkeeper’s efforts to produce a spectacular response to even the most innocuous shot made Tony Millington seem conservative, whilst the remonstrations between team-mates at the waste of a goalscoring chance were pure theatre.
Meanwhile, across the beach, a group of young black children played with a tennis ball, showing deft control. It would be easy to lapse into banalities at this scene, but in fact one could only think how lucky they were, at least for the moment. Lucky in the sense, certainly of playing on a beautiful beach before the stunning Sugar Loaf mountain with the tropical sun on their backs. But also lucky that they should be there at all. These kids are clearly not the residents of the nearby luxury seafront apartments. Just a few hundered yards back from this most opulent location the favelas start to rise up the hillside. The most expensive real estate in Brazil just a goal kick from slums without running water. Child mortality in Brazil runs at one in fifteen, compared to 1:142 in Britain. So far these children are lucky in that they have survived. However, there is every chance that before they attain adulthood that some of these children will become fatally ill, or be shot dead, whilst others may be kidnapped and sacrificed to the huge trade in human organs. For the survivors, unless they prove to be another Ronaldo, the probability of poverty and possible involvement with crime are high. Most neutral football fans wish the Brazilians well on the football field. Most human beings would wish their new President well in his attempts to achieve his most difficult of goals.
Rio de Janeiro, rather like Brazilian football, is full of contradictions. Levels of income are the most disparate in the world. The sheer perversity of so much income being concentrated with so few whilst so many go without basic human needs is mirrored in the chaotic finances of the world’s greatest game in a country which to many is the keeper of it’s flame. Then again, Rio also reflects so much of what people love about Brazilian football – it’s beauty, it’s vitality, it’s sheer exhuberance. Only a fool would be blind to the problems of Rio, and to ignore the violence and crime would be crazy. On the other hand only the blind or the miserable could not feel stimulated by this most spectacular and vibrant of cities. The beaches are beautiful, the views from the Sugar Loaf and Corcovado stunning, the Samba in the bars energetic. If you love life in all it’s diversity, and in particular love football, this is one city you just have to visit.
In the next “el Garbo” we move on to Peru.
Those who wish to know how they can help the street children of Brazil should contact Action for Brazil’s Children at www.abctrust.org.uk
For those who are interested, an opportunity to develop musical, percussion, dancing and/or circus skills will take place in Brazil in October 2004 in aid of Action for Brazil’s Children . Anybody interested in Samba Challenge 2004 should get in touch with me care of this site for more details.