Today at 1:30 France and Italy will contend for the World Cup championship. If you’re not familiar with the World Cup, it is the world championship of soccer held every four years. Brazil was expected to defend its title, winning its record 6th title. That didn’t happen. France pulled off the upset.
Lucky for me, I was in Brazil for the first two weeks of the World Cup. To put that in perspective, Brazil is considered the best team in soccer, the home of a style of play called “the dance,” land of Pele—arguably the greatest player to ever play the game. In Brazil , soccer is religion, a way of life.
During the World Cup, the entire country is ready to party. Imagine the Super Bowl, but instead of teams representing cities, there would be a U.S. national team playing against other countries that are all respectable in their talent and ability to play the game, and are within reach of winning the big game. Only, the big game occurs 6 times before the BIG game. Imagine that everyone in the U.S. cares about whether or not we win each game en route to the final game. Imagine street parties in our big cities where blocks are closed down hours before the game, large TV screens are erected, and revelers sing, chant, blow horns, light off fireworks and play music before, during and after the game.
This is soccer in Brazil .
We sat at an outdoor bar/café and watched the first game, against Croatia , in the town of Salinas , Minas Gerais. An hour and a half before the game, shop owners started closing up their store fronts. An hour before the game, government offices, banks and anything that was open had officially turned off the lights and locked the doors for the day. A half hour before the game, traffic was non-existent. The only thing open was the bars. The entire country shut down to watch the game.
At the bar, I had to speak loudly to my wife sitting next to me to carry on a conversation. All around us people were blowing whistles, horns and other noise makers. Small fireworks were exploding in the afternoon sky. An occasional quarter stick of dynamite (I’m guessing here. I didn’t see it, but did feel it in my rib cage.) was set off in the street, exciting the crowd into a frenzy.
The game began, and the celebration continued. In the closing minutes of the first half, Kaka blasted a deep ball into the back of the net. Brazil finally scored. It proved to be enough for the game, Brazil squeaked by with a 1-0 win.
Relieved, the locals partied in the street outside of the bar. Samba music boomed out of speakers on the backs of trucks. Motorbikes lined up for a victory ride through town. Cars followed the bikes. More dynamite explosions. Fireworks popping in the night sky. Teens and college students Samba-danced in the street.
And like any huge sporting event with drunken people, a fight broke out, the police stepped in, and an air of reckless pandemonium hung over the street. We made way to our car and headed for the hotel. No need to get caught up in anything stupid.
The party continued into the night, well after midnight, some 6 hours after the game ended.
We would watch two more games in Brazil , both would result in victories. Ronaldo would go on to break Pele’s record for number of goals scored by a Brazilian in World Cup history, 15 goals. Later on he would break the all time record for goals scored, making him perhaps the greatest player to ever put on a pair of soccer shoes.
The 2006 Brazilian effort to win back-to-back titles ended against the French, their World Cup nemesis. Their next chance will be 2010 in South Africa .
(written 9 July 2006)