Where 'the beautiful game' is king

In Brazil, futebol is a national drama, best appreciated before or after the World Cup

Seth Kugel / New York Times News Service /

Published Apr 14, 2013 at 05:00AM

The banner-waving, anthem-singing fans of Rio de Janeiro’s Flamengo club formed a billowing mass of ruby-and-black-clad humanity. They moved not only in reaction to the ebbs and flows on the field far below, but also to the samba beat pounded out by musicians in the midst of the grandstand mayhem around me and my friend Doug. The bands had not stopped playing, and fans had not stopped chanting, in the 18 minutes since the game began.

Then, on the field far below, a precision passer on the rival team Fluminense launched the ball straight for their top scorer. As nonchalantly as flipping a light switch, he scissor-kicked a strike past the keeper into the far left corner of the goal. Or as it is known locally:

“Goooooooooooool!”

On the other side of the stadium, the Fluminense fans — outfitted in green, grenadine and white — erupted, but they were so isolated, so far away, that they looked and sounded like television static with the volume turned way up. On our side, the samba ceased. The fans slumped — for about 10 seconds.

Then the Flamengo samba machine swung back into action. The fans started singing again, a love song to their team. Their banners waved like mainsails in a storm. Mourning would wait for later: Flamengo eventually lost 1-0. But in Brazil, telling fans to stop cheering because the opposing team scored would be like telling a disc jockey to stop the party because someone danced badly.

In Brazil, soccer is not just a game, it’s a national drama. One of Brazil’s great 20th-century playwrights and novelists, Nelson Rodrigues, recognized that the sport trumped even his own craft in defining the nation. “Abroad, when you want to learn about a people, you examine their fiction,” he wrote. “In Brazil, football plays the role of fiction.”

You can find variations on that particular brand of drama across the Brazilian soccer scene, almost all year round, in Rio and Sao Paulo and at smaller stadiums in lesser-known cities.

Here’s when you probably won’t find it: During the World Cup, which Brazil will host from June 12 to July 13, 2014. It won’t be in the stands when, say, Cameroon plays Serbia, or when France squares off against the Uzbeks. The World Cup will be a good party, guaranteed — and the handful of games the Brazilian side plays will be all-out spectacles. (Good luck getting tickets for those matches.) But the best time to experience true Brazilian soccer — or, more accurately, futebol (foo-tchee-BOW) — will be outside the parameters of the Cup.

That said, it is not simple to plan a soccer trip to Brazil. I had an advantage as a Portuguese speaker who had lived in the country for two years. Others might find it more difficult. The complex league schedules are largely unavailable in English. You’ll have to find your way to the stadium, choosing between public transportation and sometimes pricey taxis. Even where to sit can be a consequential decision.

And you’ll always have to be ready for the unexpected: Engenhao, the very stadium where Doug and I watched the Flamengo-Fluminense game, was closed last month for structural repairs. And there have been other black eyes for the country as it ramps up to the Cup. At the end of last month, an American woman was abducted and gang-raped in the popular Rio district of Copacabana. Police had to use tear gas recently after fans clashed when tickets ran out for the inaugural match of the new World Cup stadium in Salvador. (Six people reportedly sustained minor injuries.) As is often the case with travel in developing countries, things can be less predictable and more chaotic than you may be used to at home.

But none of those should dissuade you from experiencing soccer in Brazil. The phrase “the beautiful game” did not originate in the country, but it accurately describes the fluid and frequently dazzling play you’ll see. After attending six games last fall, I concluded that Brazilians speak soccer fluently, while everyone else has an accent.

My guess is that many Americans (and other travelers) don’t explore the admittedly complicated world of Brazilian soccer because they think it’s too dangerous or, more likely, have no idea how. Here, then, is a guide on the whens, wheres and how-tos.

When to go

The first thing you have to know about Brazilian soccer is that it is played nearly year-round. There’s no spring training or long, wait-till-next-year periods of inactivity. Between two consecutive league seasons and a handful of national and international tournaments, the biggest teams play virtually nonstop, except for about a month in late December and early January. The first few months of the year are dominated by state leagues: all 26 Brazilian states, as well as the Federal District in and around Brasilia, have them. (Games are generally on Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays.) By May or June, the more exciting four-tiered national league starts. By the time the season ends in December, there’s a national champion.

But the action doesn’t end there. Top finishers in the national tournament earn berths in the next year’s Libertadores Cup and South American Cup, two regional tournaments that run concurrently with parts of the state and national seasons. There’s also the Brazil Cup, a separate national competition with a knockout tournament format. And occasionally, the national team (that is, the one that goes to the World Cup) will play a “friendly” match against visiting foreign squads. (This year, from June 15 to 30, Brazil hosts the Confederations Cup, stopping league play.)

The other good news is that you don’t always need to buy tickets in advance. There are exceptions: if it’s a game between two big teams, known as a classico (more on that below), you should be safe and buy tickets beforehand at the stadium, club headquarters or other outlets; ask your taxi driver or hotel staff members. Buying online is sometimes possible but tricky: sites usually require a Brazilian ID number and domestic address.

How to stay safe

Rio is full of coddled experiences — tours of the favelas, private helicopter rides — and soccer is no exception. In hotel lobbies in the tourist-clogged Copacabana and Ipanema neighborhoods, travelers can pay 150 reais or so (about $75 at 2 reais to the dollar), take a bus or van to the stadium, and be herded by an English-speaking guide into the pricey reserved seats. It is the most expensive and probably the most boring way to see a match. It is also unnecessary.

Travel in Brazil is never entirely without risk, of course, but games are much safer than they used to be. Armed with some advance knowledge, common-sense precautions and a sense of adventure, it’s far more exciting to sit in the general-admission grandstand. In summary: arrive very early, don’t bring valuables, and sit on the edges of the grandstand, not in the middle of the mayhem.

You’ll also want to decide on whether to participate in the street festivities before the game. At most of the games I attended, street vendors hawked dirt-cheap, ice-cold beer and meat on sticks. In most places, there was a significant police presence, which was mostly reassuring. Even at a Series B game I attended in Fortaleza, in the northeast, where rows of officers in riot gear standing guard were enough to startle me, there was no evidence of anything worse than beer-drinking teenagers.

One more thing: Brazilian men are not particularly known for their shyness around women, and given the male-dominated crowds at most matches, women (and, for that matter, parents and their children) may feel more comfortable in a calmer area, away from the grandstand. And you may be glad that your children don’t understand Portuguese: chants directed at referees and opposing players can get vulgar and often homophobic.

Where to go

The obvious places to see games are Rio and Sao Paulo, for two reasons: first, they have multiple major teams — Flamengo, Fluminense, Vasco and Botafogo in Rio; Corinthians, Sao Paulo FC and Palmeiras in Sao Paulo, with several other less popular professional teams. In other words, there will always be a game.

You also won’t run out of soccer-related things to do between games. In Rio, there’s the small museum at Maracana, Brazil’s most famous soccer stadium. (The museum remains open during pre-Cup stadium renovations.) Elsewhere, the city’s beaches host informal games, known as peladas. One of the more regular and impressive ones is the Pelada de Siqueira Campos, on Copacabana beach just off the street of the same name, on Sundays at 10:30 a.m. It’s serious business, and looks utterly exhausting. And on both Copacabana and Ipanema beaches, you’ll find lots of impressive futevolei, a version of volleyball played soccer style, with no hand or arm contact.

Probably the best place to supplement your soccer fix, though, is the Museum of Football, located within Pacaembu Stadium in Sao Paulo. The museum — where most exhibits, though not all, are translated into English and Spanish — provides historical perspective but, more important, goes pretty far in replicating the excitement in the stadiums. A samba beat follows you part of the way through the exhibits, and a raucous audio-visual display (dramatically located under the Pacaembu bleachers) is dedicated to the organized fan groups. “Everything in life changes, except for the team you choose to cheer for,” a quote reads. Particularly appealing are the videos in which Brazilian soccer writers recall the most memorable goals of their lives.

Sao Paulo also has something not common elsewhere: bars dedicated to soccer. Bar Sao Cristovao, in the middle of the bustling Vila Madalena night-life district, is a must visit. The bar, with walls plastered with memorabilia, is a popular spot on game days, and its draft beers and snacks make for great game-time refreshment. It also sells historic jerseys of the major Brazilian clubs for 140 reais.

What to watch

The Flamengo/Fluminense — or Fla/Flu — game I attended was what is called a classico, a showdown between two historically great teams. Not surprisingly, emotions run higher than usual during such games, especially, as was the case there, when both teams are local. The circus outside Engenhao on the day we went was intense — beer was plentiful, crowds were thick and rowdy. It’s kind of like Carnival with far fewer women. That’s not for everyone, but those up to the challenge will enjoy the spectacle.

“A foreigner should try to see a classico,” said Alexandre Nobeschi, the sports editor for Folha de S.Paulo, the country’s largest-circulation newspaper. “It’s there that you can see the true impact soccer has on the life of Brazilians.”