It is impossible to overstate the cultural importance of football in Brazil. No matter what words you choose, they fall short; the country lives and breathes football every single day of the year, and during World Cup matches involving the beloved A Seleção (the Brazilian name for the national team), the country grinds to a halt. Banks? Closed. Offices? Closed. Streets? Deserted. Supreme Court proceedings? Postponed. Bars, restaurants, private homes and town squares? Packed.
A gaggle of ducklings could linger on Brazil's most important avenue, Av Paulista, and never worry about being run over. If you took an afternoon nap and didn’t realise Brazil was playing in a World Cup match that evening, you might wake up and assume you'd slept through a zombie apocalypse (we're not even sure that hospitals function - and aren't interested in finding out, either).
Realising a Brazilian dreamFootball fans cheer on A Seleção in Brazil. Image by Rainer Martini / LOOK / Getty Images.
"Football has a fundamental importance in the construction of modern Brazil," explains ESPN football commentator Paulo Calçade. "Here, the game, the music and the dance come together seamlessly to produce a unique style. Off the field, football permeates almost all interpersonal relationships. Its expressions are part of our vocabulary, our music and our happiness."
While a World Cup on home soil is a Brazilian dream unrealised since 1950, when the national team lost in heartbreaking fashion to Uruguay (something no Brazilian alive in 1950 has forgotten), the World Cup's return to Brazil has not gone off without a hitch. Protests over the high cost of the tournament (nearly $11 billion at last count), stadium delays and infrastructure woes have plagued the preparations. Brazilian feelings are divided.
"What is the purpose of a World Cup?" asks Calçade. "To win it! Even in our darkest moments, Brazil enters to compete for the title. The problem with this World Cup, however, is that the cost is too high for a country with other more important needs such as health, education, sanitation and poverty reduction. Unfortunately, FIFA doesn't care about that – they are facing their most profitable World Cup ever. If Brazil wins, this model will be validated until the end of time. If we lose, the leaders of Brazilian football will be widely questioned. We have an opportunity for new ideas and more transparency. A light at the end of the tunnel."
That said, there is a comic strip going around the internet in Brazil. A Brazilian mother asks her husband in February the whereabouts of their son. "He skipped class to go protest at the World Cup," says the father. She asks the same question in July. "He skipped class to go watch Brazil play in the World Cup."
What to expect at a Brazilian football game
Brazilian football games are loud, brash affairs. Stop by the torcedores exhibit at the Museu do Futebol in São Paulo to get a sense of the deafening sound from the stands (think Boeing 777-200 at takeoff). The referees and assistants receive the bulk of the near-constant abuse, but the players aren’t immune. Ask a Brazilian to translate some of the more...colourful expressions. The most popular chant is "Sou Brasileiro" with its chorus of "Eu sou brasileiro com muito orgulho, com muito amor ..." ("I'm Brazilian with lots of pride, lots of love…"). At league matches, fans substitute "Brazilian" with their team of choice.
Often, especially in Rio de Janeiro, assigned seats carry no weight - the system works works on a first-come, first-served, who's-bigger-and-meaner basis. Thankfully, at the 2013 Confederations Cup, ushers and security ensured reserved seating was respected and there was a palpable sense of law and order at the games. Expect the same at the 2014 FIFA World Cup.
Violence inside Brazilian football stadiums isn't exactly rampant, but it's not uncommon either. All-out riots, such as the one in a 2013 match between supporters of Atlético-PR and Vasco, are pretty rare. Under normal circumstances, alcohol sales are banned inside stadiums to lessen the likelihood of fights (but Brazil's Congress passed a special temporary law to appease FIFA and allow alcohol sales during World Cup matches) and fences in the stands usually separate opposing fans. Outside the stadiums, things can get nastier, with supporters often attacking opposing team buses and an alcohol-fuelled hooligan mentality evident in isolated skirmishes between fans. Riot police on horseback are a common sight at bigger matches between heated rivals. Generally speaking, though, games are a jovial – if intense – affair where the worst-case scenario is your team getting a thumping!
Staying safe at league matchesRio de Janeiro's iconic Estadio do Maracanã. Image by Jeff Greenberg / Photolibrary / Getty Images.
If you want to avoid trouble at league matches, wear neutral colours or the colours of the home team so as to not attract any unwanted attention (this shouldn't be a problem at World Cup matches). For example, wearing green at a Corinthians match, red at a Grêmio match or blue at an Atlético Mineiro match is asking for trouble (regardless of whom they are playing). You'll want to avoid getting anywhere near the fences that separate opposing supporters – these are where the most agitated fans gather and things can turn ugly in a flash. Feel free to scream, yell, chant and shout your newly learned obscenities when appropriate, but avoid getting into any verbal altercations with locals – they are not likely to respond in kind (your gringo pass has its limits!).
If you want to drink, bring your own and do a little pre-game tailgating; or buy ice-cold cans from entrepreneurially spirited beer venders selling cheap suds from ragged Styrofoam coolers outside matches (there are no open-container laws in Brazil so you are free to drink in public). Inside World Cup matches, Anheuser-Busch beer will be sold (though queues at the Confederations Cup were extraordinarily slow-moving, despite not being extraordinarily long).
Uh, one more thing…
"Don’t be too friendly with any girls inside stadiums," says Santos fan Dov Zylberman. "Girls at games are always with somebody – and usually somebody who's willing to get into a fight."
The most important places of football pilgrimage in Brazil
Coming to Brazil for the World Cup? ESPN football commentator Paulo Calçade gave us a rundown of the five must-visit sights in Brazil for serious footie fans:
- Estádio do Maracanã, Rio de Janeiro - "Newly renovated, it's a landmark of Brazilian football. It's impossible to go to Rio and not visit it. Our best players have passed through here."
- Estádio Urbano Caldeira (Vila Belmiro), Santos - "Vira Belmiro stadium in Santos is old, but it's still the home of Pele's Santos."
- Museu do Futebol, São Paulo - "Located at Pacaembu stadium in São Paulo. A spectacular, very modern museum that gives fans an unforgettable experience, plus it's inside a stadium that hosted the 1950 World Cup. And it's still where Corinthians plays its matches, besides being a very charming place."
- A local pitch - "It's worth paying a visit to one of the country's local pitches. There are thousands in Brazil, especially in São Paulo. Today, due to rampant real estate growth, they have been pushed farther out in the periphery of cities, but it is in these places where you will understand what football means in Brazil."
- O Peladão de Manaus - "There is a unique local tournament in the Amazon called O Peladão. It draws tons of people to the stadiums. Each team elects a queen. If the team is eliminated but their queen is beautiful, the team can come back for one more try! Brazilian football craziness!"
São Paulo-based Kevin Raub is the co-author of Lonely Planet's Brazil travel guide and he loves anywhere that ends in -land. Follow him @RaubontheRoad.