Jay Talking

Ball of a time in Brazil

The true spirit of football can make strangers chant in unison and hug one another

Maybe it made sense in the heat of the moment but thinking back about it now, I'm beginning to question the series of snap decisions that ended up with me publicly embracing a waiter whose entire relationship with me up to that point can be summed up with the words "Uma cerveja, por favor" (One beer please in Portuguese).

But then, when searching for the true spirit of football, I guess you have to expect the unexpected.

To be clear, I was not searching for the true spirit of football for myself.

I, as a long-time Manchester United fan who has never so much as set foot in England, am already well marinated in football spirit. I was searching for true football spirit for the benefit of my travelling companions who happen to be women.

Now, I'm not saying that all women do not understand the true spirit of football. I am merely suggesting that there were members of my travelling group (my wife, for example) who fell into one of two groups statistically least likely to understand what football is all about - women and Americans.

I am referring to the people who - if they make a comment about the game while they are watching it with you - make you want to ask them to shut the #$%* up. (Or if they happen to be your wife, make you pretend you didn't hear anything.)

It was with this goal in mind that I set out last week for Brazil. I mean, surely one cannot go to the spiritual home of the beautiful game during a World Cup and not have the football spirit bite into your shoulder. My thinking was, within moments of stepping off the plane, we would be subject to very strong footballing forces and the education would be done.

As it turned out, the process was a touch more difficult.

There were several reasons for this that I foolishly failed to account for.

First was the fact that the atmosphere in Rio de Janeiro was thick with more than just the air of football.

Within the first day, we were quickly subjected to forces that can be, in some cases, even stronger than the footballing spirit, namely the urge to buy Havaianas flip-flops, the fear of pickpockets and the appetite for beef.

Before we knew what hit us, we found ourselves sipping caipirinhas while slumped in a chair in a semi-conscious food coma, half-heartedly waving away a waiter offering you another cut of steak. The whole time, the passing locals whisper and point at the gigantic bag of flip-flops you have secured to the table with a bicycle lock so that thieves don't make off with the bundle and open their own Havaianas shop. (I am exaggerating only slightly here.)

At times like these, the football spirit is not at the forefront of the mind. What was at the forefront of the mind was the worry that when the six of us left the rental apartment in the morning, there was no more toilet paper.

Another problem getting in the way of our football spirit was the discovery that ordinary Brazilians seem somewhat conflicted about the whole World Cup thing.

Sure, Brazilians are football-mad, hospitable people, so the idea of hosting the World Cup surely sounds like a dream come true. Yet, they are also intensely unhappy about how the whole thing has been done. For instance, while most host nations can get by with eight stadiums, Brazil built or renovated 12 - apparently so more local politicians could enjoy the fruits of having a billion-dollar contract land in their city.

So what you get is a strange, sometimes confused blend of anger at Fifa, extremely high security and football fever. (To be clear, all this was before the humiliating semi-final defeat, when there was still some possibility that the tournament might bring some joy. Now I'm sure there is no conflict, just pure unadulterated despair.)

On more than one occasion, I ran into a large protest along Copacabana beach in the hours before a World Cup game featuring Brazil that completely dispersed by the time the national team took the field. This is a country where protesters chant angrily and protest the World Cup just hours before heading to a bar to settle in and watch it.

And I know it has become almost cliche to say that a country comes to a halt during a football match, but this is completely true in Brazil - even if there is some dissatisfaction with the organisers of the World Cup.

The infamously bad traffic disappears, nearly every shop that doesn't have a TV closes and the entire population seems to congregate around televisions.

The roads are quiet enough to lie down on, but by no means should you do this. What few drivers that remain on the road are either in an extreme hurry to get home or are not watching the road. Apparently there is no law in Brazil about installing a small TV set in full view of the driver.

The shops that do remain open are manned by extremely distracted shopkeepers who will sell you a beer, but do so without ever taking their eyes of the TV.

In restaurants, the entire kitchen staff will from time to time empty out of the backroom to watch highlights. (Apparently, kitchens unlike cars, are deemed unsuitable places for televisions.)

Anyway, just as I was about to give up the hunt for the true football spirit, I found it at one of these restaurants with distracted staff.

Brazil were playing Chile when the game went to penalties. At that point, the simmering emotional tension among the patrons seemed to boil over. No one could sit in the chairs; all needed to stand and chant. At this point, my heretofore only mildly affected travelling companions began to really get into it. One confessed to shortness of breath.

When Chile missed the last penalty, the whole place erupted in a moment of spontaneous, unbridled joy. For a moment, all of life's problems seemed to disappear - never mind that we were not even Brazil fans. For one fleeting moment, the true spirit of football broke through everything and nothing mattered but yelling, running up and down and hugging strangers.

That the Brazilian dream is now in tatters is a sad, almost cruel fate for a people who have given so much of themselves to this competition. But heartbreak, too, is part of what it means to care about football.

jeremyau@sph.com.sg

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