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SPORTING LIFE

Even mighty Brazil are testing the loyalty of their fans

Yesterday morning I inadvertently turned my back on Zico and Socrates. I never met them and hardly saw them and yet they were my friends. Yours too, perhaps. In 1982, a year after Muhammad Ali retired, they were the emissaries who introduced us, "live" on television, to Brazilian football and reassured us that all that we'd heard about Pele and Garrincha wasn't a myth. This was truly the land of laced-up Picassos.

Fandom was different then, for we mostly had no visual proof of greatness - perhaps jerky clips of Jesse Owens running - but only the threads of stories. Ali, for instance, was a legend built through an oral history, his grand deeds playing not on television but in our imaginations.

In a time of limited choice and channels, every match watched was a privilege and every contest left an impression. We were like thirsty readers with only a few books, from which we slowly sipped every word. The less we watched the more fascinated we were and the thrill lay not only in the match but in the anticipation. How we waited to watch Brazil every four years and yet now I can watch Neymar four times a month.

Perhaps we are just spoilt now and perhaps that is why I forgot to watch Zico's descendants yesterday morning. Oh, I was up early, at 6.45am, but only to see if Lydia Ko could win a third straight Major. Women's golf beat Brazilian football. It's a first.

I wasn't alone either, for I texted friends and asked colleagues and none had watched. Not even the pal who can barely resist Chinese chequers on TV at 4am. At least when I asked, "Did you watch Brazil", he didn't say, "Which sport?" To say Brazil at least still means football.

Yet however far Brazil fall - now No. 7 in the world - we should still watch, for what gives sport its real richness is faith. After all, to stay with a team through adversity is to truly enjoy its eventual resurrection.

Maybe some didn't watch because Neymar isn't around - we prefer flings with stars to old love affairs with nations - and it's the Copa America, not the Big Copa That Matters, and anyway club outranks country these days. But those sound like cheap excuses because there was a time when a bunch of Rio cab drivers could have donned BRAZIL yellow shirts and we'd have given up our marriages just to watch.

Maybe loyalty is a more flexible idea now and we're just quicker to exercise our choices and can dismiss Brazil's fumbling with a flick of a disinterested finger. Maybe people cannot bear this aura-less Brazil who exit in the Copa's group stage and forget brilliant, or beautiful, they are simply not what they always had to be: Fun and original.

All heroes fall and so do teams, for greatness is only ever rented. India won seven hockey golds in eight Olympics between 1928 and 1964 and only one thereafter. The New York Yankees won 10 World Series titles between 1947 and 1962 and waited 12 years for the next.

Only the All Blacks seem immune to Newton's fourth law of motion which states a talented team which goes too fast must eventually slow down. Why more experts from other nations don't invade that island to detect their secrets is a mystery.

Yet however far Brazil fall - now No. 7 in the world - we should still watch, for what gives sport its real richness is faith. Watching and hoping. Viewing and flinching. After all, to stay with a team through adversity is to truly enjoy its eventual resurrection.

Only one friend, a sportswriter in India, decided to watch and for the simplest reason. Inquisitiveness. "I wanted to see if they had recovered or were better." Zico would have applauded her fidelity except that eventually even she didn't watch the game. "I got my timing wrong," she sighed. When it comes to Brazil these days, it seems everyone messes up and misses.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 14, 2016, with the headline 'Even mighty Brazil are testing the loyalty of their fans'. Print Edition | Subscribe