JOHANNESBURG – Banging on tambourines, waving flags and sporting every green-and-gold ensemble imaginable – including a big, fuzzy canary suit – the Brazilians arrived at the World Cup for the party, and the rest of the globe is eagerly tagging along.
Brazil is the envy at this, and every, World Cup. With a lineup of megastars so deep the reserves would start in most countries, a record five titles and fans who turn every game into a rollicking mini-carnival, it’s the team fans everywhere love to watch and opponents wish they could be.
“The people of Brazil have smiling faces and it translates easily: happiness, samba. And good football,” said Gustavo Fernandes, who traveled to South Africa from Porto Alegre, Brazil, for his second World Cup. “I’m so happy for this. Everybody supports Brazilians.”
It’s easy to see why. The English may have invented soccer, but Brazil has given the game its soul.
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Any list of best players in history reads like a Who’s Who of Brazilian soccer. Pelé. Garrincha. Romario. Ronaldo. Brazil has made the final at three of the past four World Cups, winning twice, and is a favorite to play for that golden trophy again July 11.
It’s not simply the wins that make the Selecao so endearing, but the way the Brazilians get those victories. Though coach Dunga –he of Brazil’s 1994 World Cup champs – has gotten away from the traditional, elegant and free-flowing style that was as much art as athletics, the Brazilians still play a very beautiful game.
There is a fluidity, a deft touch, and teamwork that coaches in any sport can admire. There’s also an undeniable swagger – a sweet one. It’s not arrogance, but rather a confidence that comes with knowing they are the best at what they do.
Just look at Monday’s 3-0 rout of neighboring Chile.
Chile is no slouch, finishing a mere point behind Brazil in World Cup qualifying. But Brazil made Chile look downright silly as it ripped off two goals in a four-minute span, racing past defenders, turning breakaways into speed bumps and irritating Chile coach Marcelo Bielsa so greatly he stomped around the coach’s box like a 2 year old.
“I wish the result would have been closer,” said Bielsa, “but the bottom line is the supremacy of Brazil is something we couldn’t overcome.”
They’re hardly the first.
“They’re kind of like the Harlem Globetrotters,” said Tom Trebat, executive director at the Center for Brazilian Studies at Columbia University in New York. “They go everywhere, they have a lot of fun and they always win. And then they treat the opposing teams like the Washington Generals.”
And yet nobody resents them for it.
From the New York Yankees to the Los Angeles Lakers to Manchester United, dominant teams tend to have as many fans who love to hate them as fans who just plain love them. Not Brazil.
From Bangor, Maine, to Bangladesh to Bangalore, India, the Brazilians are universally adored for their friendly, fun-loving good nature.
After Brazil’s opening match against North Korea, a spontaneous gathering on Copacabana beach in Rio featured a small group of samba instrumentalists playing old classics and Brazilian women displaying their dancing skills. But instead of it being a Brazilians-only celebration, foreigners were plucked from the crowd and encouraged to join in the dancing and singing. Even the most futile attempts at samba steps were robustly applauded by the locals.
“Everyone sees the joy we bring to the game, whether it is how we play or how we celebrate it,” taxi driver Andre Brito said. “It’s a carnival of football, bringing together in one place beautiful play, beautiful parties, and, let’s be honest, beautiful women. Who in the world would not love that?”
At least three-quarters of Ellis Park Stadium was bathed in green and gold Monday night, and you know all those fans didn’t come from Brazil. A samba band couldn’t go more than a few feet before the game without someone stopping one of the musicians and asking for a picture.
“Everywhere we go, everyone opens up a big smile. ‘Oh, you’re from Brazil!’” said Leticia Andrade of Belo Horizonte, Brazil. “We feel special. Every time you go abroad, you realize that.”
Much of that love can be traced to Brazil’s history as a moderate in the geopolitical world, Trebat said. Brazil might struggle with violence and crime within its own borders, but you won’t find it starting trouble with anyone else. To the contrary, it’s often Brazil trying to make the other countries in its region play nice, or lending a hand to those less fortunate.
When the magnitude-7 earthquake struck Haiti in January, Brazil was the first and – until earlier this month – the only nation to pay money into a reconstruction trust fund. When Haiti’s capital was tearing itself apart in gang wars after the ouster of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, it was a Brazil-led peacekeeping force that helped knit it back together.
“When you think about Brazil, you think sun, carnival, pretty girls and a good soccer team,” Trebat said. “The serious point about Brazil is there is something in its international culture that is reflected in football. They’re not a military power, and they don’t pretend to be. Yet they have a global image of being a nation that believes in peaceful resolution of conflict.
“The Brazilians have always sought their place on a global stage. But until very recently, at least, that has eluded them. Soccer has filled in the gap there.”
And the World Cup is all the better for it. Imagine how dull the tournament would be without Brazil and its fans.
“It’s a party, it’s Brazil,” said Daniel Oliveira, the human canary. “I like this worldwide connection the World Cup has made.”