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:
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.