The biggest, loudest, longest, wildest party in the world kicks off Thursday in Brazil, as 32 teams descend on the soccer-crazed nation for the 2014 World Cup.
Nobody is under more pressure to win than the host Brazilians, five-time champions whose green and yellow flag is synonymous with soccer, whose team brings the entire country to a halt when it plays, and whose multiracial players, with their samba-inspired moves and unbridled joy for O Jogo Bonito (The Beautiful Game) are worshiped across the globe.
Most neutral fans following the World Cup will be pulling for Brazil. It’s hard to root against a collection of players so imaginative with the ball and so exuberant about their sport. Even diehard fans of other teams often adopt Brazil as their second team.
And to think this national obsession began with a man named Charles Miller, son of a Scottish father and Anglo-Brazilian mother, who was born in Brazil, educated in England and returned in 1894 with two leather soccer balls and a rulebook.
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Rowing and horse racing were the most popular Brazilian sports at the time, but Miller was determined to convert locals to soccer. It wasn’t an easy sell.
According to the book Futebol Nation: The Story of Brazil Through Soccer, a newspaper account of an early match read: “In Bom Retiro, a group of Englishmen, a bunch of maniacs as they all are, get together from time to time to kick around something that looks like a bull’s bladder. It gives them great satisfaction or fills them with sorrow when this kind of yellowish bladder enters a rectangle formed by wooden posts.”
Miller founded the Sao Paulo Athletic Club and was able to round up some players for a few teams. Over time, the sport exploded. The English invented soccer, but the Brazilians made it an art form. There are now 6,000 Brazilian professional soccer players wowing fans on every continent.
Brazil is the world’s fifth-largest country and soccer is one area in which Brazil has no equal. Not even close.
Brazil is the only country to have participated in every World Cup. It has won an unparalleled five times and lost in two other finals. And the Brazilian team is a favorite to win again this summer, with its latest one-name wonder, Neymar, leading the way.
Brazilian anthropologist Robert DaMatta wrote: “In futebol there is art, dignity, genius, bad luck, gods and demons, freedom and fate, flags, hymns and tears, and above all the discovery that although Brazil is bad at a lot of things, it is good with the ball. It is a football champion, which is very important. After all, it is better to be a champion in samba, carnival and football than in war or the sale of rockets.”
Brazil is a place where fans engrave their coffins with team logos, where soccer stars are known by just one name — Pelé, Garrincha, Zico, Ronaldo, Neymar — and where children of every race and socioeconomic background grow up dribbling not only soccer balls but any round objects they can find, from oranges to rolled-up socks to wads of masking tape.
“Every kid in Brazil gets as his first gift a soccer ball, and spends every single day on the streets, on the beach, or in the park playing 4-a-side or 5-a-side with his friends,” said Paulo Nagamura, a Brazilian midfielder who plays for Sporting Kansas City of Major League Soccer. “You put two stones down or a pair of shoes to mark the goals. There isn’t much space, so Brazilian kids learn to be creative with the ball. The only way to beat your opponent is with fancy moves we call The Ginga (The Dance).
“We move with the soccer ball the way we dance, using our hips. Samba and other Brazilian music have a huge influence on how we play. Coaches don’t teach Brazilian kids how to play soccer. We learn on the streets, the way American kids play street basketball. They try to copy the moves of LeBron James and Dwyane Wade, and I tried to be like Romário and Ronaldo.”
Dr. Caleb Everett, a University of Miami anthropology professor who has spent 16 years researching in the Amazon, has seen soccer played in its most remote spots.
“I recall being in a town of 200 residents deep in the Amazon, a place you won’t find on Google maps, and seeing a group of men playing in a torrential downpour with the one ball they had in that town, while kids played nearby using a bunch of plastic bags wrapped up with string,” Everett said by phone from Brazil. “Even with that level of ball, they had decent skills. Those kids are so isolated, and have so little in common with the rest of the Brazilian population, but soccer is the common thread that pervades throughout their culture.”
Although Brazilian soccer is celebrated globally and viewed as a striking success story, Everett, a huge soccer fan, says it can also be considered a failure of the country.
“Soccer is viewed as the only escape from poverty for so many kids in Brazil, and the success stories we hear, the Neymars, are lottery stories,” Everett said. “There are so many talented kids who seem to have pro talent, but the numbers are against them. It is analogous to NBA players in the U.S. Instead of focusing on school, and a more realistic way to escape, you have a systemic problem where poor kids turn to soccer and never make it.”
The game is now enjoyed by the masses in the country of 200 million people. But it wasn’t always that way.
Most of the early clubs had European influences. A German immigrant named Hans Nobiling founded Sporting Club in São Paulo in 1897. That same year, Oscar Cox, a wealthy Anglo-Swiss-Brazilian who had fallen in love with soccer in Switzerland, started a club in Rio. The club was called Fluminense, and it quickly became a gathering place for the white well-to-do crowd.
High-society women showed up for matches decked out in the latest fashions.
The Botafogo Rowing Club added a soccer team soon thereafter, as did the Flamengo Rowing Club. As the sport’s popularity rose and nice stadiums were built, crowds grew. But soccer started becoming truly Brazilian with the migration of poor blacks from the northeast to the bigger cities and the large influx of immigrants that reached its peak in the early 1920s.
The booming coffee industry was in need of labor, and workers poured in from Italy, Portugal, Spain, Germany, Japan, England, West Africa, Lebanon and Syria. Members of this working class watched the elite play soccer from afar and began to practice the game on whatever open spaces they could find. It’s a cheap sport: All you need is a ball and two makeshift goals.
Eventually, factories started fielding their own teams with black and mixed-race players. Before long, nonwhite players started joining big clubs and getting wooed by foreign clubs. In 1932, two top Brazilian black players, Leônidas da Silva and Domingos da Guia, were signed by Uruguayan clubs Peñarol and Nacional.
Brazil and Uruguay became bitter rivals over the years, and the rivalry came to a head in the 1950 World Cup. Brazil was host, and like today, there was much debate about whether to spend money on stadiums rather than using it for roads, education and public services. Soccer won out, and Brazil built Maracanà, the world’s biggest (160,000 capacity), most elegant stadium.
Brazil was heavily favored to win the 1950 World Cup, and Maracanà was packed for the final against Uruguay. Brazil led by one goal at halftime but wound up losing 2-1.
Pelé, then a 10-year-old in his hometown of Minas Gerais, vividly remembers that day. He had gone outside to kick the ball around with neighbors while his father and friends listened to the final on the radio.
“All of a sudden I heard silence, so we ran inside to see what happened, and my father said, ‘We lost the World Cup.’ It was the first time I saw my father cry,” Pelé recalled during a visit to Miami last month.
“Everywhere has its irremediable national catastrophe, something like a Hiroshima,” wrote Brazil’s celebrated playwright, Nelson Rodrigues. “Our catastrophe, our Hiroshima, was the defeat to Uruguay in 1950.”
It took Brazilians a long time to get past that loss. DaMatta called it “perhaps the greatest tragedy in contemporary Brazilian history because it happened collectively and brought a united vision of the loss of a historic opportunity.”
Eight years later, 17-year-old Pelé scored his first World Cup goal and Brazil won the 1958 Cup. A legend was born. Brazil won again in 1962. In 1970, Pelé won another Cup with what is considered the best team ever assembled. There was a long drought after that, but Brazil lifted the trophy again in 1994 and 2002.
Although it has been 64 years since the 1950 loss, the current Brazilian team is constantly reminded of it, and feels obligated to make up for it.
“It they don’t win, it will be considered a failure,” Nagamura said.
ESPN commentator Ian Darke says the world is about to witness a World Cup like never before. “The place will just simply come to a standstill with every game. It’s going to be the wildest night imaginable, even when they win their first game against Croatia, if they win it, of course. It’s just going to be the most enormous happening. I can only imagine what it would be like if Brazil were playing in the final against Argentina. Bigger than big, that’s football in Brazil.”