Soccer in Their Souls

Soccer in Their Souls

When Brazil did score, we were ambushed by deafening hooting
and hollering, pounding on
tables, firecrackers going off outside,
honking horns and cheering. It was an event.

Elizabeth Willoughby

Though I’d heard most of my life from non-Canadians that we Northerners must be born wearing ice skates, I never
paid much attention to this legacy. Not until I moved to São Paulo, Brazil in 1997, and quickly came to the conclusion that
Brazilians must be born wearing soccer shoes. Fascinating. They play everywhere: on the beach, on the street, on any patch of
grass, including those at the cloverleaf entrances and exits to highways. Rich or poor, male or female, player or spectator, they
are out there.

With the 2002 World Cup approaching, the powerful memories I have of the ’98 games begin to resurface, including
Brazil’s painful final match loss to France.

Reluctantly I admit that, prior to residing in Brazil, I never had much of an interest in soccer. But the emotion and
excitement built up in this country regarding soccer does not allow one to be a passive by-stander. At work, I was unable to escape
the "buzz" about the World Cup. A selection of office personnel remained hardwired, incognito, from ear to portable radio
or miniature television hidden in desk drawers, providing the rest of us with constant updates of scores and achievements
of the day’s games.

My first surprise came with the announcement that most companies, including the one where I worked, were to shut
down at 11 a.m. so that everyone had time to drive home and watch the game on television. This led me to believe that it must
be one of the final matches. Rather than fighting the overcrowded streets, hubby and I decided to go to a nearby
churrascaria (Brazilian-style barbecue restaurant) and bide our time over lunch.

As I dithered by the roadside waiting for my ride, I studied the
favela (shantytown) across the street from the
company’s parking lot. There were shacks built upon shacks all the way down the slope; one-room shelters of brick and block with
corrugated tin roofs and an occasional front or side window. Colorful laundry was strung throughout, adding a bit of life to the slum
and detracting from the shallow stench of sewage and refuse.

One vision, however, caught my eye. Sitting on wooden boxes just outside the front door facing their home were two
youths. They were watching the previews to the game on a large color television, anchored on its own stand against the front wall.

My ride arrived. We could feel the tension already building. It was in the air, growing as the game drew closer.
Sketches were colorfully chalked on decaying roadways and banners were strung across streets. The cement walls separating
private properties from the public, normally reserved for graffiti and political slurs, now promoted individual players and the
Brazilian team in general. Progress to the restaurant was very slow. Street vendors traipsed happily amongst the vehicles,
offering their soccer paraphernalia, Brazilian flags, or just a cold beverage to help calm the motorists overheating in the rising,
intoxicating atmosphere.

When we finally arrived at the restaurant, we soon realized that we had not made good our get-away. There was, in
fact, no escape. The excitement of outdoors was not limited to outside. It penetrated the walls of every house, every office
and every other establishment. This particular establishment consisted of one very large room with rows and rows of
tables surrounding a large, central fruit and vegetable buffet. Various cuts of roasted meat were continually brought to each
table and sliced off long skewers onto plates by boys dressed up as
gaúchos (cowboys).

But today there was an added attraction: televisions. There was nearly one per table, all tuned in to the game. I am
not much of one for watching television while I eat, but watching the Brazilians watch the game was very entertaining. So
engrossed were they on the screen, so tightly wound, like an overfilled balloon bouncing dangerously close to a pin. And
when Brazil did score, we were ambushed by deafening hooting and hollering, pounding on tables, firecrackers going off
outside, honking horns and cheering. It was an event.

My second surprise came the next day when I found out that this was only Brazil’s first game in the series. The
following weeks were filled with talk of soccer: rehashing the previous game plays, Ronaldo their star player, an upcoming game,
the impending Brazilian victory (yet again), party preparations, statistics, predictions and so on.

The semifinal against Holland

We decided, once again, to watch the festivities in a
restaurant—this time in a pizzeria, closer to home. The audience
was high-strung, to say the least. A player on the screen had only to run towards the ball to send the crowded room into a
hysterical frenzy. At the end of the game and after two periods of over-time, the score was still tied 1-1. A penalty shoot-out would
decide the game.

It was a surreal experience. There I sat in a dreamy trance, watching the watchers in their delirious fervor as Brazil
won the shoot-out 4-2. The live band played, the crowd danced and sang and congratulated one another, hugging and
kissing strangers and friends, the firecrackers outside again, chaos, screaming and yelling, cheering and crying, people pouring
into the streets blocking traffic. I wondered, in my ignorance, "Was this the final or the semi-final?"

Less than a week later, the mood was very different. The unexpected loss of the final to France hit hard and deep.
There were no firecrackers or cheering, no horns honking and no congratulating. This time is was the silence that was
deafening. Tears were bravely held back, disguised by forced smiles. Voices strangled as lumps in throats swelled. A front-page
photo of a fan said it all; the crackling green and yellow paint on his face could not hide the caustic anguish of Brazil’s defeat.

No more noise, no excitement, no discussions. It was back to business in silent torment. A few days later the coach
was fired and nothing more was mentioned about soccer.

But this year…

Elizabeth Willoughby is a Canadian freelance writer currently living in São Paulo, Brazil. Her columns, "Letters
Home" and "Going Places" appear regularly in São Paulo media. She can be reached at

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