On Sunday I went to see Palmeiras take on São Caetano in what was my first live game of ‘futebol’ since arriving back in Brazil. Although I have watched football in Brazil and around South America before it still strikes me how different the experience of watching football is here compared to back in the UK. This is particularly true when you consider that the last game I caught in the UK took place on a very cold and wet night just before New Years Eve – and it involved Dagenham & Redbridge and Gillingham1.
“Why would you do that?” I hear you ask.
Well, Gillingham are the team I support (my father is to blame entirely), and it was my final opportunity to see them play before I left for Brazil. Fortunately, a friend took pity and accompanied me as my wife had point-blank refused to go2. Inevitably, as I have come to experience over many long and painful years, the Gills threw away an early lead and succumbed meekly to a 2-1 defeat against one of the division’s weaker sides.
On Sunday Palmeiras were seemingly just as big a disappointment to their fans. This was because Palmeiras (2nd in the São Paulo State championship) were overwhelming favourites against São Caetano (mid-table3), and as it was a ‘home’4 game the Palmeiras fans seemed somewhat expectant of a routine victory. Unfortunately for them it ended 0-0 despite their new striker Barcos (Argentinian, cool name, looks like a pirate) missing the best of many chances they had to win the game.
So, another game, another continent and another disappointing scoreline. But what differs about the experience itself?
Well, let’s start with some obvious ones, the most obvious of course being the weather. In December Gillingham played in miserable conditions with the wind so strong the rain fell sideways. This meant the obligatory pre-match pints were accompanied by a cup of tea and dodgy cheeseburger at half-time. On Sunday however it was over 30 degrees and whilst the pre-match beverage also consisted of a beer the snack of choice at half-time was an ice-cream – though some equally as dodgy looking hotdogs were available for those willing to risk the consequences for their bowels.
Second, the stadium. The catchily named London Borough of Barking and Dagenham Stadium is pretty unrepresentative of most grounds in the UK now. For example I stood on a terrace in the home end at Dagenham (more on that later), but for those who watch games in the UK regularly standing on a terrace is becoming a much rarer occurrence – even in the lower leagues.
On Sunday the game was at the Pacaembu, one of the two main stadiums in São Paulo. It is still a pretty tidy stadium, despite having been built in the 40s, though it will not be one of the venues for the World Cup in 2014 as Brazil is currently in the process of building most of them from scratch. We were in the cheap ‘seats’ (otherwise known as an open stand of concrete steps) and this means you can choose either to stand or sit. Personally I have no problem with this and would happily stand at games as opposed to sit. At least I was in the sun – unlike Dagenham.
In terms of the crowd one interesting thing of note was that whilst still predominantly male, there were definitely more women and children in attendance than most games I have been to in the UK. They were also it must be noted equally as vociferous when it came to singing naughty songs about the referee liking his mother in an inappropriate way – including, I suspect, my wife and sister-in-law.
However, what was most interesting to me was observing the crowd itself. I probably don’t need to tell you that South American fans are famous for their fanaticism (in both good and bad ways) and this photo from Sunday should give you a good impression of what the pre-match atmosphere felt and looked like. It is certainly a little different to that at Gillingham.
There is no doubt that the flags as well the rhythmic chanting and beats of the bands are very impressive displays of support, and certainly more overtly expressive than in the UK. But that’s par for the course given that Brazilians are themselves are more naturally expressive than your average Brit.
However, that’s not to say passion doesn’t exist in the UK. Far from it, it is just expressed in different, often more subtle ways. For example, something I think is missing is the the spontaneity of the way crowds in the UK chant and react to the game, and also the ‘witty banter’ that is exchanged between two sets of supporters. I know it’s something my wife and her sister have enjoyed when I have taken them to games in the UK – as well as the self-deprecating humour (“We’re shit and we know we are”, etc).
In Brazil and South America this spontaneity doesn’t seem to be part of the ‘spectator experience’. I haven’t noticed it yet but to be fair it may also be because my grasp of Portuguese is still quite limited. Alternatively though I would suggest that one reason for this is because the fans focus solely on their team (or the referee) through keeping up the tempo and volume of the beats and chanting. For example, I once watched a game in Argentina where I stood behind the main group of supporters. Their apparent leader spent the whole game stood in front of them on a hoarding orchestrating them and he barely, if at all, watched any of the game. He even missed their equaliser.
Another reason is that away followings are generally smaller in Brazil. Partly this is to do with the size of the country and the lengths teams have to travel for games, especially during the national championship. Unless both teams are local and there is a ‘Classico’ it is unlikely you will see a significant away turnout.
But there is possibly another explanation, perhaps the crux of my point, and that it that there just seems to be relatively little support for smaller teams compared to the UK. For example, São Caetano’s ground is only 17km from the Pacaembu (where Sunday’s game was played) yet they virtually had no presence at the game whatsoever. In state games they probably average around 700-800 for a home game.
If you compare this to England, where land mass and population are relatively comparable to the state of São Paulo, there are 92 professional league clubs. Something that my wife and sister-in-law found amazing is that smaller teams like Gillingham can sell-out their allocation and take over 1300 fans to an away game like Dagenham on a cold winter night (this was why I stood in the home end). They were even more surprised that even further down the footballing food chain smaller teams like the one from my old home town (Sutton United – sixth tier of English football) can occasionally draw attendances of 1000 and easily average over 500 – not far off that of São Caetano.
Granted I am willing to acknowledge that part of this might be to do with many Brazilians not being able to afford going to a football match, and if they can then they will maybe plump for a ‘good game’. However, it can also be said that it is not exactly cheap to watch lower league football, or football generally for that matter, in the UK and with disposable incomes disappearing due to the economy continued willingness for people to want to pay up to £25 (around R$70) to watch a team like Gillingham is pretty impressive – or stupid.
Perhaps when it comes down to it this has more to do with the British and Brazilian psyches. In Brazil there is no doubt that winning is very important. This is not to say it is unimportant in the UK but here it is VERY important. For example, after the game on Sunday the crowd left as soon as the game finished with neither the crowd or the players acknowledging each other. I was the only person around me to clap at the end, more of a natural instinct than anything else, and in doing so looked like a plonker. But it struck me that generally in the UK, although booing is becoming more predominant when a home team loses, the teams and players will always be acknowledged at the end of the game. It is still even quite normal for the opposition goalkeeper at Gillingham to get a sprinkle of applause when he comes down to the home end when the teams swap ends.
Similarly, Alex Bellos notes in his fantastic book ‘Futebol’ that Brazilains are so obsessed about winning that their greatest national tragedy was losing the last World Cup they hosted in 1950. Brazilians are obsessed by it. According to Bellos more books have been written about that defeat than the great team of 1970. When you understand that kind of winning mindset then it is probably also easier to understand why a Brazilian might think, “I don’t have any money, why would I pay to watch a shit football team?”.
When you look at England I think we Englishmen would all quietly admit that despite hyping up our chances every four years we all secretly know that we will go out to on penalties in the quarter finals. In some ways I think we crave the glorious defeat. And when you throw in the the Corinthian amateur spirit, which I still think underlies and influences British attitudes to sport, then I think this may explain why shit football is appreciated a little more in the UK.
And this is not a criticism either way, it is just interesting to observe the cultural difference to the way football is followed. More than anything, it probably says a lot about why Brazil has won five World Cups whilst we still bang on about 1966.
Nevertheless, the one thing I definitely can conclude is that having watched Palmeiras on Sunday I now realise that a perennial sense of misplaced optimism is not just confined to supporters of lower league teams like Gillingham. Perhaps some things are the same no matter where you live in the world.
1) League 2 (Division 4) in England.
2) To be fair, when my wife first came to the UK Dagenham v Gillingham was, ironically, the first game of football I took her to. It was Boxing Day, -2C and Gillingham lost 2-0 having been 1-0 down after 30 seconds. When, during half-time, my father asked her what she thought of the game she replied: “I cannot feel my toes and the ball has been kicked out of the ground nine times”.
3) They also play in the second division of the national championship in the second half of the year.
4) Palmeiras’s ground is under reconstruction so they are currently playing their games in different venues.