I have to admit I got a little excited when I learnt Brazil would be playing a friendly in São Paulo against South Africa. I mean, it’s not very often that a gringo like me will have the opportunity to watch the world’s most successful footballing nation play in their own backyard.
So, fearing a sell-out I bought tickets almost as soon as they went on-sale, and as the game approached I started to think about some of the issues that might be thrown up.
What, I thought, would it be like to experience watching the Seleção play in Brazil in front of their own fans? Would the players be over the disappointment of losing the Olympic final? And how would the fans react to the homecoming of the team following that disappointment?
On a different note, I was also intrigued to find out how well prepared, in terms of organisation and spectator experience, Brazil and the CBF (the Brazilian footballing federation) are for putting on internationals in what will be one of the main host cities during the World Cup.
Finally, and most importantly, I was concerned as to whether factor 30 suncream be enough to prevent this pasty, white gringo from being burnt to a cinder whilst we sat on the roofless upper tier of the Morumbi – it was, apparently, going to be an unusually hot day for early September.
And what did I learn?
Well, it was unlike anything else I’ve seen in twenty years of watching live football. Unfortunately, though, it wasn’t for any particularly positive reason – apart from the weather which was glorious. Nivea’s suncream credentials, you’ll be glad to know, remain in tact.
Regrettably, the actual footballing experience was far more disappointing.
Well, whilst growing up watching the World Cup at home in the UK I was not only used to seeing England disappoint, I had also become accustomed to watching Brazil win the bloody thing. In the same way, whilst host nations fretted about barbarous English hooligans tearing up their city centres, the Brazilian fans always seemed to confirm pretty much everything we thought we knew about Brazil – i.e. Brazilians are colourful, beautiful, sexy, full of life and love to watch football whilst creating a Carnival-style atmosphere that drives their team on to glory, etc, etc.
On Friday, however, the only stereotype which held true was the colourfulness, as I’m pretty sure I was the only person amongst the 51,000 at the Morumbi who wasn’t either wearing a Brazil shirt or something yellow – bah humbug.
But whilst the fans wore Brazil’s colours, an act that is supposed to be an expression of fans’ support for their team, it appeared to be a rather hollow gesture when measured against the actual displays of ‘support’ that were witnessed during the game – and before /after for that matter.
Before the game some of the South African players had a pre-match stroll and they received almost as hearty a round of applause from the home fans as when Brazil emerged shortly afterwards. Whilst at first I thought this a little odd I told myself to stop being so cyncial and to instead see it as being a nice gesture.
But, following the announcement of the Brazil team came that of the coach (Mano Menezes), who then proceeded to walk across the pitch to the dugout.
Clearly, the fans WERE NOT over the Olympics just yet.
And then the game started. Personally, I thought that in the first half Brazil, whilst not playing like potential world champions, looked okay, and it was only two fine saves from South African goalkeeper Itumeleng Khune that prevented them from being 2-0 up at half-time.
This, though, wasn’t enough for the fans and very quickly things seemed to go a bit weird. Muttered grumblings at misplaced passes somehow turned into a round of Olés for a short spell of South African possession – AFTER 30 MINUTES OF THE FIRST HALF.
And then came half-time.
Unfortunately the second half was even worse, both in terms of the football and the fans’ support. The team, clearly rattled, were unable to handle the pressure and their performance dipped pretty dramatically – it was almost England-like in fact.
By the end there was so much booing that whilst Brazil made a substitution my wife turned to me and said that it was hard to tell what everyone was actually booing about – was it the player coming off, the player going on or the manager for making a substitution? It was impossible to tell.
Yet, whilst the team did play badly it largely seemed as though the fans were never really prepared to give them a chance in the first place. It almost felt as if many went to the game just to stick the boot in (especially at Mano) following the Olympics.
And this partly confirmed my earlier suspicions about South Africa’s unusually warm welcome. Not only were they subsequently cheered throughout large parts of the match, but whilst doing their warm-down following the final whistle they were applauded as if they were the victorious home team – this while the Brazilian players scarpered down the tunnel as quickly as they could.
Had Brazilian fans really come to the game to vicariously support the opposition? It certainly seemed plausible.
I guess, though, that it really shouldn’t have come as too much of a surprise. Prior to kick-off my sister-in-law warned me that the Seleção don’t generally tend to enjoy playing in São Paulo because the crowd can demanding and get short on patience very quickly if things don’t go well during the game. And how right she was.
Additionally, I’ve already noted myself (here and here) how little patience fans in Brazil and São Paulo seem to have with their teams. I can’t ever see a situation whereby Brazilian fans would applaud their team following a defeat – as I have done many times in UK.
In Brazil the efforts of a team count for nothing if they lose, but that’s just the way supporting your team is here – it’s win or nothing. It’s a ruthless way to think, but let’s remember that it’s also a mindset that has brought them five World Cups, so it can’t be entirely without its merits.
The worry though, as South America football writer Rupert Fryer points out, is that this unrealistic level of expectation could paralyse the team at the World Cup in two years time, just as it did on Saturday and just as it did in 1950. Like then, victory will be the only acceptable result for the fans in 2014.
Perhaps, though, it’s just a São Paulo thing. Three days after the South Africa game Brazil played a friendly against China, but this time in Recife (in the Northeast of Brazil). It would have been interesting to see how the crowd would have reacted if, like in São Paulo, the score would have been 0-0 at half-time. Alas, we’ll never know because Brazil were 2-0 up within 25 minutes and were roared on to a 8-0 win, albeit against a rubbish Chinese side.
Before I finish, one thing I should mention is that the whole booing debacle managed to overshadow the complete chaos that supporters experienced inside and outside the stadium. Fortunately for us, having failed to get into the Morumbi earlier in the year to watch São Paulo and Portuguesa due to huge queues (Attendance: 15,000), we had bought our tickets directly from the Pacaembu the week before.
However, most people had bought theirs online and had to collect them from the stadium on the day of the game. As such, there were already huge queues running the length of the Morumbi three hours before the game and this meant that many people only entered the stadium long after kick-off – not helped I hear by the fact that the turnstiles also broke down.
Added to this problem was the fact that the tickets were not allocated to particular seats – despite all the seats having numbers. Whilst this is great if you get there early and can pick a spot, it’s not so great if hundreds of people get into the stadium and have to fight over spaces for themselves and their family and friends. The result? Complete chaos with people standing in the aisles, gangways and emergency exits.
The Morumbi will not be a host stadium in 2014 but you have to worry when this kind of thing is happening so close to the World Cup. If there had been an emergency then there could have been a very serious situation. Thankfully there wasn’t.
All in all then, not a particularly great day for Brazilian football in any respect.