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Letters in a Lunch Box

FIFA World Cup: Brazil freezes over when Seleçao train

Country comes to standstill even if national team is only kicking about in neighbourhood.

A hot air balloon in the likeness of Brazil’s Christ The Redeemer statute, wearing the colors of Australia’s soccer team, floats over the Melbourne skyline. Australia will begin their campaign against Chile in Cuiaba. (Source: AP) A hot air balloon in the likeness of Brazil’s Christ The Redeemer statute, wearing the colors of Australia’s soccer team, floats over the Melbourne skyline. Australia will begin their campaign against Chile in Cuiaba. (Source: AP)

An iron beam fell on a Monorail worker in Sao Paulo today, crushing him to death at the under-construction site outside Congonhas airport. It’s on the news and everyone in the barbearia have their eyes glued to the tiny television set hanging from the ceiling. Everyone, including the barber, whose blade slices about his customer’s foamed neck almost completely on instinct.

The barbearia is on Avenida Marques de Sao Vicente, a strip that also plays host to three of the four giant football clubs in this city — Sao Paulo Futebol Clube, Sociedade Esportivo Palmeirhas and Esporte Clube Pinheiros. The first of those, SPFC, is opening its lawns to Team USA for a late afternoon training session. And, for once, I’m early.

With time to kill, I hope to catch Spain, World Cup defending champions and the side on the hottest of streaks, take on El Salvador in their final preparation game.

But the mood in the saloon is sombre and gets worse when a news flash claims that a protestor has been shot by the police in central Sao Paulo. Of course, La Roja and football can wait.

Only, here in Brazil, the second of those factors can’t. At 3:30pm sharp and bang in the middle of a developing story that had the customers gripped, Eduardo, the barbearia’s owner, changes the channel and surfs away until he lands on a program focussed on an empty training ground. “Tempo de ver a nossa Selecao.” Time to watch our boys.

Now here’s the thing. In Brazil, World Cup or not, the Selecao’s training sessions are beamed live on at least one of the many national sports channel. Today, it’s Ta Na Arena’s turn. Every minute of the hour-long session is watched, discussed and debated, quite like a live match.

On Monday, just three days before Brazil’s opening game, the training session in Teresopolis, Rio de Janerio, was a cause for panic as well, when half way through practice Neymar clutched his left ankle, and collapsed in a heap.

Neymar show
The barbearia gasped collectively. And for a few minutes, time and the snipping of scissors froze. “Por favor!” exclaimed one, pleading for their big hope to get up and be alright. It worked, for Neymar rose gingerly but rose nevertheless. From there on, it was a Neymar show.

When a young child stormed the field and was whisked away by the security, Brazil’s number 10 intervened. Neymar jogged up to the boy, walked him back to the pitch by hand and got his mates, David Luiz and Maicon, to take turns clicking pictures with him by the goalpost. There wasn’t a dry eye around. And soon, it made national news.

Sometime during this Neymar soap-opera, I asked Eduardo to check the score at the Spain-El Salvador game (it finished 2-0 to Spain, for those who care). The barber looked like he had seen a ghost.

“Nao nao nao,” he said, wagging his finger from side to side as most Paulista’s do when they say no. “Why do you want to watch boys when we’re watching men,” he said in Portuguese slow enough for me to understand. But aren’t Spain the best team in the world, in form and ranking? “So what, they aren’t South Americans. And in a Latin American World Cup, only South Americans matter. You’ll see.”

He’s more than right, of course. Consider this. In the seven World Cups held in the Americas (North, Central and South) so far, only teams from the southern continent have ever emerged victorious. Uruguay clutched the trophy in the first ever World Cup at home in 1930 and then caused a tragedy by winning in Brazil ‘50. Brazil swept Chile ‘62, Mexico ‘70 and USA ‘94. And finally, Argentina claimed Argentina ‘78 and Mexico ‘86.

Home support matters, a lot
Clearly, in this part of the world, home support has a rather big role to play in the outcome of a match and even a tournament. Describing an Argentina-Brazil friendly he once covered in Beunos Aires, Simon Kuper, author of Football Against the Enemy, writes:

“The crowd protested whenever the Brazilians strung two passes together…, instantly familiar scenes, unless you were an American. ‘I’ve never seen home-advantage like this,’ murmured my neighbour, a New York Times correspondent.”

It isn’t just a rule with the big footballing nations in Latin America. When Chile hosted their only World Cup in 1962, they reached the semi-final stage for the only time and finished third over all. And Mexico have only twice reached the last-eight in World Cups. You, of course, would have guessed by now that those years were 1970 and 1986.

“Of the three Latin American winners, only Brazil haven’t won at home” begins Eduardo, as he lathers a chin with his brush. But he is cut off by the sound of police sirens.

Expecting protests, we step out on to the pavement as one. But the sirens are those of the police escorts for a World Cup team bus. Team USA have finally arrived. But Eduardo is not amused.

Wiping a razor on his apron, he grunts: “The only America that matters to the world is the only America that doesn’t matter to football.”

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