On a Domingo, Portuguese for Sunday, a Paulista prefers to wake up early and throw a slab of churrasco on a grill. Then, with belly full, he likes to walk his wife, child and dog to igreja. Church. “You have to say ‘I love you’ to Jesus on Domingos,” says Tiago, who insists that I call him James. “But dog must be tied outside.”
This Sunday, however, Tiago didn’t stick to his usual Domingo routine. Having wolfed down his share of pao and sausages, the 44-year old from Sao Paulo’s district of Jabaquara packed his wife, child and dog in the family car and drove 35 kilometres east to the suburb of Itaquera. “I never miss church. But today I miss to come to Arena Corinthians,” he says sheepishly. “But even Jesus knows that not every Domingo is the Domingo before a World Cup in Brasil. He’ll understand.”
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By the looks of it, He’ll have plenty of understanding to do, for Tiago is not alone. At roughly 10:30 am (peak Mass time in this part of the world) the roads surrounding the incomplete structure of Arena Corinthians, venue for the opening match of the 20th World Cup, are buzzing. By late afternoon, these streets have more onlookers than Avenida Paulista, SP’s central shopping district.
It’s not exactly a party, but something close to it. While children and pets frolic about in their merry ways, rolling up and down the grass embankments surrounding the estadio, men like Tiago stand in complete silence, paying obeisance to the stadium’s concrete walls. They seem at peace, with themselves and the surroundings. “Just like in church,” says Tiago.
However, a group of boys from Burkina Faso (their identical jumpers bear the West African nation’s name) want more. “Can you get us in?” asks the leader of the bunch, in perfect English.
“We want to see the pitch. The green pitch.” How is this green pitch any different from the green pitches in Burkina Faso, I ask, only to bite my lip a little too late. “Our pitches are brown,” he says. “We don’t have grass on our football fields in Burkina Faso.”
To catch a glimpse of the green of the Corinthians field, I step towards the gate. Unlike most Sunday morning sightseers, the power of the media accreditation dangling from my neck grants me access inside. Only, I’m not allowed either. “You’re wearing flip-flops,” says a beast of a guard. “Havaianas are against FIFA protocol.”
FIFA and its protocols — always trying to get us Indians to wear boots during a World Cup in Brazil.
Unlike the barefeet Indian squad from the 1950 World Cup, I haggle my way in; into what will soon be the new home of Sport Club Corinthians — the apple of the football-loving Paulista’s eye.
Club of the masses
Formed in 1910 by five railway workers inspired by a touring English side by the same name, Corinthians has always been considered the club of the masses, the Timao. Its womb gave birth to players such as Socrates and Rivelino, while its lawns recently laid to rest a worthy career or two, in Ronaldo and Roberto Carlos.
Its jailbird black and white stripes have been sported by everyone from Luiz Inacio Lula Da Silva, the former president of Brazil, to Ayrton Senna, a man who needs no introduction in this part of the world. But never before had the Corinthians jersey been worn as a substitute for the Croatian national outfit.
Out there on the green velvet, rehearsals for the big day, the opening match between hosts Brazil and Croatia, are in full flow. Eleven volunteers dressed in the easily available yellow of Brazil march out of the arena’s tunnel, followed by the country’s flag. Then eleven boys in Corinthians’ stripes troop out, tailed by Croatia’s emblem.
“Don’t think they found 11 Croatian jerseys around here,” says one worker to his colleague, both taking a cigarette break. “Don’t think you’ll find more than 11 Croatian jerseys around here on match-day either,” replies the colleague.
The two anthems, Brazil’s and Croatia’s, play. The boys do their best to stand in rapt attention. They giggle as their faces are shown on the big screen. Applause, fake applause, follows.
“Had they just allowed the visitors collected outside to enter the stands, they wouldn’t need to be recorded applause,” notes Smoking Worker 1. But Smoking Worker 2 has the last word, again. “There would have been riots, pitting the national side against the state side. I’m glad no one got to see this.”
The sun has set by the time we leave the arena, but the boys from Burkina Faso are still hanging around. “Any chance of us going in?” the leader asks me pitifully again. I feel for him. “That guard believes in protocol,” I say. “And you’re wearing flip-flops.”