From watching TV as a youngster, names like Falcao, Socrates and Zico rolled off the tongue. Even if you know nothing about football, everyone knows who Pele is. Most have probably seen those amazing against Italy in the 1970 World Cup Final and in recent times names like Rivaldo, Ronaldo and Ronaldinho are household football player names. As are coaches like Scholari and Zalgado.
Brazil is football. Football is everywhere here. Football is life. Rio is the home to teams like Flamengo, Fluminese, Vasco and Botofogo.
The idea of Brazil sounds so good – Sunshine, the Copacabana beach, the statue of Jesus on the hill overlooking lot of Futebul and an amazing coastline … Yet my travels have resulted in me being a self confessed freak of Japan but apart from Nigeria being the bottom of the list of my favourite places, Brazil is in a sorry second from bottom.
Prior to this past week, I have not been the greatest fan of Brazil. The criteria for my opinion – I have not enjoyed it and not understood it.
The language, the Copacabana party culture, the Carnival – I just don’t get it. The place does not enthuse me and I have never got on here.
My last visit was a nightmare. Ten or so years ago, upon landing in Sao Paolo, after a mid afternoon nap, I left my hotel with great enthusiasm. Covering a match at the mighty Santos, that enthusiasm quickly turned into despair as I realised that Sao Paolo is bigger than some European countries and that it would take me over four hours to get there.
On to Rio. I fondly remember being magnetised by the red and black stripes painted on the homely stadium of Flamengo. I felt the normal excitement of reaching a new stadium, only to be confused as the footlights were off and the place was deserted. An hour or so later I could see Flamengo playing in the match I was supposed to be at on TV in a local bar. I was lost and confused.
No one spoke English. They could not understand any broken French, let alone Italian. I could not understand them. My Spanish was useless due to the heavy accent the Brazilians posses. I was totally unable to tell the bosses back home the reasons as to why I had not covered some games as I had no idea what was happening, only that I had gone to the Flamengo ground but the game had not taken place there. Even in the hotels, no one really spoke English.
It took four attempts to go to games in Rio before I gave up and flew to Belo Horizonte to cover my first game of Brazilian league football going to the Atletico Minerio stadium. The atmosphere was amazing. Blue and white everywhere. Lots of noise with songs and melodies that stayed in my head for months. Here I got some pictures that I still cherish today along with some sights that will live with me forever. Never before had I seen pitch side radio reporters, let alone pitch side radio reporters who then, if there was a break in play for say an injury, they would go up to the goalkeeper and quite literally interview him as he leant around the post. Sometimes these guys with their big yellow fluffy microphones would get a quick word in with a player before he took a corner!
One Brazilian photographer recognised me from the France 98 World Cup. His English was thankfully superb. I grilled him to death about Brazilian football and I then could see the error of my ways.
In Rio de Janeiro, when there is a big game, everyone wants to see it – thus most of the Rio based teams play their games in the Maracana Stadium. Their own stadiums are quite small and thus left empty. It was just like West Ham United, Tottenham, Arsenal and Chelsea always playing at Wembley Stadium.
With this information to hand, I covered 8 games in 11 days and returned home with a picture of nearly every team playing in the Brazilian league to sell to magazines in Asia and Europe. I moved on to Uruguay then Chile and simply enjoyed my life better in these countries. Brazil just didn’t touch me like some other places have done.
So I arrive here to cover the FIFA Confederations Cup and hopefully get lots of material as a prelude to the FIFA World Cup next year with some fear. I have been going around for weeks saying how much I don’t like the place.
It is now 2013 though. Both the Olympics and FIFA World Cup are coming to Brazil. This is a new Brazil. It has so changed over the past decade. Brazil has finished its economical downturn. People now have money – be it lots on credit.
I was always of the understanding that Brazil was a nasty and dangerous place. You were more likely to get mugged and knifed walking along the Copacabana than in darkest South Africa.
We are staying in Rio with an English friend. My spirits rise when he says he too can’t stand the Carnival. He tells us that there is a trust and respect here between people, something lacking in the UK. People do not get in to arguments in the bars, let alone fights. The fear is that someone you pick an argument with could have a gun. Thus everyone stays calm.
In the Favelas, the mass areas of shacks and shantytown, the South American equivalent of a Township, again although run by drugs dealers, the Police never enter these zones. Quite simply, if someone does anything wrong, as the communities are so close that people find out and the perpetrator is basically gunned down. It sounds rough but people are free and there are no problems that would normally result in the authorities stepping in.
In the residential downtown areas, there are no children bored on street corners vandalising bus shelters or causing a nuisance. Locals stay out drinking on Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and of course weekend nights. What I see on a Wednesday night just does not happen even on the most busiest of Bank Holidays in English bars. People have money here and they choose to spend it socialising. People have TV’s in their homes but prefer to gather in groups or almost crowds and share the game with friends watching on large screens in the local street bars.
I have been told about the simple but hidden secrets of Portuguese. The accent is like the strongest Geordie or a harsh Toryglen accent in Glasgow, thats all!
Seeing for myself that there is no crime and feeling comfortable walking around, I know I am in a different Brazil to the one I encountered before. I used to say that if some of Africa was “Third World” then the “Second World” would be Brazil. It’s not Los Angeles or Tokyo, but everyone is relaxed. None of the British people who live here want to go home. They enjoy their life here. Conversations always quickly turn to UK bashing – not politics but general life and how living in the UK has got worse. People’s attitudes, their respect for their the way of life is deemed better in Brazil. Even the assumed poorer people living in the Favelas have careers and money. The good looking girls who live in the Favelas are content there. They don’t go looking for a rich husband who lives in the rest of the Brazilian society.
They say that when the huge statue of Jesus with his outstretched arms who over looks this Catholic city claps his hands then everyone must go back to work. The Rio Metro is amazing. Be it only two lines, 5 bars of mobile phone signal can be found through out and a very comfortable air conditioning system, it rivals probably anywhere in the world. The only issue is the traffic. Three hours to cover four miles is not nice. Paying 75p for a 90 minute rush hour bus ride into town is a great experience but something I won’t be doing come next year. As in most other World Cups, finding a place with good transport links is the number one priority. The expansion of the metro line for the Olympics looks sensational – sadly it won’t be ready for a years time.
The first job we do is cover the official world cup countdown. One year to go. The Brazilian media is in a frenzy. Like all things Brazilian, it eventually gets done. The Maracana Stadium is described as a beautiful woman but the excuse that the exterior is not finished is down to the fact that there is no need for the make up until next year. The football temple is beautiful enough. Hairy legged male TV cameramen film the most gorgeous female TV reporters telling the country the latest football news.
It’s a good place to be tired. There is no rat race. I don’t think the word urgency exists in the Brazilian language. Even the domestic football is the same. Apparently teams ‘just play’ and don’t really put their foot down until the latter part of the season should they have a chance of glory.
The football story at the moment is Messi’s tax evasion. A picture of Messi is on the front of the newspaper Hora suggesting that the only place he will be watching the Brazil World Cup is in jail. Meanwhile inside there is no page three, but a bikini babe showing her backside to the world.
The Brazilian passion for football is rubbing off on me. Watching a documentary on our English friend attempting become the first English player play in the Brazil league has put creative ideas into my head. This week has been a slow start. A very slow start. Somewhat frustrating but after being catapulted into the North, our pre-tournament time in Rio has been like waiting in a very long queue for a ride on a roller coaster with lots of twists and turns and adventure.