Rio de Janeiro became the undisputed capital of world football. Needless to say, the players of the national squad became super-heroes for kids of my generation, and playing football was an absolute must for all of us. Supporting a team was also an essential part of the package. I opted for Botafogo, because it was the neighbourhood where I was born and because of its cool emblem: a five-pointed, white star on a black shield resembling Captain America’s. My team was among Rio’s “big four”, competing alongside Flamengo – the team of the masses, Fluminense – the team of the rich, and Vasco – the team of the Portuguese community and their descendants. Botafogo was the odd one out and attracted those who somehow did not fit in any firm social category. The opposition would say that this was the team for the weirdos.
If only for a moment, football produced the magic spell that every totalitarian government longs for: it brought people together as equals. For me this worked; football was the best way to fit into a country that was completely alien to my parents and I took on this mission with absolute conviction. Whenever I could, I would stay in my room following the football championships on the radio, which was altogether far more fun than anything else that went on within the confines of our apartment. Radio Globo’s presenters were funny, clever, eccentric and over the top. When a player managed a great trick, the commentators, Jorge Curi and Waldir Amaral, went wild; when a player scored, they became orgasmic. Mario Vianna, the comentator for the referee’s decisions, would shout “Errou!!!” for mistakes, “La mano!!!, Cadê o echo?? La mano ôo ôo ôo!!!” for an apparent handball, “Banheiiiiira!!!” – Bathtub!!! – for an offside, and, on for penalties, he would make a solemn comment before offering his verdict: “Penalidade maxima”. After a match, it was time for João Saldanha. His considered, hour-long post-match analysis employed allegories of known and made-up folk tales, involving metaphors such as giraffes dating monkeys and elephants marrying ants. He was never boring..
These characters made mini transistor radios an essential gadget for football fans who, even in the Maracanã, held them closely to their ears. During important matches, there were so many that, providing there was a silent moment, all the fans could hear the station’s jingle echo loudly throughout the stadium.
With Brazil’s heightened international status, the two tournaments that the carioca teams participated in – the state’s one in the first half of the year, and the national one in the second half of the year – acquired a special flavour. Rio’s league was only rivalled by São Paulo’s and, as the commentators Waldir Amaral and Jorge Curi liked to say, here was the three-times world champion football being played at the biggest – and greatest – venue on the planet. I was dying to watch a match in the Maracanã. All the other boys who I knew had already gone – or at least they claimed that they had – and I badly needed the kudos. As ever, the obstacle was Mum and Dad’s irritating attitude of “What I don’t know, I don’t like”. Coming from Britain, for them football was for the working class and for the local riff-raff. Going to a stadium and mixing with those types would somehow be a blot on their social position.
My fate changed on the day that Peter, one of Dad’s friends, offered to take me to a match together with his two sons. He was the adventurer of my parents’ social circles: he had crossed Latin America in an old jeep, he smoked, he was toned and suntanned and spoke English with an American accent.
Peter and his two sons, Rob and Tony, came to pick me up in their jeep early on a Sunday afternoon. They were older and supported Fluminense – which was not ideal for a Botagoguense – but the game was against Flamengo, everyone’s arch-rival. This would make it OK to shout “Nense!!! Nense!!! Nense!!!” instead of “Fogo!!! Fogo!!! Fogo!!!”. At first I felt uncomfortable in the car, the two older boys kept on talking about electronics, mechanics and other subjects that were alien to my existence. However, the further we travelled, the more apparent it became that all the traffic was heading to the stadium and I forgot the feeling of being left out. The other cars were filled with Flamengo or Fluminense supporters who would make fun or cheer each other from the car windows. Surely their radio sets were tuned into the same station as us, we were one of the guys!
We arrived about one hour before kick-off time. While Peter negotiated the parking fee with a car “minder” – who would, of course, not be there when we came back, I stepped out to look around. The atmosphere was frantic: people, very few of them from the Zona Sul, were heading towards the stadium. The Maracanã was at least three blocks away but even so, it looked colossal; the batucadas and the cheering coming from inside were loud, and appeared to be attracting the crowd like a butcher’s light attracts flies.
Seat reservations were unheard of – everyone had to queue at ticket booths. Rusty bars separated the ticket vendors from the public and while we waited for our turn, beggars and drunkards came to bother us. Further away, improvised stand owners shouted their lungs out trying to sell their stock of flags, mats to sit on and team shirts to the fans rushing by. After getting our admission, the next step was to make our way into the stadium. This was no simple matter. There were only two gates for our tickets, one on either side of the Maracanã. The mass gathered in front of them and funnelled in like sand passing through an egg timer. The mood was tense and filled with testosterone; this was not a place for women, children or the elderly. Amidst the pushing crowd, I clung to Peter’s eldest son’s shirt and had to be careful not to fall down and risk having hundreds of anxious feet trampling me.
The turnstiles were a surreal oasis of peace separating the madness outside the stadium from the one inside it. Before passing through the turnstiles, frail middle age clerks, guarded by fearsome-looking bouncers, carefully inspected the tickets one by one. Those without a legitimate one – or those trying to sneak in without any – had to choose between turning back and pushing their way through the on-coming mob or being escorted to the police station. I could tell that the inspectors had little patience and no sympathy, as one of them was yelling at one of those trying to smuggle themselves in “Who cares if you have no money!? For f..ck sake! Decide fast! Can’t you see the people behind you?”
When our turn came, the grey haired mulato in glasses examined our admissions, tore the thin blue papers, threw his half in a bin and loosened the turnstile to allow us in. We regrouped and ran with the crowd up the wide ramp that lead to the upper ring. Police officers with ferocious dogs grabbed hold of drunkards and people carrying dangerous objects. At the end of the ramp, the fans separated according to their team loyalties and there were no further risks of fights breaking out between rival supporters. We followed the Fluminense fans and took the left corridor, rushed past the toilet doors and the half-empty bars, the mixture of urine and spilled beer producing a sickening smell. There were entrances every thirty meters, and Peter had to decide quickly which one to choose.
He pushed us into one of the narrow corridors where shadows obscured the light at the far end. We ran up feeling the immense energy emanate from the crowd. When we finally entered into the arena, I was in awe: the stadium was gigantic – I could well-understand how it could take a hundred and sixty thousand spectators. Down below, encircled by the oval construction dressed with all the paraphernalia necessary for the spectacle, with advertising and fan’s banners hanging from the balconies, was the green and impeccably maintained football field that captured the dreams of an entire nation.
In the crowd, the areas around the supporters’ associations were the most fun. Those were the places where the most fanatic fans stood, where the batucadas happened and from where all the booing and the cheering originated. When one of them started, moments later – as in a chemical reaction –tens of thousands of people would be shouting out the same message. The problem was that it was also there where most of the fighting broke out. That was a bad choice for Peter to take three children and, perhaps wisely, he ushered us to the boring neutral zone between the two sides.
As we found a place for four people, there was a preliminary match going on between the juniors from both clubs. Although everyone was more concerned about the main event, there were cheers and the tempo of the drums went up when one of the future professionals scored. Also, things went silent when one of them was about to take a penalty. When the match finished, the stadium woke up. It was already completely full, and supporters began waving their super-sized flags, releasing balloons with their teams’ colours and setting off firecrackers. The samba and the chanting and counter-chanting also heated up. Down on the field, photographers with several cameras and long lenses hanging on their necks, and reporters with oversized microphones and headphones, ran to take their positions behind the goal posts. The uniformed gandulas, or ballboys, sat around the field while policemen with dark glasses and German Shepherd dogs patrolled the aisles and periphery of the field. Now only the players were missing.
The fans sang the same rude tunes that we taught each other at school and threw crushed empty paper cups onto the heads below. The worst thing I remember seeing were guys peeing down onto the lower stands where the poorer fans went. They called that section the geral; it was the cheapest place in the stadium and was certainly a place to avoid. The spectators there watched the game standing up with their field of vision at the same level as the player’s feet amidst gang fights that broke out regularly.
A friend told me the story of a reporter who was in one of the press cabins that hung over the geral. In order to amuse himself, the reporter started shouting out obscenities at them, in the middle of his rant his false teeth fell out and landed on the ground right below him. Despite his pleadings, they trampled his teeth as soon as they hit the floor.
A surprisingly monotone and formal voice sounded out of the loudspeakers announcing the match and reading out the players’ names. The electronic panel was turned on and began to display the “Flamengo 0 and Fluminense 0” score line.
Because it was the team of the white social elite, Fluminense’s symbol was rice flour. In preparation for the team’s entrance, members of its torcida, or fans association, walked around with buckets full of sachets of the stuff, distributing them like farmers throwing feed to animals. As soon as Fluminense came onto the field, the fans opened the sachets and threw the powder up into the air creating a thick, white cloud. When the air cleared, it looked as if the supporters had just come out of a dust storm.
Flamengo’s torcida was bigger than Fluminense’s, covering almost two-thirds of the stadium. The club’s symbol was a vulture due to its colours: red and black. For every match, supporters brought in a real vulture – the tradition was to attach a flag to its feet and release the bird as the players came onto the field. If their mascot flew out of the stadium, they considered this a good omen. At this particular game, the confused creature ran the risk of changing colour because of the cloud of rice powder, and of being mistaken for a white eagle when it returned to its nest.
The two teams walked onto the field together, the referee with his auxiliaries opened their way and the teams’ young mascots came right after. They were free to run around after their squads posed for the press photographers. The next morning those images would be on the back pages of every newspaper in the city and whoever had been in the stadium would feel as if they had taken part of a major event. As the players warmed up reporters ran around the stars in the field trying to get them to comment on the stories they had been working on; now we could actually recognise the owners of the voices that we had been following since we left home.
Once the field was clear, the referee called the two captains to the centre of the pitch to choose who would kick-off the match and on which ends of the field the teams would start. The players took their positions, the referee whistled, and a celebrity player gave the first pass. The match had begun and the tension grew higher. Some of the players had been world champions in Mexico and the fans could recognize them from their haircuts, the numbers on their shirts and their style of play. When they did something wrong, people criticised them loudly as if they knew them personally. When attackers were close to scoring, everyone stood up, and when the opposition did something threatening, they kept silent while the opposing fans cheered. In the second half, Fluminense scored and although I did not support them, I could not contain myself and went crazy as if I was one of them.
Back then, Brazilian clubs did not sell their stars abroad and television was still in its infancy. Our football heroes did not have agents planning golden careers for them in European leagues. Instead, horizons began and ended with the state and national leagues and, for the very best, selection to the national team. They played for the torcida and did what they could every Sunday afternoon to confirm their status as craques, or football idols, not for television viewers or for foreign scouts, but for those present at the stadiums. Therefore, the there and then that was crucial, and this made the quality of those games not just world class, but the best in the world. The Maracanã of that era holds special memories for Rio’s football fans, rather as Woodstock does for rock lovers. There were moments of absolute magic, unforgettable goals, tricks and plays, and outlandish crowd deliria. As in the colliseum in Rome, the aura in those matches is an unrepeatable phenomenon.