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Among the Brazilians

Because football offers a possibility

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Shobhan Saxena

For Brazil, it's a way of life. Football, or futebol, as it is known there, forms a unique link with the mind and music of the land.

Last month, Edurado Gaspar, the former Brazilian player who is now a director at Corinthians, was stopped by a bloke outside the club's stadium. "Can you give me 10 real ($5)? I'm borrowing money to go to Japan, " the man told Eduardo. As he got the money, the guy took a piece of paper from his pocket and wrote "10 real" against Eduardo's name. He was jotting down exactly what everyone had given him, so he could pay them back.

In weeks leading to December 16, when Paolo Guerrero's second-half goal sunk Chelsea in the final of the Club World Cup, thousands of Corinthians fans borrowed money from friends, sold cars, took loans from banks and even quit jobs to claim pension funds so that they could go to Japan and cheer their team. Some 20, 000 of them made it, with many of them shacking up with some 200, 000 Brazilians who live there.

At $450 million, Corinthians is the richest Brazilian football brand but majority of its fans come from the city's working-class quarters. They are known as the Fiel - the Faithful. If the term has a religious overtone, it's a coincidence because football in this country is not like a religion. It's the religion. And the fans are the faith-keepers who are expected to know their rituals.

A couple of years ago, I watched a match between Flamengo and Botafogo clubs at the Maracana stadium in Rio. As we sat in a hub of Flamengo fans, I couldn't help notice that many of them were not watching the game - at all. They were beating drums, singing songs, chanting cheers, waving flags, burning firecrackers, throwing confetti in the air - everything but watching the action on the pitch. It seemed as if they were creating a wave of energy with their drums and cheers, hoping it to carry the ball into Botafogo's goal. It was a symbiotic relationship between the players and fans which reached orgasmic levels when a goal happened.

This relationship didn't happen in a day. It took decades. It can explain Brazil's love for football. Actually, it can explain Brazil itself.

Till 1894, no one knew the game here. Then an English lad Charles Miller, who was born in Sao Paulo but learnt football during his trips to England, came back with some balls and a rule book. The teenager organised a few teams, comprising only British men working here. Then upper class - and white - Brazilians, who had seen the game on visits to Europe, started forming their clubs and a league was born here in Sao Paulo in 1901. Rio followed suit.

As rich boys played football on the city's green lawns, the boys of colour - black and of mixed race - watched it from the margins. Picking up discarded balls, they honed their skills in the narrow lanes of favelas sitting on hillocks. With 20 boys fighting for a ball in streets few feet wide, the boys devised new tricks every day to dribble and control the ball. Soon, they began to knock at the clubs' doors. With their speed and samba-like rhythm, they dazzled everyone. While they stood at the bottom of the social ladder, in football they were at the top. And with almost 50 per cent of its population belonging to 'coloured' group, it wasn't possible to keep them away from football.

The last country to abolish slavery in 1888, Brazil was an unequal society in the beginning of the 20th century. For the rich, there were no rules. For the poor, there were enough rules to keep them in poverty. The only place with fair play was the football pitch. When the rich lads committed fouls, whistles were blown and flags raised;when poor boys slipped the ball into their opponent's goals, they were awarded with matches and trophies.

Even as they fought for survival in their ghettos, the poor found salvation on football field, where one's skin tone or money or family ties didn't matter. The only thing that mattered was one's ability to dance with the ball between his two feet. For ordinary Brazilians, the idea of social justice that they did not see in their daily life became possible. They embraced it. And when their boys played the beautiful game, the whole favelas turned up to watch and cheer. That was the beginning of some lifelong relationships and dreams.

So, last month when Corinthians fans were borrowing money and quitting their jobs, they were just reminding themselves of their dream.

(In this monthly column, Shobhan Saxena explains why Brazilians, the hosts of 2014 World Cup, love and play football the way they do)

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