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Football in the time of carnival

What is the unique link between football and the Carnival in Brazil? Is it this connection that explains the steps of the Samba in their game?

If you are jolted out of your sleep by a whistling firecracker arching across the sky and exploding right above your building on a lazy morning, it may mean only two things in this city. One, two big football teams are going to clash that day;or it's a message from the drug lords to all the junkies that a new consignment has reached the city and they should rush to get their daily fix. The criminals don't waste too much firework but if a game is on, it's relentless. But this Wednesday, a sodden day here, nobody heard the bursts of firecrackers as Brazil played England at Wembley. Even when the Fluminense striker Fred curled the ball into the England goal with a left-footer, the city was quiet. By the time it turned dark, England had beaten Brazil 2-1, but apparently nobody cared.

But the storm after the lull was furious. Within hours, the bloggers were slamming the coach Luis Felipe Scolari and his boys. And the next morning, newspaper critics took the Selecao to the cleaners, with some hard questions: How can they lose to England? Is Brazil no longer the most watchable team? Have the Samba Boys forgotten their dancing steps?

The first English win against Brazil in 23 years couldn't have come at a worse time. It's that time of the year, when the whole country has only one thing on their mind: Carnival. The nationwide party officially started on Friday night, and this weekend is going to be a riot of colours, songs and dances. But in such a festive mood, the London match is agitating the minds of football fans in this country - some 200 million at the last count. It's not possible to ignore football in the time of Carnival, just as it's impossible not to think about the Samba when the Brazilians take to the football field.

What exactly is the link between the two? Several academics have done research on football and its social roots in Brazil (it's one of the few countries where sports are studied as a subject in universities). Many of them have linked football with the Carnival, but the anthropologist Roberto da Matta has come out with the most interesting theory about this connection. Contrasting the Brazilians style with Europeans, Da Matta says that in England "football is lived as a sport, while in Brazil it is lived as a game. " What he meant is that in the individualistic societies of Europe, football is a collective effort at creating "comradeship and fair play", but in Brazil it's exactly the opposite. Here the game is all about "the capacity of individual players to improvise and maintain a strong control of the ball". Football, says the anthropologist, is the "possibility of individual expression. " This behaviour is visible at the Sambadrome on Carnival nights as well.

Millions of foreign tourists who have flocked to Rio de Janeiro this weekend to watch thousands of dancers swirling in a wave of colours rising up and down to a gut-pounding beat of drums do not know that the "greatest show on earth" is done without a general rehearsal. Each Samba school, based in the city slums, has 4, 000 dancers, singers, drummers and musicians, and it's just not possible for them to practice together. But come the carnival night and they create a collective spectacle with their individual brilliance.

The Carnival was not always a "masses" affair. In the late 19th century and early 20th century, it used to be a snooty gig - almost French in style - with masked ladies and gentlemen serenading each other at the balls in halls with chandeliers. That was also the time when football was played only by the posh boys. In the highly stratified society that Brazil was in those times, it was not possible for the poor (often a black or a mixed-race person) to join the beautiful game or crash the Carnival parties in the mansions of Copacabana beach.

But slowly, as democracy took roots in the country, the ordinary people took football away from the elite. "It ceased to be a sport for Apollos, and became a sport of the Dionysia, " says the sociologist Gilberto Freyre in a documentary he made on Brazilian football. "Indeed over the years football became Carnivalised. " By the '60s the Carnival parties of the upper crust had lost their sheen, and the Samba schools from the favelas saved the festival with their African beats and Samba. The Carnival is now entirely managed by the favelas. The same is true for football too. It took them decades to take control of Brazil's two passions.

Till the early 1950s, with wide income gaps, strict social hierarchies and lack of rule of law, only two things - futebol and Carnaval - allowed the masses to express themselves and feel close to the idea of Brazil. For the men trapped in poverty, there was only one way out: football and their streetsmart playing skills. For the communities on the margins, Carnaval was the only way of belonging to the wider society. Both gave them a chance to feel free. No wonder, in the favelas, they see football and Samba as an extension of each other. No wonder that all the players who captivated three generations of global audiences - Didi, Pele, Garrincha, Jairzinho, Romario, Bebeto, Juninho, Ronaldinho and Ronaldo - came from the wrong side of the tracks. By breaking every rule in the copybook, they changed the way football was played and made the beautiful game even more attractive.

The Carnival too is all about suspending the rules and reversing the hierarchies. You can't do anything wrong because there are no rules. The only sin one can commit is not knowing the Samba. The Brazilian team made this terrible mistake on Wednesday. No wonder an angry country went to sleep early.

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

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