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UNFORGIVING

Futebol and the curse of Brazil's fans



Despite the presence of artistic football in their culture, the Brazilian fans (left) are famously fickle, placing victory over performance every time. This psychosis probably owes its origin to the 1950 World Cup final reversal (right) when an overconfident Brazil side were upset by tiny Uruguay in front of 200, 000 shocked spectators at the newly-built Maracana

On the morning of July 16, 1950, Obdulio Varela walked to all the news-stands in Copacabana and bought as many Brazilian newspapers as he could. Back in his hotel, Varela, the captain of Uruguyan football team, dumped the copies in his bathroom, woke up his teammates and asked them to urinate on the stack of papers, all of which had front-page photographs of the Brazilian football team with the caption: "World Champions". As his team made the newspapers soggy with their pee, the captain delivered the punchline: "Muchachos, que empiece la funcion (Boys, let's start the show)".

The funcion Valera was preparing his boys for, was the final of the World Cup to be played between Uruguay and Brazil at the Maracana stadium later in the day. As the Uruguyans emptied their bladders on the Rio newspapers, the Brazilian team too was warming up. Since the daybreak, the players had been posing for snaps with politicians, businessmen and hundreds of people who had invaded their training camp. That day, the optimism of the Cariocas (as Rio people are called) had reached frenzied levels: beer was flowing like water and bodies were shaking to samba beats across the city. For the Brazilians, the match was a mere formality for their team to lift the cup. With more than 200,000 people packed into Maracana, when the Brazilians took the field, the Rio mayor hailed the team as " world champions" and the stadium erupted with joy. The Brazilian team, a talented bunch, had never played under so much pressure in front of such a humongous crowd.

In the first half, it was Brazil's show as it led 1-0. After the break, as the Uruguyans made it 1-1, a hush fell over the stadium. With the stands transmitting their nervous anxiety to the players, the Brazilians began to make mistakes. With just 11 minutes remaining, Ghiggia, a Uruguayan striker, dodged a defender called Bigode, dribbled the ball again and slipped it past the Brazilian goalie, Barbosa. With the game and the cup lost, wrote a contemporary author, the Brazilian team left the field "like the sleepwalkers" and the spectators "exited in slow motion, looking like a battalion of living dead".

No other "incident" describes the relationship between the Brazilian team and their fans better than what happened at the Maracana that day. A number of Brazilians slashed their wrists, thousands vowed never to go to Maracanã again and millions cursed the team for "not playing well". The team was haunted by the entire country. Barbosa was questioned by the secret police to find out if he was a communist, Bigode was not paid by his sponsors, and the team's top scorer lost his memory.

Till this day in this country, a big jolt is called "Maracanaco" (the Maracana blow). And nothing shocks Brazil more than a defeat in football.

Blame it on their five World Cup triumphs or legends like Pele and Garrincha who elevated the game to an art form or the lack of features that define their national identity, the Brazilianness is often defined in terms of football. And the Brazilians really believe that their country, and not England, is the home of football. Talk to a supporter of Brazilian football and he would say that they play real futebol, other teams just jog around the park. So, when the Brazilian team loses a match, as in 1950, the fans don't accept that their team is inferior. They believe the team lost because it "did not play well" -- deliberately. In 1950, they felt "betrayed".

When the Brazilians feel bitter about the team, their real differences come to the fore. If the Samba Boys are dancing well on the pitch and goals are coming, everything is fine. But, if they don't perform good tricks and miss goals too, all hell breaks loose. Nowhere is this feeling more visible than at the Maracana. In the Rio stadium, when the national team plays badly, the crowd goes silent. Then it begins to boo the players. Finally, the fans turn mean, with supporters of one local club blaming the players from another club for the defeat. As the national team comprises players from many rival clubs, everyone can find a punching bag. In those angry moments, the national team is less than the sum of country's football clubs.

And many a times the team doesn't have to lose a match to invite their fans' wrath. At Maracana, a draw is as good as a loss. In the first internatinal game at the New Maracana on June 2, it took the crowd just 12 minutes to lose its patience and jeer Neymar when he missed a goal. When England took 2-1 lead, the 70,000 people in the stadium became quiet, an ominous sign that made the Brazilian players weak in the legs. And when Brazilian coach Scolari substituted Oscar with Lucas, the chants of "burro, burro" (donkey) rippled across the stadium.

It's an open secret that the national team doesn't like to play at the Maracana. There is no violence, but the crowd's silence or boos are enough to make the team nervous. The players and coaches dread that kind of situation. That's why the Brazilian players like to keep their supporters in good humour. "The fans deserve our congratulations. They supported us till the end," said Neymar, after the England game.

It's because of such demanding fans, playing at home is not an advantage for Brazil. Under Scolari, the team is shaping well (they beat France 3-0 last Sunday), but the fans' expectations are weighing heavily on the players who have prepared hard for the Confederations Cup that begins today. Having won the cup in 2005 and 2009, the fans now expect a hat-trick from their team. But with Spain and Italy competing with them, Brazil will have to play out of their skin to even reach the final at Maracana on June 30. The players are working hard to please their fans. "I just want to entertain," Neymar said last week, knowing well how the Brazilians love his tricks on the picth. Oscar has said the team wants to win a major trophy in front of their home fans.

Of course, more than the Confederations Cup, Oscar would like to win the World Cup in 2014. But, according to Zico, that's unlikely. In an interview this week, the former striker tipped Argentina as favourites next year. "If they win, I just hope it is not in the final against Brazil, or we will suffer just like we did against Uruguay in 1950. Then the Maracana will seem a cursed place."

If Zico's worst fears come true in 2014, few Brazilian fans would ever set foot in the Maracana.

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