September 12, 2007

Soccer More Than Crazy Fans

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Maybe the Bears were just homesick Sunday afternoon, but it might have been even worse for them if they had been playing at Soldier Field in Chicago. The storied stadium wasn’t so lucky for Americans that day. As the Chargers were beating Sexy Rexy’s Bears in San Diego, the even sexier Ronaldinho led No. 1 Brazil to a 4-2 victory over the U.S. Men’s National Soccer Team … at Soldier Field.
The U.S. team started strong and protested a questionable non-call that might have affected the outcome of the game, but the fact remains that Brazil managed to win once again, and no one is really that surprised.
I, along with many others, had always taken it for granted that Brazilians were just naturally better at soccer than the rest of the world. After this summer, however, I’ve decided that the difference is not that Brazilians are trained better or physically more skilled or even more visible in the media. In America, you can ignore football or basketball or any other sport if you want to. But in Brazil, life revolves around the one sport of fútbol.
Until this summer it was hard for me to imagine that one sport could dominate a country as large and diverse as Brazil. Then I went on a family vacation in early August — 10 days of sun and sightseeing in Rio de Janeiro. On the nine-hour flight from Miami to Rio, I started to brainstorm some things I wanted to do in Brazil. One activity was an obvious choice. What kind of sports fan would I be if I didn’t insist on going to a soccer game?
A few days later on Aug. 5, the time came to see a match in one of the most famous stadiums in the world. Maracanã stadium opened in 1950 in time to host the World Cup, and the legendary arena had just been renovated when Rio hosted the PanAm Games the week before we arrived.
Maracanã was pretty mellow that Sunday afternoon. Only about 17,000 tickets were sold, and the conspicuously heavy police presence didn’t have much to do but stand around and look official. (When the stadium is filled to its 95,000-person capacity, I’m sure those policemen have more demands on their time.)
Just to give a little scale … Berman Field can accommodate something around 1,000 spectators for each of Cornell’s soccer matches, while Schoellkopf Field officially holds up to 25,597 people (though graduation even comes close to packing the stands for the Red).
That afternoon at Maracanã, my parents and I wimped out and sat in the tourist section. Though we missed out on the exhilarating experience of getting trampled, we did get a perfect view of the two sides of Brazilian soccer: the struggle on the field and the struggle in the stands.
The rivalry between the teams got going long before the players took the field. Each team’s contingent of fans was so crowded together that the bleachers were almost completely empty except for two large, dark spots on opposite ends of the field — diehard fans waving huge, colored banners. One spot of moving bodies was cheering for Fluminense, the home team with the white jerseys, and the other spot was roaring for Palmeiras, the visiting team from São Paolo wearing green.
Fluminense won the Copa do Brasil in 2007, but it’s not considered to be one of the most elite teams in the country. At the time of the match, the club was 13th in the standings and had to win that day to stay alive in the league. Palmeiras, on the other hand, was sitting comfortably in the top-10.
The first division Brazilian national championship (Campeonato Brasileiro Série A) had begun in May and will end Dec. 2, and the competition in Brazil is cutthroat. Within first ten minutes a Fluminense player had to be carted off the field on a stretcher, and by the end of the first half a Palmeiras player was in the same situation.
But despite the awarding of several yellow cards and so many free kicks I lost track, most of the violence was verbal and came from the stands. With five minutes left in the game and down by only one goal, Fluminense got possession. Instead of directly attacking, the players made an extended series of passes in the backfield, back and forth back and forth back and forth, but they never even came close to scoring. The home team fans were not pleased, and they clearly showed it by whistling and screaming during the entire sequence.
Then again, when a brawl breaks out at any sporting event SportsCenter will always pan away from the happy-looking fans. Not everything about Brazilian fandom is negative. In Rio, I witnessed supporters of both teams singing and chanting almost straight through halftime. It was like singing the alma mater at Lynah after throwing fish at the Cornell players instead of Harvard’s.
Coming back to Ithaca and later that month, I was happy to discover that Bryan Scales, head coach of the men’s soccer team, recently had his own first-hand experience of soccer-mad Brazil. Scales completed the annual NSCAA Premier Coaching Course May 18-26 with the blessing of Cornell’s administration.
For those nine days he studied the “tactical implications of all different systems of play” under the guidance of the Brazilian soccer team Atlético Paranaense in Curitiba, Brazil. In addition to soccer theory instruction, Scales and his fellow coaches had the opportunity to get an inside look at the practical operations of a Brazilian club. They observed Atlético’s training center, sports science departments and age progression from the U-17 team to the professional team.
“I felt like I wanted to get another perspective and see how the Brazilians’ approach … training, coaching, methods,” Scales said. “You know they’ve won five World Cups so they have to be doing something right.”
A self-described “soccer junkie,” Scales appreciated the opportunity to observe a completely different system on and off the field. In addition to studying the sport, Scales says he learned about the differences between Brazilian and American society.
“There’s a very small middle class in Brazil,” he said. “So a lot of soccer players come out of lower socioeconomic groups and this is their chance to feed their family. So for instance there were 17-year-old kids signed on as professionals with Atlético that were basically feeding their entire family, five or six people. So that added pressure and the investment that the club makes in those young players is very important. They take that responsibility very seriously.”
Scales and the rest of the students had barely enough free time in their busy schedules to go to a real match. At the end of the week, they were able to see a Brazilian first division game and a testimonial game (same thing as a friendly). The energy of Brazilian soccer audiences was just as evident to Scales in Curitiba as it was to me in Rio.
“Every coach in Brazil is three losses away from being fired, whether you’re undefeated or not,” he said. “And so all the clubs have a very passionate, rabid fan base and there’s a lot of pressure on the players to perform and there’s a lot of pressure on the coaches to get results, and I think within all of that the soccer flourishes because of this love for the game and the methods and the science behind it.”
After a little more than a month, Palmeiras is now ranked 4th and underdog Fluminense has somehow climbed up to the No. 8 position in the standings. But Brazilian soccer isn’t just about the score or a FIFA sanctioned field. Soccer is on every beach, in every park and empty lot. Even when you leave the country, the memory stays with you. Brazilians are to soccer what Dominicans are to baseball. The nationality makes up the largest group of athletes playing their sport outside of their native country. In no other sport is the game such an integral part of the players’ lives.
I think Scales described the difference between Brazilian and American soccer best when he said, “They’re Brazilians … This is their world. This is their life. This is what they do. They’re not distracted by computer games or [the] NCAA basketball tournament. They play fútbol and that’s what they do.”
Tell that to Sexy Rexy.