“It’s going to be an interesting game tonight,” our guide Luis tells us with a grin, as he scans the score table and list of players he has on a sheet of paper in his hands. This is good news, because if you’re going to watch football in Rio you want it to be interesting.
We’re on a mini-bus, on a Viator football tour, headed to a football (soccer) game at the São Cristóvão stadium – a clássico or derby between Botafogo and Vasco da Gama, two of Rio de Janeiro’s four most popular teams (the other two are Flamengo and Fluminense) and Luis has been reading out the players’ names and jersey numbers to our small group so we know who to watch out for.
“Both teams wear black and white,” Luis warns. “But note that Vasco’s jersey has a red Maltese Cross and Botafogo’s has a star. Vasco is the team of Brazilians of Portuguese heritage and Botafogo is the team of the working class.”
Botafogo, Luis tells us, is currently placed 5th and Vasco de Gama 12th on the table. At the end of this championship, the top four teams play in the 2011 South American Cup. Vasco are at number 12 in the competition but if they win they’ll go up three points; if Botafogo lose they’ll drop 8 points. It’s an important match.
“Botafogo was Brazil’s champion team in 1985 and Vasco won four times in 1974, 1984, 1994, and 2000,” he continues, “They’re expecting around 20,000 people, which is not too many for Rio, but it’s a work night. It’s nothing compared to the biggest match ever at Maracanã, Flamengo versus Vasco, which attracted 80,000 fans, but it will still be exciting.”
Luis’ briefing to our small group of British, Canadians and Australians – some football fans, some just interested in getting beneath the skin of the place – is a combination of hard facts and personal recollections. A Brazilian who has lived in Rio for 26 years, Luis has been guiding football tours several times a week, since 1987.
A British guy in the group who spends his holidays travelling the world visiting football stadiums (he’s seen hundreds!) is equally informative. Today, he tells us, he visited the spiritual grounds of the teams we’re seeing tonight to watch them practice, although he’s disappointed we’re not heading to the famous Maracana stadium, which recently closed for renovations in preparation for the next World Cup and Olympics. (The tour normally includes a pre-game visit to the Maracana’s fascinating museum.)
Between Luis and our new English friend, it would be hard to get a more comprehensive briefing on Brazilian football. They recollect matches featuring the great Brazilian players Pelé, Garrincha, Didi, and Kaká. They agree Garrincha is Brazil’s best player, even better than Pelé, and discuss great English players like the legendary Bobby Charlton.
The traffic has been bumper-to-bumper and we’re crawling along at a snail’s pace. It’s just ten minutes away now, according to Luis, although he’s been saying that for the last hour. All of a sudden we hear sirens and police motorbikes speed between the vehicles. “That’s the players!” exclaims Luis. We’re all getting a little excited now.
Luis briefs us on the practicalities, where the bus will park, how far we’ll have to walk, what jerseys to buy – the authentic ones cost R80, the fakes go for R40 – where we can buy hotdogs and burgers before the match begins. When we arrive, Luis distributes the tickets, and we follow him past the spruikers, through the gates, and up the colossal ramps into the slick new stadium to our excellent seats on the middle level, slapbang amongst the Vasco de Gama supporters, with a fantastic view of the stadium.
Spectators waving flags and dressed in their team’s jerseys and colours, start to trickle in soon after we arrive and while the stadium never fills, there’s a palpable tension and energy that doesn’t take long to ignite. The spark comes from the organized groups of hardcore fans down below in the seats behind the goalkeepers, Vasco at one end, Botafogo down the other. Their job is to motivate us up in the stands as much as the players.
Each of the sides of hardcore fans boast groups of loud drummers and as it gets close to game time, they begin to beat their dreams and chant their team songs. Some of the spectators around us join in. One young guy with a giant Vasco flag draped around his body yells out the lyrics passionately as he punches his fist into the air.
“It’s going to be a good game tonight,” Luis says, rubbing his hands together, and just then the players run onto the grounds, the spectators start booing at the opposing teams, and the match starts without much ado.
We’re just five minutes into the game when a Vasco player, Felipe, misses a goal and the Vasco fans around us get to their feet and hurl abuse down at the guy. “Puta!” they all shout, including an elderly man sitting beside us who is bright red in the face. It seems there’s no room for error.
“It looked easy,” Luis says, shaking his head. “He should’ve got it.” Soon after, there is a penalty against Vasco that wasn’t really a penalty, and the fans around erupt in anger again, this time at the referee. There is more shaking of heads, more abuse hurled, and the old guy nearby looks like he’s going to have a heart attack.
When Ramon scores the first goal for Vasco the supporters on our side of the stadium go wild. They scream, cheer, applaud, hug each other, and start to roar out football songs that everybody seems to know the lyrics to except our small group. The atmosphere is electric. “Vasco are playing better,” Luis says, rather pleased. “They’re more on the offensive.”
The game is getting pretty exciting now, and although we had no great attachment to either team before tonight, we find ourselves starting to root for Vasco. How can we not when we are physically seated on their side and surrounded by their fans.
One player, injured, leaves the field, a replacement comes on, and Vasco scores their second goal. Their supporters go crazy again. They’re ecstatic. They spontaneously hug and kiss their neighbours who they hadn’t said a word to until now. And when they’re done with their neighbours they run up the stairs, step onto seats, and reach out to the people in the second and third seats away from them to share their mutual joy.
“Vasco are playing very well – and this is Botafogo’s stadium!” Luis says, grinning. Minutes later the Vasco players have manoeuvred the ball to their end of the field, but they don’t quite make it and Botafogo take control of the ball. The Vasco fans a more sympathetic this time, pleased with the two goals. This time their anger is directed at Bota, but instead of cursing they begin to beat their drums and sing their songs at the top of their lungs to motivate the guys down on the field.
“I’ve never seen Vasco play so well before,” Luis tells us at half time. “I think they’ll win tonight.”
A guy standing alone on the other side of Luis asks where we’re from. Luis explains that he’s guiding a group of foreigners here to see the game. Enrique, an engineer from Barra da Tijuca, looks pleased. I’ve noticed he’s been on his cell phone all night, texting or making calls. Enrique explains that he’s communicating with his friend, a Bota fan, directly opposite us on the other side of the stadium! They come to matches together, separate for the game and meet at the end to return home!
When the second-half starts, it’s 2-0 in Vasco’s favour. Carlos Alberto runs on. “This guy is great player,” Luis says. Just minutes in, Botafogo almost scores and while Vasco’s goalie saves it the vibe suddenly shifts. Moments later, Botafogo scores their first goal and their fans go wild with delight.
The Vasco fans are livid. They punch their firsts in the air and raise their arms turning their hands in a gesture that says: “what’s this about!” They scream, they yell, they hurl abuse at players on both sides. The chants begin again at a volume we’ve not heard tonight.
The atmosphere is tense. Police arrive in our section and make their way down the stairs to the front row of seats. They also appear with fierce dogs on leashes at the edge of football field. They’re making their presence felt in anticipation of trouble.
“I think the Vasco players are tired. They look tired…” Luis says. “And Botafogo are playing much better this half.”
A Vasco player gets a red card. Their fans immediately erupt with anger. Some look as if they’ll explode. The man who seemed like he was going to have a heart attack appears as if he is. Botafogo earn a direct penalty from the penalty spot. The fans don’t understand what happened. If Botafogo score it will be 2–2 with only a few minutes to go. “The referees like it when it’s a draw,” Enrique says, “Because then nobody hates them!”
Botafogo score and the Vasco fans are beside themselves in a show of anger and frustration I don’t think I’ve ever seen before. They punch their arms in the air, hold their heads, kick their seats, abuse the referee, abuse the players, and shake their heads in disbelief to each other.
Our red-faced neighbour signals to his wife and they leave, cursing the whole time. With now only four minutes to go many Vasco supporters begin to leave. In the space of a couple of hours their emotions have been tested. They’ve gone from ecstasy to agony and it’s apparent they’ve had enough.
Some fans appear shocked at what’s just happened. Some just sit and stare at the pitch, while other take their arguments out of the stand and run through the last few minutes of the game as they make their way to the carpark. And while it’s disappointing that there is a draw, the police seem mightily relieved!