Thursday 27 June 2013

Brave new world: mixed reactions as fans in Rio return to new, FIFA-standard Maracanã

To the uninitiated, getting around Rio de Janeiro is about as easy as solving a Rubik’s Cube. Sure there’s a passable metro system, but that only caters for the millionaires, trust-funders and unadventurous tourists who tend to populate the city’s affluent Zona Sul (South Zone). Venture west beyond the confines of Leblon or north past Rio’s financial district and you’ll soon find yourself thrust into a veritable hinterland, full of surprisingly alien rules and practices.

Here’s a case in point. Let’s say that, for whatever reason, you’re waiting at the side of the road. A stranger walks over and stands less than ten metres away. Another turns up. Congratulations, you’ve just created a bus stop. (I exaggerate, but only slightly.) There are no signs to tell you which buses pass and where they go; you have to ask someone. If that person doesn’t know, you ask someone else. Part of the reason Brazilians are so staggeringly helpful is that, in situations like this, they need to be. This is a country of enforced informational samaritanism.

Once you have a bus in mind, the next task is to squint at the oncoming traffic until it appears and wave it down before it gets away. This is easier said than done; the bus won’t always be in the lane closest to the pavement and is likely to be going pretty fast. Sometimes your best option is a kombi – a dilapidated minibus. These are rather less common since Rio mayor Eduardo Paes banned them from the South Zone, but you’ll still see the odd VW camper trundling around, seemingly fuelled only by the incessant energy of the driver’s assistant, who barks a strangely poetic list of destinations (“Cascadura, Madureira, Mercadão!”) out of the window.

Worn out yet? Then you’ve yet to experience the actual journey. Imagine being inside a washing machine (sweat is your analogue for water here) and you’ll be pretty close. No wonder public transport has been such a key issue in the protests that have swept through Brazil over the last week and a half. Anyway, the point of all this rambling is this: When you’re offered a lift in Rio de Janeiro, you bloody well take it.

(This is especially true when you’re based, as I currently am, in Barra da Tijuca. Part of the city’s ever-unfurling western sprawl, Barra is linked to the rest of Rio only by a ten-lane strip of road that recalls Miami more than it does Brazil. Admittedly, this is in part due to the names of the high-rise condominiums that pepper the area – Ocean Drive (any link to the Lighthouse Family purely accidental), Liberty Place, Summer Dream – all of which are in English.)

So it was with some relief that I hopped in the back of a car and headed to the Maracanã last week for Rio’s first taste of Confederations Cup action – the Group A match between Mexico and Italy.

It was to be the first competitive match at the historic stadium since September 2010, a fact not lost on my company for the day – João, a ludicrously fanatic Fluminense fan, and his Flamengo-supporting friend, Rafael. As we settled down for a pre-match chopp (draft beer) and galeto (spit-roasted chicken) on the wonderfully named Rua Haddock Lobo, they told me how it felt to be returning to a ground they knew so well.

“It’s the Maracanã, man!” Rafael beamed. “There’s no other way to explain it. I woke up at 3am today and couldn’t get back to sleep. I was too excited.” João concurred: “I’ve been coming here since I was a kid. The Maracanã is Rio.”

We wondered down to the stadium via a quick stop at a traditional Brazilian boteco – a cheap, cheerful bar that helps to satisfy the country’s unquenchable thirst for beer. On the menu this time was a local delicacy: fried cod balls. “These are some of the best around,” João assured me. I wasn’t arguing.

The exterior of the Maracanã was as alluring as it was the last time I visited, in 2009. Brighter and cleaner too – although you’d expect nothing less after a renovation that ended up costing a colossal R$1billion ($458million). Some incomplete building works aside, all was running like clockwork: signs were clear and plentiful, volunteers well informed.

Things were similarly slick inside. Gone were the seats with no backs, replaced by comparative armchairs. The view, from my spot at in the northeast corner at least, was stunning. In the toilets I overhead a young fan giggling with his friend: “Paper towels! This is an emotional moment!”

As the game began, there were mutterings of approval from those sat around me. (In Brazilian stadiums you don’t often have to persuade someone to share their opinions; they are usually submitted freely and loudly for the approval – or otherwise – of surrounding fans.) “It’s beautiful,” said João, with a twinkle in his eye.

The crowd was – or, to my eyes at least, looked – decidedly more middle class than it did in 2009, snapping away on smartphones and behaving genteelly. (One notable exception: a moment of petulance from Mario Balotelli prompted a terrifyingly unanimous chant of “Balotelli is gay.” This sort of homophobia is all too common in Brazilian society, unfortunately.)

That those present were for the most part merely curious rather than gripped can be partly attributed to a lack of partisanship towards either of the sides involved. But an undercurrent of scepticism began to emerge as supporters surveyed the extensive array of corporate and hospitality seating in the stadium’s middle tier.

The tickets that did go on sale to the public weren’t cheap either: a Category 3 seat for the game was priced at $52 for local fans (and more for us gringos). To put this in context, the cheapest tickets at the stadium cost around $1.50 as recently as 2005 – although admittedly for club matches. “I’m worried it’s going to be like this when [domestic football] returns: nice and clean but too expensive for the man on the street,” Rafael told me later.

This, of course, is where the renovation of the stadium – and Brazil’s World Cup preparation in general – reaches choppy waters. There is a feeling that the FIFA arenas will lead to a (re)gentrification of the game in the country; that, as Roberto Assaf put it in sports daily Lance!, “football will be controlled and watched by the elite... like it was in at the start of the 20th century.”

There are other related worries. Rafael and João bemoaned the fact that traditional displays of fandom – particularly Fluminense’s famed mosaics and the enormous flags waved in big games – would die out due to tighter regulations. The seats, too, leave little room for fans to stand and mill about as they always used to in certain sections of the ground.

A supporter sat behind me during the match also highlighted the fact that the traditional shallow Maracanã goals had been replaced by the deeper nets used in Europe. “It’s FIFA rules,” his friend sighed, which provoked a response that has been fairly common in these parts of late: “Fuck FIFA.”

This is all particularly painful because, perhaps more than any other ground, the Maracanã has always been the stadium of the people. With its plentiful seating and heavy workload (both Flamengo and Fluminense have called it home for long periods of their history; Vasco da Gama and Botafogo have been frequent tenants), it is has provided joy and respite to millions of Brazilian fans during its 53-year history. If the beach is Rio de Janeiro’s most democratic public good, the Maracanã has never been far behind.

Last Sunday the crowd was at its loudest when singing a well-worn Maracanã favourite, Domingo Eu Vou Ao Maracanã. But while the song, made famous by the Beija-Flor samba school, used to be belted out with pure joy, the sentiment this time was rather more bittersweet.

On Sunday I’m going to the Maracanã
to cheer for the team I support!
I’ll take fireworks and flags.
There will be no messing around.
We’re going to be the champions!

I don’t want a seat with a number!
I’ll stay in the standing area
to feel more emotion!

It may be too early to draw concrete conclusions about the long-term effects of the World Cup on football at the Maracanã. But if my trip to the stadium was anything to go by, feelings will be mixed as Brazil embraces FIFA’s vision of modernity.

A version of this article was published by The Guardian.

(Photos: all writer's own.)

Friday 21 June 2013

Seleção stars voice support for Brazil protests

With the world's gaze fixed on the protests sweeping through Brazil, you'd be forgiven for expecting the country's footballers to have been cajoled into PR-friendly silence by a crack squad of agents, publicists and party whips (OK, that last one may be pushing it). But the stars of the Seleção have bucked expectations this week, throwing their support behind the 'Change Brazil' movement.

I wrote a quick piece for The Mirror detailing the reactions of the Brazil squad around their 2-0 win against Mexico on Wednesday. Read it here.

(Photo credit: Getty.)

Friday 14 June 2013

Austerity measures: Flamengo look to get back on even keel with frugal new president

If you've cast even the most half-hearted eye over these pages in the last... well, ever, you'll know that drama has followed Flamengo round like a bad smell in recent years. And not just drama either; a recent audit revealed that the Rio club has debts totalling R$750million (£225million) – a colossal figure in anyone's book.

Much of the recent strife coincided with the presidency of Patrícia Amorim, a plucky former Olympic swimmer whose knack for pulling off PR coups was not matched by her political or financial savvy. In my latest article for When Saturday Comes, I look at the demise of her reign and detail the ways in which her successor, Eduardo Bandeira de Mello, is attempting to reshape the club along more economically responsible lines.

The July 2013 issue is available now from places that sell magazines, and from the WSC website.

NB - Since I submitted the article Flamengo have sacked coach Jorginho, whose work I praised generously. Time makes fools of us all.

Thursday 13 June 2013

365 dias, 365 jogadores

The countdown clock marked "World Cup 2014" ticked down into its final year yesterday, prompting no little excitement around the world and a pang of dread for those among us who adore Brazil but fear the potential for samba-soundtracked organisational chaos.

To mark the occasion I have started a new series over at SKP's sister blog, Games Against Nature. Every day until the big kick-off (or at least until my not-always-lengthy attention span expires) I will post an old photo of a Brazilian footballer. Some will be familiar, some may not be, and some will be accompanied by a poem or something similarly frivolous.

Here's the first instalment. 

Wednesday 12 June 2013

Unlikely heroes lead Série A goalscoring charts

The Brazilian football calendar is an infuriating beast. At the start of the year the state championships test the patience of even the most saintly fans, ambling on for five months despite dwindling interest levels, vast gulfs in quality between sides and pitches that make your local park look like Wembley. In an ideal world, shortened estaduais would be the perfect aperitif before the main meal of the Brasileirão, but in reality it's hard not to feel a touch jaded by the time things go national.

Things are even worse this year. Due to the Confederations Cup, Série A started with a gruelling Sunday-Wednesday-Sunday-Wednesday-Sunday sprintathon, prompting some coaches to complain about fatigue after just five rounds of the season. And now the league goes on sabbatical until the start of July. Whirlwind romances are not commonly followed by enforced separation, but then Brazilian football rarely abides by the script.

This tumult has also allowed some lesser-known (to European audiences, at least) players to claw themselves to the top of the goal-scoring charts. In my latest WhoScored column, I say hello to the unlikely heroes of the opening weeks of the Série A season.

Friday 7 June 2013

Brazilian football digest: May

It was a busy month in Brazil, what with Neymar's future being decided and the Série A season finally getting underway.

In my latest Betting Expert column, I pick out the key stories from May, touching on Vitória, the Maracanã and a fine goal from João Vitor. Click here to read it.

Thursday 6 June 2013

Family values: Lionel Messi's cousin shines for Vitória

It's not easy growing up in someone else's shadow. Just ask Maxi Biancucchi. The pint-sized Argentine striker has spent his whole career playing second fiddle to his cousin (and the best pint-sized Argentine striker of the lot), Lionel Messi.

But after a semi-nomadic trawl round South America, Biancucchi appears to have settled in Salvador, where his early-season performances have helped Vitória establish themselves as the surprise package of the Brasileirão. In my latest piece for WhoScored, I profile Biancucchi and take a look at his contribution to the Leão's form. Read the article here.