I never thought I would see a 60-year-old man pogoing for an hour and a half straight. But I expected the famed Brazilian commitment to football to be impressive, and I wasn’t disappointed; the atmosphere in Pacaembu stadium was electric. The section we were in was jammed full of people jumping and shouting and singing, punching the air and jeering, Mexican waving and waggling their hands in the air in a gesture I had previously learned to associate with the musical theatricality of ‘spirit fingers’, but which here is apparently considerably more masculine.
When we scored – for the afternoon at least I was a Corinthians fan – the jumping threatened to nearly bowl us as a group over down the terraces; as we dominated the game with a confident 3-0 win, that exuberance only redoubled as the score grew. I began to learn the chants, a number of which had familiar tunes if not words, with one very easy ‘ole ole ole’ seeming to be a global fixture at football matches. I tutted alongside one toothlessly ancient fan next to me at the news that Ronaldo wasn’t playing, agreeing that he was ‘gordissima para jogar’ – far too fat to play. Few people still call him Ronaldinho, or little Ronaldo.
My swearing vocab in Portuguese is now significantly better than before the match, and I have perfected the venom with which one needs to spit ‘filho de puta’ at the ref. In fact, the fans have a particular chant they bring out when they think the referee has made a poor call against their interests, and it is amazing in its scatological vehemence, not to mention its well-practised simultaneous usage.
Impressive as it was, the stadium was far from full, and indeed my Brazilian friend João says that football is dramatically less popular here than it used to be. As the military dictatorship staggered to an end in the 1980s like an ageing patriarch trying to counter his weakening grip with an ever harsher familial regime, the Brazilian people then genuinely had nothing else to do, or mechanism through which to take pride in their country or their city, than football. Everyone but everyone was obsessed with both the national team and one of the many across each city and state, and fandom helped define who you were in a way that I haven’t seen elsewhere. Here in São Paulo, Corinthians is the team of the working classes, while Palmeiras and São Paulo are much more of the professional types; Corinthians fans pride themselves on being more committed, more vibrant, more absorbed than any others. One of the chants sung on the terraces was, “Corinthians, meu coração” (Corinthians are my heart).
The Brazilians obviously love football still – it is described as one of the three arts of the country, alongside samba and capoeira – but the spread of interests can only be seen as a positive for a country in which democracy is still a young but strengthening sapling compared with elsewhere in the world. That people no longer feel the need to repaint their houses blue, green and yellow during a World Cup shows the country is about more, has more, and is more than it was during a time of significant and scarring repression. It is still remarkable here that, as the country barrels towards an election, no-one is concerned about a dramatic change of governmental direction, that institutions are judged to be strong enough to withstand shifts in administration, and that, in fact, people feel a certain apathy about the outcome which is very visible in more established democracies. In comparison to that, their feelings about football border on the fanatic.