In Brazil, Soccer Is A Way Of Life

Brazil is a five-time World Cup soccer champion; no other country can say that. At the Maracana stadium for a club game this past weekend it was rockin', even with just 19,000 fans.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish in Washington.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

And in the soccer-crazed country of Brazil this week, I'm Melissa Block. We're going high up in the stands now, under the lights, inside an iconic temple of soccer.

(SOUNDBITE OF CROWD CHEERING)

BLOCK: The legendary Maracana stadium in Rio de Janeiro, recently renovated for next year's World Cup. It'll be the first time Brazil has hosted the Cup since 1950. And if you ask Brazilians to name all the years their country has won the World Cup, it's on the tip of their tongue.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Speaking foreign language)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN#2: (Speaking foreign language)

BLOCK: That's right. Brazil is five-time World Cup champion. No other country can say that. I went to Maracana for a club game this past weekend and even with just 19,000 fans, it was rocking.

(SOUNDBITE OF CROWD CHEERING)

BLOCK: If this is what 19,000 people sounds like, imagine how Maracana must have shaken with sound when there were some 200,000 fans packed in here, pouring out into standing room sections that used to be right next to the field.

CARLOS ALBERTO TORRES: There is some things that is very difficult to find the word to describe. It's so emotional.

BLOCK: I'm talking with a soccer legend, Carlos Alberto Torres, captain of the Brazilian national team that won the World Cup in 1970.

TORRES: I was the captain of the best Brazilian national team ever.

BLOCK: Ever.

TORRES: Yes. This was what people say all over the world.

BLOCK: Brazil beat Italy in the final, 4-1. That final goal considered one of the best in World Cup history, a sublimely constructed team play. It ends with defender Carlos Alberto racing down the field to rocket a pass from Pele into the left corner.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED BROADCASTER: That's not a bad goal for Pele on the right side! There's Carlos Alberto! Oh, what a great goal that was!

(CHEERS FROM CROWD)

BLOCK: So who better to ask than this soccer legend, what makes Brazilian soccer unique.

TORRES: Football - soccer - in Brazil, is like a religion. Everybody wants to be a soccer player. You don't have idea what this means, World Cup for us Brazilians. Now, I ask you, can you imagine what's gonna happen if Brazil wins the World Cup here? I think is will be - (Speaking foreign language)

BLOCK: Total craziness. And if Brazil makes it to the final and loses at home...

TORRES: Oh, no, no, no. No, I cannot imagine it.

ALEX BELLOS: Brazilian football is unique because it is what united the nation like nothing else.

BLOCK: Journalist Alex Bellos was based in Brazil for The Guardian newspaper and wrote a book about the country's passion for soccer, "Futebol, The Brazilian Way of Life."

BELLOS: It's just part of what it is to be Brazilian. You can't sort of opt out. It's part of what you are.

BLOCK: When you think about the style of Brazilian soccer, what is the archetypal Brazilian soccer style? What does it embody?

BELLOS: It embodies a certain way that you move your hips and it's exactly the same as if you were to go and look at a samba dance, a dance or capoeira, that's the Brazilian martial art. There is something about the way that Brazilians move. They dribble better. There's more flamboyance, they're kind of showing off. They evolved this incredibly kind of creative, fun way of playing football.

And by complete coincidence, it turns out that it was really successful.

BLOCK: So that's that beautifully artistic side of Brazilian soccer, but...

BELLOS: Football is a microcosm of everything in Brazil, the good and the bad, and the organization of football is kind of the worst, entrenched, authoritarian, corrupt, sort of nasty part of Brazilian society. You have people linked to football clubs who've become absurdly wealthy while supposedly the club or the institution is losing money and debt, has no money.

You know, the stadium can be falling down, the players aren't getting paid, yet the couple of guys who are running it, you know, laughing all the way to the bank.

BLOCK: And so we head toward the 2014 World Cup back in Brazil for the first time since 1950. And if you mention that year, 1950, to Brazilians, they bow their heads in shame. It was powerhouse Brazil against underdog Uruguay in the final, 200,000 people packed into Maracana. Rio's newspapers and the city's mayor had already crowned Brazil the champions ahead of time.

But to everyone's shock, Uruguay pulled off an upset. As Alex Bellos describes it, when Uruguay's winning goal hit the net, Maracana fell silent as a tomb. Brazil's goalie was a pariah for the rest of his life.

BELLOS: People talk about the trauma of 1950, and anyone who was alive at the time will say that that was when my childhood ended; I didn't realize the world could be so cruel. It really is, you know, the most important game in Brazilian football, the one that's been talked about the most - it's not any of the victories. The most important game for Brazilian football is the loss to Uruguay in 1950.And you can guarantee that if Brazil gets the final next year, the only thing that the newspapers will be talking about will be the ghosts of 1950.

THIAGO DIAS: In Uruguay, Brazil game there's going to be a flag there, 1950. It hurts.

BLOCK: (Laughter) It hurts.

DIAS: It hurts. It hurts a lot!

BLOCK: Thiago Dias is World Cup editor for Globosport.com. It's the most popular sports website in Brazil.

DIAS: We have to win now, to forget 1950.

BLOCK: We're talking alongside a soccer field where an intense amateur game is underway, full of swearing and shouting.

(SOUNDBITE OF YELLING)

BLOCK: And the passions running high on this soccer field bring us to our word of the day. All week, we've highlighted words or phrases that speak to something distinctive about Brazilian popular culture. And we wrap up the week with a phrase from the world of Brazilian soccer. Here's writer Alex Bellos.

BELLOS: You don't say the ref is blind, which is what you would say in the U.K. In Brazil, it's juiz ladrado! which means the ref is crooked. So you're accusing him of corruption. In the U.K., he must have just not seen it because essentially, he's an honest guy. In Brazil, it's this idea that the guy saw it, he's just crooked because basically everyone in authority is crooked.

BLOCK: And what's the phrase again?

BELLOS: Juiz ladrao! That's what they all shout. Juiz ladrao!

BLOCK: Though I have to say, of all the shouts I heard directed at the referee at the game at Maracana stadium, this wasn't one of them. They were colorful and not fit for radio. I'm Melissa Block in Rio de Janeiro.

CORNISH: And you can watch video of Brazil's spectacular 1970 goal and photos from Melissa's whole trip on our Tumblr, ConsideringBrazil.Tumblr.com.

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