An Axe to the Hexa

Caution: Overexposure to the World Cup might cause anger, frustration, feelings of loss and disbelief. Brazilian football fans build the tournament up so much and just like that their hopes are dashed. And in Brazil, one gets lots of exposure. But I must have more French neighbors than I imagined because I could still hear the fireworks 30 minutes after our loss to the French in the quarter-finals. Either that or my neighbors decided to get rid of what is now a surplus of fireworks because an early elimination from the World Cup is hardly cause for celebration around here.

Lucimar da Silva Ferreira, “Lúcio” to football fans, has been a common fixture in the Brazilian team’s defense for six years now. After the match against France his eight-year-old daughter was overheard asking her mother ‘The judge cheated, right?’. There was no cheating. The consensus, both internationally and domestically, is that the “Seleção Canarinho” was outplayed by the French. Brazil’s star players lacked luster, even in the early phases against weaker teams. But most of us still thought that we could somehow pull this off, we could win the World Cup. Like Lúcio’s daughter, we find it hard to accept that we just weren’t good enough. We’d rather blame the loss on someone else.

There are few things Brazil looks forward to more than the World Cup. Brazil is the only country that’s made it to all 18 World Cup finals tournaments held since 1930. With five championships in 1958, 1962, 1970, 1994 and 2002, it’s also the country with the most wins. Coming into this year’s tournament with one of the most well regarded teams yet made for even higher expectations. You could see it in small cities like Lauro de Freitas, where the streets were covered in green and yellow and the team logo was painted on the asphalt. Sometimes the city did the decorating but there were many instances where neighbors would pool together their resources to adorn their street for the tournament.

During World Cup, it becomes impossible to escape the ubiquitous Brazilian flag, hanging from balconies or flailing on top of cars. Fireworks stands appear on roadsides. This year the quest for the “hexa”, the sixth championship, was the small talk of choice between strangers. Every day cab drivers, cashiers, and gas station attendants would strike up conversations with me, asking whether I thought we would make it to the finals.

Brazilians were obsessed. A week before this year’s tournament began, every news show on TV featured some variation of the tagline: ‘Ronaldo’s Cleats Give Him Blisters’. It’s not the first time Nike’s gotten bad press over the Brazilian team. The company was the villain in conspiracy theories that emerged after the 1998 loss in the World Cup final (again, to France). As team sponsor Nike supposedly demanded Ronaldo Nazário play the full 90 minutes of game time. Fans were outraged when they learned the forward had convulsions the night before the match. There was a lot of talk about that final game and some even doubted Ronaldo had in fact been sick at all, they believed the team was paid off, instead. Congress went on to investigate Nike’s involvement with the team in an official inquiry: it became known as the CPI Nike/CBF. Nike is still a sponsor today, but the company’s influence over the team has been greatly reduced.

World Cup years also happen to be presidential election years in Brazil. Campaigning picks up after the Cup ends in preparation for the elections in November. There’s an unfounded theory that in years Brazil wins the World Cup, the government in office is likely to maintain power. The idea is that winning the World Cup makes the population happy and satisfied with the current state of things. On the other hand, a loss is an indication that its time for an overhaul in the presidency. In 2002, almost 20 percent of people polled indicated that the outcome of the World Cup would affect their vote. Of course the theory proved to be very wrong when Brazil took home top prize only to have the opposition’s candidate, Luis Inácio da Silva, known simply as “Lula”, win the presidency a few months later.

Before this year’s World Cup, Lula, the pudgy Brazilian president, found the time to interview players and coaches in a televised conference with the team. Ironically enough for someone in his physical shape, he asked the coach whether or not Ronaldo was overweight. Offended, Ronaldo took a jab at the president, declaring that rumors that he was overweight and out of shape were untrue, just like rumors that the president is a heavy drinker were probably untrue, too. As much as I like anyone who’s willing to poke fun at the president there’s no denying that Ronaldo was, in fact, far from his ideal weight.

The hype is such that on days when Brazil plays, the country stops to watch it. Literally. Stores close down. Even Bovespa, São Paulo’s stock market, stops trading during matches. Thus, the World Cup has a major influence on Brazil’s economy. Companies that don’t let their employees go home early to watch the games usually make it up by providing TV sets in the workplace. Retail sales in São Paulo were reportedly down by 95 percent on the afternoon of the fist Brazilian game. With numbers like that there’s little incentive for most merchants to keep their doors open during matches. Bars and restaurants are exceptions, as they are able to thrive by providing people with a place to come together and watch the games.

But the World Cup can be good for business, too. Demand for items in the country’s signature yellow and green — wigs, bracelets, flip-flops — goes up. There are promotional tie-ins everywhere you look. Casas Bahia, a major domestic utilities chain, sold flat screen TVs and promised buyers they could purchase a second set for less than dollar if Brazil won the cup. It took them seven days to unload 2,000 sets (not including the near-giveaways, of course), a number the store says would have normally taken them seven months to sell. McDonald’s goes thematic with the Cup of Flavors: each weekday the fast food chain offers a different sandwich representing a World Cup-winning nation like the McGermany, McArgentina or McEngland.

The tournament is mentioned even in advertising for alternatives to it: for those few Brazilians who may be anti-World Cup. A cable TV channel used the championship to position itself as the entertainment choice for anti-World Cuppers. Presumably, one could stay holed up in one’s home watching TV, curtains drawn, stubbornly “oblivious” to the revelry outside.

While I definitely enjoy taking time off of work to watch a game, the best side effect of the World Cup has got to be an increased level of international awareness. People everywhere inadvertedly learn more about other countries during the World Cup broadcasts. Growing up in Brazil, most people I met would ask me if my parents were Japanese. But in 2002 when the tournament was held in Japan and South Korea, strangers started asking me if I was Korean, instead. I could sense a little disappointment when I told them I wasn’t. Watching the World Cup raises interest in the countries involved. It might even be trivial knowledge acquired: just hearing a country’s anthem for the first time, learning what their flag looks like or finally finding out where exactly that country’s situated. At least it’s a start in educating the general population in cultural studies and geography.

Watching the World Cup is an event in itself. At the end of June the tournament shared the spotlight with São João, a holiday especially popular in the Northeast region, and the festivities were merged. Here, typical music and dancing (forró), food (peanuts, corn, cassava) bonfires and fireworks rounded out the celebration. Even without São Jõao there are plenty of parties going on. People gather with family and friends to follow the games, be it at home, restaurants, work or anywhere else they can watch TV. Weekend matches call for barbeques and plenty of cold beer. The fans are loud. You can tell how the game’s going without actually watching it by just listening to cheering and the swearing, the honks, whistles and the drumming outside your window.

Football players are as big as celebrities get in Brazil. But the acclaim and money they receive is just one side of the football-playing coin. The other, darker side: fan expectations of Brazilian players are fierce. At their hotel in Germany, the Brazilian team was booed by a number of fans who had traveled there for World Cup — and more were waiting at home. But the spectacle of public disapproval reached only a portion of the team, as a lot of players didn’t even come back to Brazil; their regular jobs are in Europe. In fact, 21 out of the 23 players on the Brazilian team work outside of Brazil.

While we take pride in our football, our national leagues pale in comparison to those in Spain, England, Italy or France. Fans here love the game but the Campeonato Brasileiro and Copa Brasil are unorganized. Many teams are poorly funded, so players are discovered and groomed in hopes they can trade to international teams.

The players who did return to Brazil immediately left the airport through back doors in order to avoid fans and press alike. Argentina was eliminated in the same round as Brazil and the Argentinean fans also met the players at the airport, only they gave their team a much warmer reception. Despite losing, Argentina gave it their all and the fans regarded their team as heroes. The general disappointment in the Brazilian team isn’t just because we were eliminated; it’s how we were eliminated. The matches were bland and the victories were tight. Coach Carlos Alberto Parreira is still being criticized for choosing aging veterans like 33-year-old Roberto Carlos and 36-year-old Cafu over new blood like Robinho and Cicinho (22 and 26 respectively).

In contrast, after winning the 2002 Cup, Brazilian players were celebrated on their return. They paraded through the capital in a trio életrico (a truck that acts as a stage on wheels) with some 500 thousand people cheering them on as they made their way to meet then President Fernando Henrique Cardoso in the Palácio do Planalto. After that they went on to official receptions organized by the local governments in Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo. Did I mention politicians like being associated with winning teams? If he’s any bit superstitious, Lula might be feeling a little nervous about now.