Soccer isn’t my game. I never played as a child. In fact, I avoided soccer the way I avoided all sports that involved projectile objects: at all costs. In part because I know how much it belongs to other people, it makes me uncomfortable to claim any involvement in “the beautiful game.” And yet, in the past week, I have been waking up at night, thinking about it. I watch the clock slow down at 3am while my mind races: What happened to Brazil? What about Lionel Messi? I can’t shake this year’s World Cup.
When I was 27, I sold everything I owned and moved to Rio de Janeiro. I wanted to do some freelance writing and stringing for American papers, and I wanted to train capoeira, the Brazilian martial art and dance form. I knew precisely one person when I arrived. My impulses were suspect, born of a peculiar American obsession with the exotic and a mildly self-destructive need to blow up my life. I quit a good job. I took precisely ten lessons in Portuguese. I gave a bunch of clothes and books away and dragged my thrift store table onto the sidewalk. I remember reading Harry Potter in the airport to distract me from the churning in my stomach. On the plane, I drank a two-inch high bottle of red wine and threw up in the bathroom.
No one in Rio understood why I had come. I wasn’t married to an oil man. I didn’t have a Fulbright. A young woman alone, “freelance writing,” training capoeira—to most people, this signaled a pitiable and possibly dangerous solitude, making me a kind of charity case. The sister of a friend of a friend offered to take me to a movie as if she were offering to feed me a bowl of porridge. Before I could even order a pao de quejo at the local deli, I had been asked countless times: No really, who was the man you followed? What are you running from? Once people accepted that I was living in Rio just to live in Rio, then the next question was, so who’s your team? They didn’t really expect an answer, but these were the poles that defined the map: Love and futbol.
My Copacabana apartment was rented under the table, from the acquaintance of a friend. There were no other ex-pats in my building. We had a security guard slash doorman who found the fact of me endlessly amusing. He was kind to me, although I later found out that he had been spying on me and reporting back to my landlord. He was the first to insist that I choose a team. The Brazilian verb is torcer, it means to support, to root for or to cheer, but all at once. It carries the weight of a life choice, who do you root for? Para qual time torce? I said I didn’t know yet, and the security guard said: so then it’s Vasco da Gama. I could not say no. At the time, I was thrilled to be included.
Rio has a few major football clubs, but the most intense and storied rivalry is between Vasco da Gama and Flamengo. Flamengo is strongly identified with Rio herself. Vasco is strongly identified with Rio’s working classes. It was one of the first teams to integrate, and when it won with black players, opponents called for the “blue collar” players to be banned from the game. Vasco was eventually re-admitted to the major league. The team imagery is reminiscent of the Oakland Raiders, and the fans have some of the same piratical bravado. When I told people I was rooting for Vasco, I got the same basic reaction as when I told people I was taking the bus into the favela Rocinha to train capoeira – profoundly concerned looks, wondering whether I was touched or stupid or just dangerously naïve. Soccer fandom is identity, in Rio, and Vasco wouldn’t do for a nice girl from the States. But I didn’t want their pity. I hadn’t blown up my life in order to play it safe. Torço pro Vasco, I root for Vasco.
At one point, my roommate from São Paulo and I took a group of ex-pats to Maracanã to see a Vasco Flamengo game. This is long before any upgrades for the Cup, and it was hot and grueling in the stands. The men around us all wore Vasco jerseys or Gracie Jiu Jitsu shirts, which is the martial art that my capoeira friends studied in order to actually be lethal. Everyone was giving the gringos cold sidelong glances. Before a penalty kick, the muscle-bound man in front of me got down on his knees, kissed the ground, and began to pray. God listened. A vast translucent banner was stretched out over the crowds. Above, below, and all around, I could see nothing but Vasco. Thankfully, we won. On our way out, a man in Flamengo colors got beat down, lightning quick but brutal, as my little group ran to safety past a row of young men spread-eagled along the side of a bus and getting searched by federal police. I was wonderfully, terrifyingly, and absolutely out of my depth that day, like most days.
Vasco and Rio were places I passed through. I couldn’t get it together to do much stringing, I was too proud to ask for the help I needed. I did a small amount of freelancing, taught English, and stayed for one year. I made some lifelong friends, fell in love with the cafes and samba clubs in Santa Teresa, stayed up all night to march with a samba school at carnaval and threw rice onto the roof at a candomble ritual in Salvador. I taught Eminem lyrics to rich tobacco executives in offices that looked out on the beach. But then I faced the moment where I had to either double down or cut bait. I had figured out a certain life, but it was heavily weighted with transient ex-pat friends, except for a serious flirtation with a dark-skinned blue-eyed capoerista known to me only as Gavião, or Eagle. One of my new Brazilian friends told me a story about how his uncle, a samba school leader in another favela, had given the order to have a thief’s legs broken. This friend then asked me for a loan. This wasn’t exactly a threat. But by the time I heard the story, I knew I would get paid back only if I stayed in Rio for many years. Starting over is freedom and starting over is also a kind of poverty. I could call myself a Vasco fan, but the fact was that Vasco didn’t know what to make of me any more than I knew what to make of Maracana on a Sunday. I had proven to myself that I could do the impossible, learn Portuguese, start over in Copacabana. But it was time to either start putting down new roots or to go home.
In 2002, I watched the World Cup in a Brazilian barin San Francisco. I brought a date, along for the ride. We got there at 11pm and then sat on the floor, locked in from the outside, with a bunch of Brazilians singing Brazilian songs until 6am, at which point we all got up and danced before the game started. My date thought I was terribly exotic. When Brazil won, the hundred or so of us burst out onto the street in the Tenderloin with drums and horns chanting, Penta Campeão! Fifth-time Champion! People looked out of the windows of SROs wondering what the hell had happened. I was elated and giddy and sleep-deprived and overcome with saudade, the Brazilian word for nostalgia and longing—longing for Rio, for Santa Teresa, for futbol, for barefoot athletes doing flips in a cement arcade, for a life blown to pieces. They say we don’t have a word for saudade in English.
I went into this year’s Cup with mixed feelings. I was cheering for the US, and actually got very wrapped up in Tim Howard’s heroic beard. But could I root for Brazil, with all the controversy around the stadiums?
Before this year’s tournament, one of my closest Brazilian friends, Vagner Lopes, was heavily involved in protests that brought thousands of people into the streets in Rio. I have pictures of him with a bullhorn in hand. The immense expenditure on remote stadiums was a heavy blow, in the face of the country’s dire need for infrastructural and educational investment. Vagner actually left the country in frustration before the Cup started. When I asked him how he thought Brazil’s staggering loss would affect politics there, he told me that had Brazil won, it would have unquestionably cemented Dilma’s political carer, but that he doesn’t think the loss will toss her out. She has a massive publicity budget, and her only real competition is heavily associated with corporate power. The disaster with Germany won’t help him either. Another friend, Livia, posted a viral video of a popular Brazilian musician singing a nuanced and eloquent protest against this year’s World Cup. The song makes clear that it’s nothing personal against the players, or the fans: Desculpe, Neymar, não torce. Just too much corruption, too much waste. Both the video, and Vagner, seem fatalistic about soccer’s role, they seem to assume it will always and only be the opiate of the masses. “We are an emotional country,” Vagner writes.
Some people have been retrospectively arguing that Germany’s win was predictable by marshaling pure economic arguments, saying the creditor-imperialist with recent investments in soccer academies had to win. This feels wrong to me. Germany and Brazil and their relationship on the field are all more complicated than rich against poor. Beyond structural economic histories, if futbol is an opiate like carnaval, it functions in part because of its real ability to invert social structures and to make the impossible possible, even if the moment is ephemeral. Love, futbol, politics, corruption. The map has intersecting highs and lows. Brazil’s massive terrible freefall against Germany struck much more knowledgeable critics than I as inexplicable, beyond the pale. It stunned partly because it seemed to be the impossible taking place, but grotesquely. Grantland called it “a match that obliterated belief.”
And in the final, Germany’s win against Messi and Argentina seemed anything but inevitable. All beautiful goals seem impossible and thus like a fluke, but you could see in the faces of the other German players that they didn’t want the Cup to belong to upstart Mario Götze. They wanted Muller or some other storied hero to have that golden goal. They kept grabbing Götze‘s face and squeezing his cheeks, like they were saying, “you, rascal, you,” but with an edge. Götze himself had a canary-eating look, like he had caught the bouquet at a wedding by muscling out someone’s sweetheart.
Messi, meanwhile, looked like a death camp prisoner on the long march to accept his award for the tournament’s best player. At 3 am, my mind goes back to his sad, serious face. I circle questions I can only articulate as What does it mean? and Would you want to be Lionel Messi? He is 26, the same age I was when I moved to Brazil, which was a million years ago. He is widely touted as the best living player, laboring in the shadow of Maradona. Messi has never had to ask, what should I do with my life? He has also never lived without the weight of a nation’s hopes and dreams on his shoulders. If you were a skinny kid who had to move to Spain to get the training and the growth hormones you needed, but you missed home every minute you were away—what a gift to go back to play for Argentina on the world stage. But if they call you water in the desert and thousands of your countrymen have traveled to see you, and at the height of your powers, at the World Cup finals, you lose by one goal to the obnoxious child of a middle class German professor? Maybe the question isn’t Would you want to be Lionel Messi so much as, I know he doesn’t need my sympathy, but what do I do with these complicated and surprisingly strong feelings for a football star who plays for Argentina and FC Barcelona? I don’t even own a television.
Football fans watch because the game has, for a long time, across many nations and social classes, made the impossible seem possible. It’s important, in order for change to occur, for that belief to exist, no matter how ephemeral. Argentina and Brazil can win—could have won—didn’t win. Talent and potential and youth are freedom, they are mobility across class and space, and they are also a kind of burden.
It’s not my game, it’s not my team, it’s not my country. I wanted Germany to win because I miss Brazil and I wanted the yellow and green to at least have been crushed by the best team in the world. But I also desperately wanted Lionel Messi not to disappoint those roaring Argentine fans, and I wanted a South American team to win on South American soil. I found myself having superstitious thoughts, like, “maybe he missed that because I was looking away, and I just have to make sure not to look away.” These are the vaguely psychotic thought patterns of a true fan. It’s as if only this year, individual heroic narratives and complicated loyalties to place and Tim Howard’s beard and the crumbling of Five Thirty Eight’s predictions and a generalized free-floating saudade all combined, such that by the time the camera was panning over that great bleeding sun behind the silhouette of the Corcovado during the finals, my heart broke. Eu torço. I don’t even know what this longing attaches to, I don’t know why I should wake up thinking about Lionel Messi. Beautiful in its meaninglessness, futbol, what a wonderful mess.
Michelle Chihara: Mixes your cocktails.