Friday, December 4, 2009
There are a few countries out there that absolutely shut down during the month of World Cup play. Brazil is one of them. Brazilians take their soccer very seriously. You could say Americans treat their sports as religion, but it gets watered down when there are so many sports competing for attention…baseball, basketball, football, let alone college and professional teams. There is an acute focus on the professional and the national level of futebol here and it’s contagious.
Belo Horizonte has two soccer teams in the top league, Atletico (Clube Atletico Mineiro) and Cruzeiros (Clube Cruzeiro Mineiro), and they just so happen to share a stadium in the third largest city in the country. Like the cross-town rivalry of the Yankees and the Mets, you are born into a life-long allegiance to one or the other in this city. No matter who you marry or where you eventually live will change this loyalty.
As we close in on the end of regular-season play, the rankings are still a bit up in the air. Brian and I had the opportunity to attend the last home game of 5th place Cruzeiros. With one more game to play, both Atletico and Cruzeiros are vying for a top-four space. The stadium, which holds 55,000 people, had a mere 40,000 in attendance, but with a majority of people decked out in the royal blue jerseys of their hometown team, it was hard to tell if there was anybody cheering for the visitors from Curitiba.
It was a bit unnerving to see the three referees escorted onto the field by five police officers in full riot gear. But it was sweet to see that entrance followed by little kids escorting each home player onto the field before kick-off.
After a great opening 10 minutes then a quick score by the visiting team, it was hard to imagine that 40,000 people could be so quiet. But life pulsed through the stadium when hometown Cruzeiros scored twice in stoppage time. I was a bit shocked when the fan I was sitting next to gave me a huge bear hug after the first goal. I was more prepared the second time and by the third goal, I gave him a hug amid all the jumping up and down by everyone. Although Cruzeiro ended up winning 4-1, it was the feel of the jubilant and totally engaged crowd that I’ll remember. It was so easy to get caught up in the team songs and chants, the amazing percussion section, the unifying movement of the crowd to the songs. I loved being part of it.
If you can’t get enough of soccer, there are several options here. There’s the professional outdoor leagues (Divisions A, B, and C), professional futesal (indoor soccer, but with out-of-bounds), professional ‘showbowl’ (indoor soccer where you can use the wall), futevole (beach volleyball but with a soccer ball and no using your arms or hands) and a million types of pick-up games in every park, grass field, hard court and dirt field you can imagine.
I can’t wait for World Cup 2010 in South Africa!!