Brazilians fear 'the Pele of England' stands between them and paradise

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The Independent Online

"Which side will you support?" It is a question which stalks any English person in Brazil. The reply is always greeted by disappointment. "If you don't change your mind," says my news vendor, "then I'm going to tell everyone that you're English, and you'll end up getting lynched." Suddenly we have become public enemy number one, the foe who bars the gates to paradise.

"Which side will you support?" It is a question which stalks any English person in Brazil. The reply is always greeted by disappointment. "If you don't change your mind," says my news vendor, "then I'm going to tell everyone that you're English, and you'll end up getting lynched." Suddenly we have become public enemy number one, the foe who bars the gates to paradise.

Not for long, obviously. Come tomorrow morning Brazil will have won and the English community can return to its normal anonymity. Or so our hosts believe. "The English potato is already being roasted," screams the front page of one of Rio's downmarket papers. It is a headline which helps whet the appetite for the showdown.

Brazil lives for the World Cup. Every four years a fever of creative activity is unleashed. People spend hours decorating their street with murals and green and yellow streamers.

At the start of the tournament they are often cautious about their country's chances. Wary of committing themselves they come up with a natural self-defence mechanism saying that they have little faith in the team. But then the wins start rolling in – as they did against China and Costa Rica – and joyride gathers pace. Victory is assured, they can only lose to themselves. Armed with such belief they will get up in time for the 3:30am kick-off or stay up all night. Whereas in Britain the game may cause a temporary lull to the rush hour, in Brazil non-emergency operations will be suspended and defeat may result in a parliamentary inquiry, as it did after France 1998.

"It's insane," says Carlos Alberto Parreira, who felt the force of such collective hysteria when he coached Brazil in the 1994 World Cup. The campaign ended in victory, but even so Mr Parreira was glad to get out. "I don't miss it all," he says. "I know from experience that the pressure is inhuman. After four years in the job I felt mentally and spiritually drained."

Mr Parreira has thought long and hard about why the World Cup is so important to his country, and came to the conclusion that the triumphs are the focus of Brazilian national pride. There is little in the way of a glorious past, and even less of a glorious present, as the country buckles under the strain of social and economic problems. The promised land has never been delivered. But they can swell with pride in referring to themselves as the first world of football.

Amid the burgeoning confidence is an informed respect about the potential of tomorrow's opponents. According to the fevered pre-match speculation on the beachside football pitches of Rio, Brazil's flair and England's tradition will make this one of the games of the century. The press have been liberal with their compliments too, focusing, inevitably, on David Beckham. The Jornal dos Sports considered England the best team in the tournament and predicted that if they won, their captain would become "the fifth Beatle".

The paper has sought to characterise and label the England team: Beckham is "the Pele of England"; Michael Owen is um Perigio, the Danger; while Sol Campbell is Xerifaom, the Sheriff. Danny Mills may be less than pleased with the moniker, Avenida, or the Avenue, so called because everyone goes through him.

In a country when everyone has a strongly held opinion, the views of Leao Saraiva command due respect. The world record holder at "keepie uppie", the full-time street entertainer became the world's best by juggling the ball 112,000 times for 15 hours. He reckons it will be "the most difficult match of the tournament" for both teams, with Brazil prevailing 1-0.

Football was imported to Brazil in 1894 by the son of a Scottish expatriate rail worker. From the start, racism dominated games between blacks and whites and this is said to have been at the heart of the uniquely flamboyant style of football for which the country became famous. In his book The Brazilian Way of Life, Alex Bellos argues: "Blacks, say some football academics, were afraid to tackle whites, so they improvised for self protection using guile to keep the ball and the Brazilian dribble was born."

The central role of the World Cup in Brazilian national life dates from 1950, when the country hosted the competition. South America's giant was in the process of forging its own identity from its disparate strands of immigrants. Before the final the team was showered with presents, and the Mayor of Rio made a speech proclaiming them as world champions. The gods of football were not amused, and saw to it that Uruguay came from behind to win 2-1.

It is still possible to meet people who were at the Maracana that day and found the experience so traumatic they have never returned. Losing the 1950 World Cup continues to rank as the biggest tragedy in Brazil's collective consciousness. It caused swaggering pride to give way immediately to breast-beating pessimism. Brazilians were a mongrel race, it was said. No success could come from such impurity.

The racial inferiority argument was finally put to bed in 1958. With the effervescence of the young black Pele and the dazzling wing play of the Indian-descended Garrincha, Brazil proved they were more than a match for anyone. Their triumph in Sweden remains the only time a team has won the World Cup outside its own hemisphere. Over the next eight years, whenever Pele and Garrincha were on the field together Brazil never lost.

More than 1958, however, it is the 1970 triumph in Mexico that sticks in the Brazilian mind. It was more than just the exhilarating football. For the first time Brazilians could follow the games live on television. And the collective experience of watching the matches was framed in an ultra-nationalistic context.

For President Medici the victory provided a boast that Brazil was indeed taking giant strides in the right direction.

The climate of 1970 lives on. "Para Frente, Brasil" was a march written especially for the tournament. The government soon picked up on the song and used it remorselessly in its propaganda.

Long after the return of democracy the song lives on. The giant TV Globo network uses "Para Frente, Brasil" as a theme to its football coverage, and it will call the masses to their screens tomorrow morning.

So what are English attitudes to attitudes to Brazil, the nation that took our indigenous game and gave it a gilt edge? The 1970 defeat in Mexico was an opportunity lost for the Sir Alf Ramsey's defending champions but few in England have anything but admiration for the Brazilian side that won the day. Brazil will never be in the same category as Germany and Argentina when it comes to grudge matches.

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