World Cup 2014: Travelling fans helping to forge a new identity

The huge numbers of supporters from Chile, Colombia Uruguay and Ecuador are bringing a welcome sense of brotherhood to the continent

Alberto Schmidt took five days to drive his van 3,000 miles from his home in Santiago, Chile, to Cuiaba, Brazil. He was accompanied by 800 other vehicles – cars, caravans and motorhomes – in what was the largest road convoy travelling to the World Cup.

The Caravana Santiago-Brasil 2014 drove up the Pacific coast to the Atacama Desert, crossed the Andes at an altitude of 4,000 metres, traversed the plains and pampas of Argentina and Paraguay, before reaching the Pantanal wetlands of Brazil, where the 3,000 or so in the convoy joined more than 20,000 Chileans already in Cuiaba.

After seeing their national team defeat Australia 3-1, Schmidt and his entourage drove a further 1,500 miles to Rio, where Chile knocked Spain out of the tournament on Wednesday. “It was like a home game at the Maracana,” he said. “There were 40,000 to 50,000 of us in the stadium!”

Still in Rio before the final leg to Sao Paulo, where tomorrow Chile face Holland to decide who wins Group B, I asked Schmidt, 33, how has been enjoying the trip. “I didn’t know Brazil. This is the first time I’ve been here,” he replied. “Chilean television doesn’t speak at all well of Brazil, always going on about crime and violence. But it’s a wonderful place. Peaceful and secure.”

 

Schmidt’s response reflects a characteristic of South America: there is no shared continental identity. It is striking how little each country knows – or even cares – about the others. Usually, Chileans are not very interested in Brazil and Brazilians are not very interested in Chile.

The World Cup, however, is bringing the continent together in a way it has not done before. A few days before the Chileans rolled into Rio, the city was invaded by an estimated 50,000 Argentinians to see their national team beat Bosnia and Herzegovina 2-1 at the Maracana.

As it was with Chile, the Argentina game felt like a home fixture. To see the spiritual home of Brazilian football taken over by two other South American countries in the same week has made Rio de Janeiro feel for the first time like the beating heart of the continent. And let’s not forget the 12,000 Uruguayans, 10,000 Colombians and Ecuadorians either.

Brazilians have never seen so many hermanos – the Spanish for brothers and the word they use to describe their neighbours – on home soil. They have come in larger numbers than expected; many are here without tickets, and like Schmidt a lot are sleeping in cars, on campsites and even on the beach.

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Copacabana has turned into a pan-American carnival. Brazilian fans are neither the loudest nor the most prominent – partly because the team has yet to play convincingly, and also because of the atmosphere of anger against Fifa and the government in the build-up to the competition. The party has been started by the hermanos.

Apart from minor grumbles that the continental visitors aren’t spending enough money on hotels and restaurants, the reaction to the invasion has been positive. Coverage of the Chileans who broke into the Maracana has focused on the failure of the local organising committee rather than demonising the fans. The Brazilian press has praised the passion of the other Latin Americans, writing that their repertoire of terrace chants puts the Brazilians to shame.

One reason why Brazil is historically not interested in its neighbours is because the country is so big it feels like a continent in itself. Brazilians speak Portuguese, which puts up another barrier between the Spanish-speaking countries that surround it.

Brazil looks to Europe and America before it looks to the rest of South America. The newspapers here report on Britain as much as they do Argentina. Middle-class Brazilians take their holidays in Paris and New York. “We were always quite deaf to our neighbours,” says Arthur Dapieve, a culture columnist at Rio newspaper O Globo. “But never before have so many of them been in Brazil at the same time. I think this could bring us a little closer.

“Just like the World Cup in Germany brought a new sense of what it is to be German, maybe the World Cup in Brazil will bring a new sense of what it is to be South American, and we’ll start to see ourselves as part of a whole continent.”

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