Copacabana football (2001)

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A striker and goalkeeper clashed going for the ball, two yards away from goal. Both fell over in the sand, the ball a yard away.

The striker, lying prone, looked like Fidel Castro in his prime – bearded, barrel-chested, slight pot belly, but muscular.

Still flat on his back, he slipped his foot under the ball, knocked it up a foot in the air, swivelled and did a bicycle kick as the ball rose and the ball flew into the net.

Unbelievable, we’d just seen a 35-year-old score while, literally, standing on his head. I bet not even Pele managed that.

Understandably, the goalkeeper stomped off in a sulk and played no further part in the match after such a public humiliation.

All this on heavenly Copacabana where the Atlantic breakers pound in on the beach with such a ferocity that the undertow rips the sand from under your feet and you’re dragged out into the raging surf.

The sand is pristine and fine; it’s got the texture and appearance of demerera sugar.

Everything they say about Brazilian beach football is true. And it’s even better than they say.

After all, who else gets to play football on sugar!

Ok, everyone was showboating to a degree (quite a few players had oiled their chests for the occasion) but for a free spectacle, little in the world can match it.

The nine-a-side match on Rio’s seafront was the most compelling, hilarious and supremely athletic game a bunch of amateurs could produce.

Thunderous free kicks smashed into crossbars. There was manic commitment to all out attack and ferocious tackling.

At least half the players attempted bicycle kicks – I haven’t seen more than one back in Britain in the last two years. Sunday morning on Hackney Marshes is colourless by comparison.

If only Fidel and his pals had been playing later that day instead of Romario, hero of the 1994 Brazil World Cup and himself a keen beach footballer, then it would have been the perfect footy day out.

As it was – it was almost perfect.

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Across the city, the 33,000 capacity Sao Januario is bang in the middle of a rundown part of the city, which has an unmistakably sinister atmosphere.

Before the match the narrow streets were thronged with young, tough-looking fans.

The girlfriend was convinced we were about to be hauled from the taxi and murdered. (Two days later, several people were murdered on a bus, which was hijacked by muggers – most, of whom were themselves gunned down by the cops.)

Romario’s current club, Vasco de Gama, play at the picturesque Sao Januario stadium in the north of Rio – a five-minute drive from the famous Maracana. The club were reigning Brazilian champions when they hosted Bahia – a side from further up the country’s east coast.

The Sao Januario’s main stand can seat maybe 10,000 people – it’s built to look like a colonial home and has a cloistered walkway on the top, which extends round to the top the stand behind the goal. Blue ceramic mosaics depict famous scenes from Vasco’s past.
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The stand’s a beacon of elegance among the shanty towns. We decided to go ponce class and buy the best seats in the ground.

These cost five quid apiece and we took our places on the cast iron seats at the very spot on the halfway line where you’d expect the Queen to sit.

How on earth Brazilian clubs can afford to pay the likes of Romario when most people get in for a quid and the best seats are a fiver, is beyond this fan.

And maybe beyond the local fans too.

What ensued was the strangest welcome in football.
A 60 yard covered tunnel snaked out from under one stand and the players emerged to a chorus of catcalls.

Fans in the cheap seats opposite started baracking Romario – their own player. They then held up scores of offensive banners – “Fora Romario” – which, presumably, told him to ‘get lost’ in Portugese, unless, of course, Fora means something much nastier.

This riled the fans in the expensive seats on our side of the pitch. They rose en-masse to give the cheapos the finger, hurl abuse and bellow “Ro-mar-yo”, successfully drowning out their antagonisers.

So, fans of the same club split down the middle and singing songs to rile each other. Hardly surprising that Bebeto said the following day he preferred to play away from home.

In the middle – a glorious beacon of decorum and delight – was the pocket of 100 Bahia fans, gloriously upbeat unlike their sourpuss Vasco counterparts.

The Bahia fans brought their own band of four samba drummers who lit up the whole game with a barrage of beats.

The best one came when Bahia had a free kick 20 yards out. As a midfield hotshot lined up his thunderbolt, the band adroitly played the rhythm you know so well from films – you know, the forbidding crescendo of drums that precedes someone about to be guillotined or soon to hear the hangman pull the trapdoor lever. Nice touch!

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Needless to say, the thunderbolt could only manage to knock over a photographer.

But even the band was topped – Bahia had brought their own formation line dancing samba dancers.

A glance over in the second half saw 20 fans sashaying their way across the terrace, turning in an instant, as precisely as a military band. They moseyed their way along to the other end of the terrace – all perfectly synchronised. Easily the highlight of the match.

After the entire fan furore, the match was sure to be a letdown.

Romario was an affront to football. Even before kick-off his attention was focused on the cheapos. He gesticulated madly in the centre circle, indicating that all the fans wanted was his money.

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Brazilian fans habitually ask players for subsidies and Romario, having refused the request, was being given the bird.
Why he wasn’t substituted I don’t know, his gesturing was the most animated he got throughout the whole match and he expended less energy in 90 minutes than most people do in their sleep.

He made almost no impression on the match whatsoever; unlike Bebeto and ex-Middlesbrough man Juninho – a livewire throughout.

In Brazil, Refs carry an aerosol can – not to pepper spray protesting players – but to spray a line 10 yards away from free kicks – it saves a lot of fannying around!

As you can tell it was the crowd and the ref that caught my attention, so if you’re going to Brazil make sure you watch the beach stuff as well as the slightly anti-climatic pro stuff.

Piece originally written by me in 2001. Many thanks to Gary Pritchard for unearthing it

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