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God Is Brazilian: The Theology of 'Futebol,' Explained

And so He said unto Neymar...

Yasuyoshi Chiba/AFP/Getty Images

Game day in Sao Paulo. The morning begins with the car horns and vuvuzela blasts that are the roosters for a city anxious about a looming match. We spend the morning before Brazil play Mexico at the Museu do Futebol—a wonderful series of exhibits jammed in rooms built beneath the seats of an old art deco stadium in the middle of town.

Before the mind-bending montage of Pelé dribbling and the interactive juggling game with a virtual Neymar, there’s a scene-setting video. The film winkingly narrates a counter-factual history of Brazilian soccer. It tells the story of how Brazil has won 19 consecutive World Cups and now stands inevitably poised to claim one more. (In reality, they have won five.) Great players and famous journalists recount descriptions of fictional Brazilian triumphs in perfect deadpan.

The story is meant to be self-effacing, mocking Brazil’s grandiose sense of its own footballing ego, the blithe manner in which the entire nation begins a World Cup assuming victory. Describing Brazil’s unlikely triumph in the 1938 World Cup—where it didn’t even make the finals—one octogenarian player exclaims, “God must be Brazilian.”

But the charming video does less to mock Brazil’s inflated footballing ego than inadvertently confirm it. An example: Two of Pelé’s greatest shots at the 1970s World Cup missed the target. They were breathtakingly cheeky maneuvers—a long-distance shot from the center-circle, a samba shake in the six-yard box that caused a goalkeeper to fall down in a slapstick pile—that live through time for their audacity rather than their efficacy. In this film, those shots go in: the sublime becomes perfection, the rich get richer.  

Of course, Brazil is the only country that would have the audacity to fantasize about winning every tournament; to imagine that its team is blessed with that kind of sense of grace. And here we’re near a core truth: The World Cup is, in fact, celebrated in Brazil as a form of religious observance.

Among the charming quirks of Brazil: It is a nation comfortable dressing like a fifth-grade boy. Since we’ve arrived in the country last Sunday, I’ve only seen security guards and waiters dressed in suit and tie. Shorts are ubiquitous, even on weekdays, even in downtown Sao Paulo; the soccer jersey is a fact of everyday fashion. When Brazil plays in the World Cup, that tendency becomes something like an iron law. Looking down from space, the country must beam with all the radioactive yellow shirts worn by its overwhelming multitudes. Babies wear them, silicon-implanted housewives, and old men with walkers, too.

Two hours before the game, we climbed into the car to head over to a cousin’s viewing party. The drive was meant to take 15 minutes, but we soon stalled in an endless line of cars. It is a problem that nearly everyone in the city has imagined. When Brazil played in this tournament for the first time, authorities declared the day a holiday—to avoid the moment when every salary man in Sao Paulo rushes home at once. Shops, museums, offices, and schools are supposed to close three hours before the opening kickoff. But even that length of time is unable to prevent the overwhelming congestion that comes with 20 million people rushing towards the television sets.

As the clock ticks ever closer to game time, the mood turns hostile. The car horn becomes the primary method of anger management. Motorcyclists give up on the streets and hijack the narrow sidewalks.  When we finally run out of time, we park the car on a side street and briskly walk the remaining blocks.

All of my cousins have gathered together to watch Brazil; it’s a party that is obviously being repeated all over town. (To our frustration, we could watch such gatherings as we crawled across the city.) And this is happening for a preliminary round match of relatively little ultimate significance.

The World Cup is a month-long secular Christmas for Brazilians. Instead of lights and trees, the Brazilian flag is hung outside windows and buildings, it’s planted on the back of scooters, and flies from car windows. We’re staying with a cousin who has one strapped to her balcony; there’s another that hangs from the palm tree outside her lobby. It’s a way to get into the holiday spirit.

And it creates a kind of surprising atmosphere around the games. I keep hearing warnings about the outpouring of frustration that might accompany Brazil tumbling from the tournament in defeat, about how that will trigger popular discontent about the billions spent on this World Cup. In the game against Mexico, Brazil plays badly and musters a scoreless tie. There’s a little griping about this performance at our party. But there’s no sense of panic—or anything resembling the anger we saw on the road. Perhaps, it’s because triumph is seen as inevitable, a matter of divine right. Or more plausibly, nobody wants to ruin the party.