Go to the Globe and Mail homepage

Jump to main navigationJump to main content

Brazil’s beautiful game: Stephanie Nolen’s quest to understand a national obsession Add to ...

As Brazil gears up for the FIFA World Cup, which opens Thursday in Sao Paulo, the Globe's Latin America bureau chief goes in search of Brazil's relationship with futebol

Football, Brazilians kept telling me, was core, unlike anything else, to the national identity. ‘It’s not like Canada, where you have hockey but you also play other sports,’ Fabricio Mendonça, far left, said, catching his breath after a barefoot beach game. ‘Here, we have football.’

DANIEL KFOURI / FOR THE GLOBE AND MAIL

The Bar Fluminense in Feira de Santana has remarkably little to recommend it. The inside is filled with crates of empties, so patrons sit on the verandah, which immediately abuts a busy road that keeps it permanently shrouded in exhaust fumes. The chairs, tables and beer glasses are all made of flimsy plastic. The only view in this mercantile town in one of Brazil’s poorest states is of uniformly bleak, low-rise cement shopfronts.

But a tangle of jerry-rigged electrical cables hangs from the verandah roof, allowing three or four bulky televisions to blare at once. They may show a contest between national soccer teams, such as Flamengo and Corinthians. Or a state game. Or the European Champions League final, maybe, rebroadcast days after it is played in Madrid or London.

The only football team the patrons – burly men in faded shorts and flip-flops – are not watching is their own, the one for which the bar is named. A couple of blocks away, the huge Joia da Princesa Stadium lies dark because Fluminense de Feira is not playing these days, relegated to the state league’s second division last year after a season of especially poor performances.

Stephanie Nolen

Stephanie Nolen is The Globe and Mail's Latin America bureau chief, based in Rio de Janeiro. A veteran foreign correspondent, she has reported from more than 60 countries and won seven National Newspaper Awards, including  one for her extensive recent work on caste and gender in India. She is also the author of the bestseller 28: Stories of AIDS in Africa. She and her family are cheering for Ghana in this World Cup.

When you start to talk to the men (and they are all men) at the bar, it emerges that it has been years since the club won much of anything. If you must know, 1969 was the last really good year.

Léandro Silva can tell you about it, although it was 17 years before he was born. He is the president of the official Fluminense fan club, which he founded in 1999, at the ripe age of 13. He has never seen a winning season, or even a vaguely distinguished one. Nevertheless, he regularly folds his lanky frame into a friend’s little car and travels 600 kilometres across Bahia to cheer on Fluminense.

Or he did, before they were shunted out of the first division. They will not play again for six months.

Nevertheless, Mr. Silva has permitted himself a tiny flicker of hope in recent days. The team has a new president, a slick lawyer and local burgher named Hercules Oliveira da Silva, who is promising a return to the glory of yore. He has signed up new sponsors, and says he will hire new players. So fans are poised to resume their fervent displays of devotion, pounding drums and waving flags, to Fluminense.

Stiffly upright in his red bar chair, still in the pressed work clothes from his job as a trainee accountant, Mr. Silva tells me that, if this means 20 hours over Bahia’s pitted roads to get to a game, he and his friends will be there.

When he says this, I have been listening to the men in Fluminense talk about football for a couple of hours. They describe fealty to their club the way people other places have talked to me about religious faith. There are two other teams in this city, and both are much better, yet they have relatively few fans. Feira de Santana loves Fluminense, even though it loses. Eventually I can no longer maintain a properly neutral journalistic demeanour. “I have to tell you, to someone from outside, this all sounds a bit bonkers,” I say to Mr. Silva in Portuguese.

He does not bristle, or laugh. Only nods, seriously.

“It’s totally irrational.”

‘We like what we see’

I was at the tail end of a road trip of my own when I found myself in a down-at-the-heels shrine to a losing team in the middle of nowhere, 1,500 kilometres up the coast from Rio. As Brazil geared up frantically for the FIFA World Cup, which opens Thursday in Sao Paulo, I was doing my best to get a handle on its relationship with futebol – a game I have never played or even, to tell the brutal truth, found particularly interesting.

As a lifelong hockey aficionada, I can understand the love of a game, and the devotion of a fan. I know what it is like to have much of a country share an obsessive interest in a sport: schlepping the kids to lessons, shelling out for pro game tickets, skiving off work to watch the Olympics. Canadians have a proprietary relationship with hockey – in our hearts, we believe we love it more, we play it better, we are truer to the real essence of the game – and as soon as I moved here, I could see this was much the same for Brazilians and football.

But with Brazil and football, there was maybe more to it. “We’re obsessed,” my accountant told me one day not long after I arrived in Rio, after a noisy argument broke out between his colleagues over a penalty in a long-ago game. “It’s religion,” Léo Rabello, the first agent ever licensed by FIFA in South America, explained when I sought him out. Football, Brazilians kept telling me, was core, unlike anything else, to the national identity. “It’s not like Canada, where you have hockey but you also play other sports,” an out-of-work cinema usher named Fabricio Mendonça told me, catching his breath after a barefoot beach game in a small coastal town.

“Here, we have football.”

In my quest to learn Brazil’s game, I talked to scouts and I talked to players and I talked to the director of the fancy Museum of Football in Sao Paulo. One day I joked to a friend that I needed an anthropologist to explain just why football had this sacred place.

“Oh,” he said. “You need to call my friend Marcos – he’s an anthropologist of football.” Of course: Brazil has an anthropologist of football.

So I went to meet Marcos Alvito at a sidewalk bar in the centre of Rio. Football, he said, is the vehicle for the story Brazilians like to tell about themselves. “The story has to do with a country that has never really been important – it’s very big and many people say it could be powerful, but it’s not. It’s a country that is rich but its people are poor … With football we look in the mirror and we like what we see. We win, we are important, we developed our style and everyone recognizes it is colourful and full of genius.”

Professor Alvito teaches at the Fluminense Federal University (the name means “born in the state of Rio,” and the founders of the team up north in Bahia considered it glamorous). Football gives Brazilians stories of talent beating poverty – almost all of the game’s great players came from hardscrabble backgrounds – and skill overcoming racism. “Unlike our political system, which is full of corruption and bribery, the football pitch is a truly democratic space where the results are respected.”

In Brazil, he went on, “the nation and the state are completely alien to one another. The state arrived on a ship from Portugal. It was imposed.” But the nation – indigenous people, African slaves, immigrants from Lebanon, Italy and Japan – that is something else. In the 514 years since the first colonizers arrived, Brazil has had only 44 years of true democracy. “The gap between the state and the people is very deep. We are not attached to any national symbol.”

Except one. “When the World Cup is on, people say ‘Brazil is playing,’ not ‘the national team.’ ”

I ordered more beer and settled in to listen, but eventually I had to interrupt. “You keep saying ‘everyone.’ People keep telling me, ‘Brazilians think this or that about football.’ But we’re talking about half of Brazilians, aren’t we?”

Because when Brazilians tell you, “Everyone in this country starts to play when they’re a child,” they mean boys. And when Brazilians tell you “we all love football” – they mean men.

Prof. Alvito instantly agreed. Football is a male preserve, and the language men use to discuss it gives them a way of talking about everything – emotions, identity, beauty and suffering – that they could never do directly in a country where gender identity is still so rigidly constructed. (It was illegal for women to play football – illegal – from 1941 until 1979.) Prof. Alvito went on to tell me about putting his eight-year-old daughter into football lessons a few years ago. He wanted her to love the game as he does, but he also wanted her to have insight into how Brazilian men communicate, to have secret knowledge of the language that is used by those who still hold the balance of power.

And while the gender politics of Brazilian football are tricky, the professor noted, the racial politics are another thing altogether.

But we’ll come back to that.

Before the fateful match between Brazil and Uruguay in 1950, played at the round Maracana stadium, Rio's mayor addressed the team as 'already victorious.' Then the upstart Uruguay snatched the Cup with a 2-1 victory.

AP

Winning, at home

From the moment I moved here nearly a year ago, it was apparent that there was far more at stake in the World Cup than just a soccer competition. The Brazilian economy – soaring with 6-per-cent growth just a few years ago – had ground to a halt. The government was looking to the tournament to create 3.6 million jobs and inject $32-billion into the economy, promising that infrastructure upgrades for the Cup and tourism exposure would propel the economy for years to come. Yet the streets filled periodically with tens of thousands of protesters who demanded better public health and education instead of new football stadiums.

A national election looms in October, and every discussion of whether the current government will survive into reelection includes the “Well, if Brazil wins the Cup …” element in the calculation. As public support for President Dilma Rousseff plummeted, it became an article of faith that she could hope to be returned to office only if the Selecao, as the national team is known, triumphed.

Brazil's greats



One of the most recognized players ever, Pele lead Brazil to its first World Cup win in 1958 and holds many of the sport's records.

Brazilians will tell you the true king of football was Manuel Francisco dos Santos, called Garrincha (little bird).

Neymar da Silva Santos Jr., a striker, is considered one of the best players in the game today.

There is pride at stake, as well – in Brazil’s image as host, for one. This country is hungry for superpower status, and pulling off a flawless Cup, or even a mostly fine one, would be a world-stage stamp of approval. FIFA bosses have issued increasingly harsh statements about the shambolic preparations – as the tournament grew closer, airports and stadiums languished, sheathed in scaffolding, and promised highways and public transport systems were still under construction. But some people here simply shrug – there is always the jeitinho brasileiro, Brazilians’ ability to find a way, that pulls it all together at the last minute.

And, as I soon discovered, there is another question of pride at stake in this Cup as well.

Brazil won its first World Cup in 1958, and has bagged four more since then, more than any other country. But those Cups are not nearly as important as the game of 1950, the only other time football’s top contest was played here. Europe, the tournament’s usual home, was still in tatters after the war, and so FIFA begged Brazil to take it on. The Selecao soared through the first rounds of that competition, crushing the Swedes and defeating even the favourite, Spain. In the Maracanã, the round Rio stadium where this year’s final also will be played, Brazil faced Uruguay in the final match – upstart, insignificant Uruguay.

Before the match began, the mayor addressed the team on the field: “You Brazilians, whom I consider the winners of the world championship; you Brazilians who in a few hours will be hailed as champions by thousands of fellow countrymen; you who have no rivals in all the hemisphere, you who overcome any other competitor, you who I salute as already victorious.”

You can perhaps sense where this is going.

Brazil, under complicated scoring rules never used again, needed only a tie to win; Uruguay needed a victory. Brazil scored early on. The 210,000 spectators in the Maracanã were jubilant.

Then Uruguay equalized.

“The stadium was so quiet you could hear a bee,” the football agent Léo Rabello told me. He was there. He was 12.

And then Uruguay scored again.

At the Museum of Football in Sao Paulo, the World Cup Final of 1950 is addressed in its own room – a dark space sheathed in heavy grey drapes. Teachers on class tours lead their students in, line them up in silent rows, staring up at the giant screen that is the only thing in the room. The crucial three minutes of flickering, black and white footage from 1950 play in a continuous loop. The film is accompanied by a thumping soundtrack of a heartbeat.

When Uruguay scores the second time, the heart stops and the room is silent. So silent you could hear a bee.

‘Everyone’s game’

Football was not invented here, although Brazilians can sometimes seem a bit blurry on that fact – the game was first played by the ancient Greeks, Chinese or Egyptians, depending whom you ask. And while today it is seen as “everyone’s game,” it was for its first 100 years a sport of the elite.

The game came to Brazil in 1894 with Charles Miller, a young man with delicate hands and a giant mustache. The son of Scottish immigrants, he was sent back to a British boarding school – and upon graduation, came home to Sao Paulo bearing two balls, a pair of cleats and a book of rules. He founded a club, and invited other young men in his social set to play. That, of course, meant white men.

Here is a fact that startled me when I first started to study Brazil: More than 40 per cent of the people taken from Africa to the Americas as slaves went to Brazil. This country imported more slaves than any other – nearly five million. In the early days of Portuguese rule, white women were scarce and there was a considerable amount of miscigenação from sex, consensual and otherwise, with black and indigenous women. Today, a majority of citizens identify as mixed race or black. Brazil has the largest black population after Nigeria.

Santos, a team named for a city in Sao Paulo state, draws fans for its commitment to classic futebol-arte. It also draws hundreds of young players hoping to make it to the big time.

DANIEL KFOURI / FOR THE GLOBE AND MAIL

But only one of 39 members of the federal cabinet is black. No company listed on Brazil’s main stock exchange has a black chief executive officer. The average income nationally for black workers is just half of what it is for whites. There is remarkably little public discussion of racial identity or racism, and yet it continues to shape a huge amount of what happens here – including, of course, football.

When Charles Miller brought the game home, it spread rapidly and by 1910 there were organized football teams across Brazil. But games were closed to non-whites, as players or spectators. It is football lore here that the Rio team, Vasco da Gama, desperate for a championship title, began to round out its roster with talented black and mixed-race players around 1920 – and began to win. Black players were not widely admitted for another decade.

It is Brazilian gospel that the first World Cup victory, in 1958, came about because the coach fielded the best players regardless of their race. One of the black players was Edson Arantes do Nascimento, known to friends as Pele.

While Brazil did not invent football, it did create a certain style that was once seen as the apex of the game. Futebol-arte, they call it here: the languorous, street smart, almost teasing style that relies on feints and dribbles, played by slight, sleek players. Pele holds all the sport’s top records, but Brazilians will tell you without hesitation that the true king of football was Manuel Francisco dos Santos, called Garrincha (little bird): He had a birth defect that bent his spine and legs, but nevertheless led Brazil to World Cup victories in 1958 and 1962. The footage of his dribbling, in those games and others, is hypnotic; he seems to be dancing.

That style is said to be evocative of capoeira, the martial art invented by slaves, and samba, their music. It is, in others words, black influence – a product of miscigenação. “It is an article of faith that our football is [the way it is] because of the mixing of the races,” Prof. Alvito told me. “Of course, it’s racist to think blacks can run well, make art with their feet.” But most Brazilians speak positively of the idea that more than 100 years of racial mixing has produced a people with unique qualities.

Most Brazilian football players of note have been black or mixed race. But the glass ceiling in Brazilian football is no higher than that in society as a whole: When, a month ago, the two most storied Rio teams, Flamengo and Fluminense, faced off in a national championship, both had a black coach – for the first time ever at the pro level. There are no black presidents of major-league teams in Brazil. (They are elected by dues-paying club members, who are predominantly well off, which geneally means white.)

Brazilian striker Neymar da Silva Santos Jr., whom many consider one of the best players in the game today, and his compatriot Daniela Alves started a social media campaign with the slogan “We are all monkeys” after European spectators threw bananas on the field a few weeks ago. But that is racism in Europe. Racism here barely makes the news.

When we talk about futebol we are talking about our problems. At least in football, it seems like we have a chance of solving them.
Professor Marcos Alvito, Fluminense Federal University

And sexism? Never. It is startling for a person from a country whose national women’s team generates more excitement than its men’s, how uniformly, almost impenetrably male the world of Brazilian football is. I could not find mixed-gender classes for my children, or a women’s team to watch, or any women who talked about soccer, even occasionally, if not incessantly, the way men do.

Finally I tracked down Milly Lacombe, one of the few female sportscasters in Brazil’s history. She told me about the day in 1974 when a teacher chased her off the school pitch, where she was the lone girl in a pick-up game, and broke her heart – by telling her to join the girls playing dolls, where she belonged. All these years later, she is still fighting to be taken seriously on the subject of football.

“You can’t really have an opinion or, if you have an opinion that is the same as what everyone else is saying, they will say, ‘Oh, okay, she heard it from somewhere else – she heard it from her dad or her husband.’ If you think something different, you’re screwed. ‘What? Where did you hear that?’ Or you’re patronized: ‘That’s okay, honey. Thank you for sharing.’ Or men really, really become mad at you. It’s a very tricky thing to be in this world.’ ”

She insists it is going to change. “There are lots of women who more and more can talk about the game with knowledge. They will prevail – but it’s going to take time,” she said. For girls and women, and for all black and mixed-race Brazilians, too. “We finally started to talk about race, about things happening in Spain, as if they don’t happen in Brazil. But we’re talking – it was like we were completely blind but now we can see from one eye.”

Prof. Alvito puts it more wistfully: “When we talk about futebol we are talking about our problems. At least in football, it seems like we have a chance of solving them.”

You must have a team

Not long after we arrived in Brazil, my son informed me he was Botafogo. It took me a few minutes to puzzle this through: Botafogo is a neighbourhood in Rio. But not our neighbourhood, and not one, I didn’t think, where he had even ever been. It is also the name of one of Rio’s four legendary football clubs, and that was what he meant. Why Botafogo, I asked? Well, he said, I like their logo. And their goal keeper isn’t very good but he is kind. (“How do you know?” “Well, he looks kind. And he tries his best.”) And, he added, it was Garrincha’s team.

The six-year-old had figured out before I did an important reality of Brazilian life. You must have a team, and your reasons for having said team will not always be rational. Most often, it is because it was your father’s team. The doors to every room in a Brazilian maternity ward have tiny socks or jerseys pinned to them, in the team colours of the baby’s father. (If, that is, the baby is a boy.)

You may go rogue and choose a team of your own, as a very young person, but you will never change that team, once chosen. “Football is loyalty. Football is a place to show nobility … we have small arenas to show our decency, loyalty, ability to love.”

That was the professor’s take. A fan named Diego Matos, whom I met in Bar Fluminense up north, put it rather more bluntly when I asked about his fidelity to the hard-luck team. “It’s not like women. You can change your woman. But you can’t change your team.”

So, eventually, it became clear that I needed a team. I chose Santos, from the small port city of the same name in Sao Paulo state. I hadn’t even been there yet. Santos was not doing particularly well, but it has history. It was Pele’s team. Robinho’s team. Neymar’s team. (It was a sign of my gradual absorption into Brazilian life that I knew who these men were.) And, it had begun to seem to me, Santos, more than most, still played the Brazilian game.

It is hard to find that game these days, as Léo Rabello, the agent, lamented to me. At 76, he wears his hair in a cashew-coloured swoop, and leaves the top three buttons of his striped shirt at liberty. His office, in a sprawling beach suburb of Rio, has heavy black leather furniture and a Jacuzzi on the terrace. Mr. Rabello has handled the careers of more than 500 football players; his favourite deal was the one that sent Ronaldo (who would go on to lead Brazil to victory in the 2002 World Cup) to his first European team.

But players these days bore him. “Brazil is copying too much from the European way of playing,” he said with a scowl. “It’s the coaches’ fault, believing in the European way – making players tough and leaving behind the playfulness, the folklore. You get too strong and you lose the ability.” After this year’s Selecao (only four of whom play in Brazil today) practiced together for the first time, their technical co-ordinator expressed similar frustration. Brazilian players can’t dribble, he said; the only way they can steal the ball any more is by using speed, not skill.

The football training school in Santos receives 100 e-mails a week, many with videos of boys in action, that have been sent by agents, scouts, coaches and dads.

DANIEL KFOURI / FOR THE GLOBE AND MAIL

But Santos, as the giant sign on its training ground proclaims, remains the home of futebol-arte.

“A Santos player is a skilled player,” Hugo D’Elia Machado told me, when we met in a room packed with trophies beneath the stands in Vila Belmira Stadium. (As a Santos fan, I now use only the insider nickname os meninos da Vila, the boys from Vila, to refer to my team.) A former pro player himself, Mr. D’Elia Machado runs the Santos junior training and recruitment program. “Santos doesn’t have those brute-strength players – we push the skilled ones. Thinking players. We want a distinct style of play.”

The walls around the training ground are painted with giant black, white and yellow portraits of all the club’s greats. The morning I visited, 25 young men in blue jerseys and technicolour cleats were taking turns nailing the ball at a pair of goalies who dove, arms outstretched, like superheroes taking flight. A coach summoned Igor Souza, 17, off the Astroturf to talk to me.

Mr. Souza was shy but straight-backed and polite, like all the Santos players I met. He was spotted by a scout at a tryout in his sleepy hometown in the interior when he was 12. The man approached his mother, who was raising three kids on her wages from cleaning a shop. He said he could take Igor to Santos and most likely get him a place in the youth program – an almost unimaginable opportunity. But she didn’t have $50 for the bus fare, and regretfully told her son he could not go. For a week, Mr. Souza wept when no one was looking. Then the scout came back. He would pay for the bus himself, he said: Igor had to get to Santos. So she sent him, and five years later he has a training contract. He plays his guts out, determined to be called up to the pro team when he turns 18. “You have to kill a lion every day,” he told me gravely.

Last year 10 of the 11 new players on the pro squad came up from Santos’s own youth program, a startling number. But eventually some may be traded, or sold outright – and Santos will get a percentage of every deal in their career, as the place that trained them, Mr. D’Elia Machado explained.

A Santos player is a skilled player. Santos doesn’t have those brute-strength players – we push the skilled ones. Thinking players. We want a distinct style of play.
Hugo D’Elia Machado, Santos junior training and recruitment program

I was starting to understand that football was a business in Brazil, but not in the way I had assumed – the selling of tickets, or sponsorships, or beer ads. A huge amount of the business of football here is the flesh trade. Globally the transfer of football players is worth more than $3-billion a year.

Many Brazilian teams exist primarily as vehicles to export players to Europe, the Middle East and Asia. Ninety per cent of the pro players in Brazil have multiple stakeholders in their economic rights: their club, but also the agent who found them, and perhaps a businessman or two who bought into their potential. They, too, will get a cut every time that player moves teams.

Mr. D’Elia Machado receives 100 e-mails a week with videos of young boys playing, sent by agents, scouts, coaches – and dads. There is a steady tide of packets containing CDs with more videos, mailed from across the country. “It seems like there is a father in every village in this country who is convinced his son is the next Neymar,” I joked as I sat down.

“No,” Mr. D’Elia Machado replied, deadpan. “Not the next Neymar. Better than Neymar.”

FC Barcelona signed Neymar from Santos in 2013, in a now-infamous five-year deal worth $140-million, much of it in hidden payoffs (including a huge one to his father) that eventually brought down the Spanish club president.

But those deals come along once in a generation. A pro player at Santos today makes between $15,000 and $100,000 a month. And even that, Mr. Rabello said, is typical of fewer than two per cent of players. There is huge status in being sold fora, outside, but many players end up on third-string teams in places such as Kuwait or small towns in Serbia.

And for the players who stay in Brazil? In 2012, out of 31,000 pro players, 82 per cent were making less than $750 per month, according to the sport’s governing body, the Brazilian Football Confederation. Last year players formed a new movement, the Common Sense FC, and threatened to strike if working conditions did not improve: They complained about violent attacks by enraged fans, lousy pitches and the fact that small or losing teams were going months without paying them.

When Fluminense de Feira de Santana was relegated last year, the club shipped off players on loan to teams that might scrounge up the money to pay their salaries, and fired the ones who were not under contract. A few of them, Léandro Silva, the fan-club president, told me, are actually paying other pro teams for the chance to play, in the hopes someone may notice them, and take them away.

Ten-year-old Kennedy Sampaios has a low-income bursary to attend a top school. But he still counts on his skill at football to bring him a better life.

NADIA SUSSMAN / FOR THE GLOBE AND MAIL

A suitable dream

In late May, Joaquin Barbosa, the popular chief justice of Brazil’s Supreme Court, announced that he was stepping down from his post. He simply said he had had enough, but leaked reports in the media said he was weary of dealing with the fallout from a ground-breaking corruption trial of prominent politicians over which he has presided in recent years. His departure is a blow for President Rousseff, who has pledged to diversify power, because Justice Barbosa is black – the first black person to serve on the Supreme Court.

This being Brazil, Justice Barbosa did a lengthy exit interview with the Rio newspaper O Globo – about his views on football. “Brazil is still a country in transformation,” he said. “I’m not even 60 yet, but I knew an extremely backward country, rural, that has absolutely nothing to do with what Brazil is today. For sure, my grandchildren, in 30 years, will know a more modern, a dynamic country, where football is only one more sport, even though it’s adored by everyone.”

Days later, a national survey found that more children take judo or track and field in school sports classes than football. The middle class in this country is expanding rapidly; Mr. D’Elia Machado, the Santos team official, says more and more young people show the effect of leisure time spent with video games, not soccer balls. “When I was a kid, there was a football pitch on every street – and now they’ve all got towers built on top of them,” he said.

In Feira de Santana, football pitches are surprisingly scarce; pickup games happen in parking lots and on quiet streets. Kennedy Sampaios dribbles the ball in alleyways; there is no patch of green near his small home. The day I met Kennedy, who is 10, he was lounging on the couch in his family’s sitting room in a low-income neighbourhood on the edge of town, watching Real Madrid defeat Atletico Madrid for the Champions League title. It wasn’t live – the actual game had been days before – and Kennedy had already watched it several times.

Kennedy is killing time. He, too, is waiting for the scout or the agent or the investor who will spot him. Someone needs to pay a couple of hundred dollars to get him and one of his parents bus tickets to a tryout in a city to the south.

Kennedy’s father Isalton was craque, as they say – a hotshot football player who might have gone pro. But he had to go to work at age 12 to help support his 11 siblings, and after a few years he had to give up the game. Kennedy’s older brother Mateus is grinding it out playing for a third-string pro team in Brasilia, hoping to make it to a championship where a better team may see him and buy him.

Dad and mom make about $900 a month between them, as a bus driver and a door attendant at a school; they send a chunk of it to Mateus each month because the club he is playing for barely covers his room and board. They may dismiss him at any moment, and Mateus doesn’t have enough cash to get a bus home.

But this does not dissuade Kennedy – he’s good. Everyone says so. His coach, Sergio Benevides Jr., watched with me while Kennedy played a pick-up game in the school yard at recess. “That first day we saw him play, we all said, ‘Where did he come from, this kid?’ ” And his dad is certain: “I’m not talking as a father here. I’m a person who knows this business. And he’s excellent. Way beyond his age level. He’s explosive, even though he’s skinny. He’s got everything. We can tell.”

Kennedy is in many ways a child of the new Brazil – not long ago people in this part of the country struggled for a basic electrical connection, but his parents have managed to buy a big TV, paying in instalments. He gets a low-income bursary to attend a top public school. But it is football, only football, that seems to him like a suitable dream.

The Sampaios’s living room is decorated these days with seven Brazilian flags – the de facto symbol for the Selecao. One is always there; the rest have been hung in anticipation of the Cup. “And because they’re green,” says Kennedy. “It’s the colour of hope, isn’t it?”

Trampolines for politicians

World Cup victories

1958 Sweden
Sweden 2 - 5 Brazil

1962 Chile
Brazil 3 - 1 Czechslovakia

1970 Mexico
Brazil 4 - 1 Italy

1994 United States
Brazil 0 - 0 Italy
Brazil 3 - 2 on penalties

2002 South Korea/Japan
Germany 0 - 2 Brazil

Kennedy’s dreams are not so hard to understand. Even Leonardo Silva’s unswerving devotion to his team, I could grasp, more or less. But one thing still puzzled me, after a few days in Feira de Santana and a year of looking at football: the team’s management. Who takes over a hopelessly losing football team, deep in debt, lacking even players, in a one-horse town in a forgotten corner of Brazil?

Hercules Da Silva was only too pleased to explain. He summoned me to lunch at a long table where he sat with several cronies in equally breath-taking shirt-and-tie combinations. (There was also a young woman in a tight pink cocktail dress with enormous false eyelashes; Mr. Da Silva kept a proprietary hand on her thigh.) Mr. Da Silva once played pro, and remains, he informed me, a person of considerable public standing in Feira de Santana. Since he took over the club a few months ago, he has exposed and purged corrupt managers, and signed up new sponsors eager to be affiliated with his Fluminense. I listened for a long time, and when I could finally wedge in a question, asked just where he would make money. He jabbed a thick finger – weighted with a gold-and-ruby ring – at a team jersey and talked about advertising. Except, of course, no one will be wearing the jersey because no one will be playing for at least six months. “That headache exists,” he acknowledged. “But it’s a very strong brand.”

His friend Harley Santos Ramos interjected from the end of the table; a gastrointestinal surgeon by training, Dr. Ramos recently started a sports agency. “We could make money from trading,” he said. “But the big goal is to find players from around here to sell.”

Cristiano Alves, who covers sports for the local newspaper, had told me when I met him earlier that day that this would be one appeal of taking over Fluminense. “Look, there are lots of reasons to have a team. Vanity. Money-laundering, maybe. Making money off buying and selling players. And political popularity – if you’re running for mayor or Congress, it’s a way of having influence. We always say the teams are trampolines for politicians.”

When I mentioned this to Mr. Da Silva, his response was rapid. “I would be a very competitive candidate for state deputy, but I’m not running for Congress,” he said. “That has nothing to do with it.”

He took a mouthful of shrimp stew and I began to ask another question, but he cut in.

“I would, however, like to be mayor.”

Later that night, I recounted this conversation to Léandro Silva and Diego Matos, the fan-club chiefs. They have been heartened by Hercules Da Silva’s takeover of the club, and I expected they would have speculated about his motives. But this proved not to be the case.

“Huh?” Mr. Matos replied, sounding crestfallen. “So there’s politics behind it.”

But there may be something else. In his list of reasons to run a team, Mr. Alves, the reporter, had included one more.

“Love – that’s the fifth reason.”

Adaptation



The Globe's Latin America bureau chief Stephanie Nolen and her two children in Rio de Janeiro.

NADIA SUSSMAN / FOR THE GLOBE AND MAIL

There was a moment, a few weeks ago, when I realized my family – nomads who have traipsed from South Africa to India to Brazil – had adapted to our new life in Rio. My son and I were waiting on our street corner for his school bus in the clear light of early morning. Round, unripe passion fruit littered the sidewalk, windfall from the vines that choke the city’s electrical wiring. My son began to kick one a bit, and then passed to me; unthinking, holding my coffee, I passed back. He took a step toward the road, so that a fire hydrant and a streetlight now formed a rough goal, and I began to take shots on the phantom net while he lunged to block the hard, yellow fruit.

An older black man laden with bags – a domestic worker arriving for a day of service in a rich person’s apartment, by the look of him – stopped at the corner, unwilling to traverse our game. I stopped our ball, urged him politely to continue.

“Não, não,” he replied. “Quero ver o que Mamãe pode fazer.” He wanted to see what Mum could do.

So I stepped back a bit, took my best shot and got it past my son’s left foot. The gentleman threw his arms up exuberantly. I gave an unbecoming cheer. My son rolled his eyes at the two of us, and grabbed his backpack for the bus pulling up to the curb.

I waved goodbye, turned away and idly dribbled a passion fruit back to the front door.

Follow on Twitter: @snolen