Passions run even higher for Brazil's female fans
Gordon Gaffney reports from Belo Horizonte on the feverish countdown to the start of the World Cup
Published 08/06/2014 | 02:30
Finally, with just days to go, the first green, and yellow, shoots of World Cup fever are sprouting in Brazil. The dreaded vuvuzelas are front and centre in retailers. Much like some fully completed stadiums, this World Cup fever is appearing at the last minute.
Replica kits are everywhere – not the famous green and yellow of the national team just yet, but the black and white vertical stripes of Atletico Mineiro. The current champions of Libertadores, the South American version of the Champions League, boasts Ronaldinho in their ranks and hail from Belo Horizonte, about one hour's flight from both Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro.
Belo Horizonte, known by locals as 'Bee-a-ga', the pronunciation of its initials BH in Portuguese, hosts Costs Rica versus England among four group games. If Brazil win their group, Belo Horizonte will host Brazil's last-16 game, plus, if all goes well, their semi-final on July 8 which will put 'Bee-a-ga' firmly in the spotlight.
Belo Horizonte is an industrial city of 2.5 million people, spread across many steep hills and the 64,184-seater long-completed Mineirao stadium regularly hosts big events such as the local 'Classico' game of Atletico Mineiro and its city rivals, Cruzeiro, and music festivals featuring the likes of Guns 'N' Roses on the vast concrete concourse outside the stadium.
Ronaldinho and co lifted the Libertadores trophy for the first time in Atletico Mineiro's history last July at the Mineirao and the beeping of car horns and widespread detonation of fireworks went on for days. Ronaldinho isn't in the World Cup squad this time around, but should you have wished, you could have rented out his five-bedroom apartment and slept in his bed in Rio for €11,000 per night during the competition, which he had made available via the Airbnb website.
People here are open, friendly and warm, and in the city with the highest number of bars per capita in the country, it never takes long to strike up a conversation about football. Once your allegiance to either Atletico Mineiro or Cruzeiro is established, you can find out more about attitudes to the World Cup.
The initial response is usually concern about a repeat of the protests that started in Rio and spread to most major cities during the Confederations Cup last summer.
Those angry at rising prices caused by increased public spending on World Cup facilities rather than badly needed public services and infrastructure took to the streets. In Belo Horizonte they directed their anger towards those who they saw as responsible, by destroying a car showroom containing cars manufactured by a World Cup sponsor, rather than indiscriminate looting.
This concern stretches to some primary schools bringing in pupils as young as five on Saturdays in order to work up the hours so that the school can close for the days Brazil are in action.
However, when kick-off time comes, the belief is that the whole country will be behind the national team. Their current and 2002 World Cup winning coach, 'Big' Phil Scolari, is a popular figure endorsing products on TV and in shop windows at a level more associated with match-winners such as Neymar. Against Panama in last Tuesday's warm-up game, Neymar's great first-half performance was witnessed on TV by about five half-interested onlookers outside a bar in the swanky neighbourhood of Savassi, though this had swelled to around 15 by the time the final whistle went.
Predicting Argentina as winners can get a resigned agreement from men but frequently elicits a passionate, spirited defence of the players from women.
I watched Brazil win the Confederations Cup in Uruguay last year alongside three quiet Brazilian males and around 10 very loud, passionate female counterparts. Our group was warned to stop disturbing diners below us by stamping our feet on the ground to celebrate a goal and one of the girls was hoarse from repeatedly shouting 'Vai!', 'Go on!' in Portuguese, at the TV. "It's always that way," one of the men later told me, referring to the girls being the noisiest watching football.
A good run for Brazil is important here to keep morale up, and the party going. My flatmate was delighted to tell me he had got two tickets for the Brazil last-16 game against either Spain or Holland in Belo Horizonte, at the student rate of about €18 a ticket.
The fact that Brazil have to top their group in order to play here seemed as certain to him as night follows day.