A football fan abroad

My favourite aspect of travelling to watch Arsenal in Europe is the chance it affords one to experience live football in different cultures. I support the biggest, historically most successful and well supported club in the city of my birth. As such, Arsenal is woven rather easily into the fabric of my footballing identity. I have been a season ticket holder since I was 8 years old, English football culture has nurtured me and, in some small, insignificant way, I have influenced it simply by having been an organ of it for my whole life.

Travelling to watch football abroad has layered appeal. Without wishing to indulge Football Factory rhetoric, there is an undeniable tribal appeal to wearing your colours and supporting your team in foreign territory. Especially when you are from a small island like England, which, generally speaking, still doesn’t recognise itself as quintessentially European as some of our continental cousins. Secondly, it’s a very effective way of getting to see some of Europe’s greatest cities. I have come to regard European away matches as mini breaks.

But as well there is something culturally satisfying about watching football in a foreign stadium and observing the small customs that make a match day what it is. Pre match rituals and behaviour, the signing and chanting inside the ground, the bands of ultras huddled behind the goal, the giant flags and banners.  It’s often the little things that strike you the most. Irony is a staple of British humour that scans very well on football terraces.

‘Piss taking’ isn’t just a national pastime, it’s at once a defence mechanism against our own insecurity and a tool with which to defeat our opponents. The Dutch and the Germans are quite good with terrace wit too, but some cultures, Italy for example, don’t seem to consciously champion the widely available comedy in the sport.  Even crowd noises are exotic and fascinating on the continent. A missed chance in England is greeted with a spontaneous, despairing, “ooooh!”

Whereas in other European countries, there is a conscious pause for dramatic effect, before a much deeper, knowing, “oooooooooooh!” is bellowed out from the pit of the terrace’s collective gut. Crowd choreography is much more common too. Those that travelled to Naples in December will recall a crazed man with a megaphone yelling, “GONZALO! HIGUAIN!” no less than 7 times in a row after he scored against Arsenal in December.

I recently took my annual trip to Brazil and there are few football cultures more beguiling. Though I could not attend any of the matches, being in the country for the latter stages of the World Cup seemed like a fantastic opportunity for some football tourism. I hoped that the hosts would still be involved in time for my arrival, at the semi final stage. I wanted to experience the country in the grip of World Cup fever. I actually experienced something quite unique about the country’s footballing culture, just not in the way I had imagined.

I watched the semi final between Brazil and Germany with a Brazilian family. I didn’t see the second half of the match. The television was turned off as Germany rolled in their 5th goal. Brazilians are very (very) fond of fireworks and the neighbourhood streets were filled with their ironic release with every German goal. (If you’ve bought them, you might as well use them). I experienced a country grieving its national team during a tournament that is so central to its identity.

Football is seen as Brazil’s national sport but it isn’t. Not really. Their national sport is winning. It’s just that football is the sport they have excelled at historically. Ayrton Senna is a national icon the equal of Pele, even though Formula 1 isn’t nearly as popular as futebol. UFC is popular in Brazil since Rorion Gracie’s influence bred a succession of successful Brazilian fighters. In the country’s domestic football league, the Brasileirão, attendances are almost entirely contingent on a team’s form and recent results.

In the fallout of the Germany semi final defeat, I struggled to convince anybody to watch the remaining matches with me. Interest in the competition died with that efficient German dismantling in Belo Horizonte. The day after the match, almost all Brazil flags had been removed from the streets. The locals once again dressed in their club colours, the stain of the copa was being cleansed. I was witnessing denial, one of the most identifiable signs of grief. I dared ask an acquaintance whether he was going to watch the 3rd place playoff match between Brazil and Holland.

He rather emphatically suggested he would not, colourfully describing the match as “o jogo da vergonha.” (The game of shame). The final barely registered comment, save for the desperation not to see Argentina prevail on Brazilian soil. I wanted a distinct taste of how the country experiences its national side and unwittingly I got exactly that. But I didn’t get the flag waving, singing and dancing stereotype. I got the comedown version of a nation bereaving its seleção.

Whilst my hopes of experiencing copa fever were foiled, I did attend a Brasileirão match during my stay. Due to my better half’s allegiances, I have been watching Atlético Mineiro of Belo Horizonte closely for the last few seasons and last summer, saw them lift the Copa Libertadores in Estádio Mineirão. In the smaller and pokier surrounds of their regular home ground Estádio Independência, I watched them play Bahia on Saturday evening.

Being a gringo in a foreign stadium I have watched a thousand times on an internet stream was a strange and wonderful experience. I think I got a taster of what thousands of overseas Arsenal fans experience every year upon pilgrimages to the Emirates. Familiar as I am with Galo and Brazilian futebol, this was still a long way from my footballing comfort zone. This is a country where, even in the big cities, somebody with a complexion as fair and un-Brazilian as mine is unabashedly gawped at. It’s a friendly fascination, but it can still be awkward for the humble gringo all the same.

In a city that averages an annual temperature of 25 degrees, beers are supped in the streets outside the stadium rather than in the dimly lit pre match bars of England. Beverages are served so cold that it is not uncommon to swill sheets of ice from your mouth between sips. Behind the goal stood the “Galoucura” (‘locoura’ is Portuguese for ‘craziness’) who model themselves very much on the European ultras. They marshal the atmosphere with a full Brazilian band and it’s widely understood that you only stand (nobody sits) behind that goal if you are part of ‘Galoucura.’

Importantly, the band is very skilled. They play hypnotic, rhythmic beats that inspires singing as opposed to the monotonous drone that follows the English national team, or the hair raising vuvuzelas of South Africa. Player chants are not as common in Brazil as they are in England. When they occur, they usually involve a simple yelling of the player’s name punctuated by a couple of beats of the drum.

Individual players’ names are only really chanted just before kickoff (and the player is obliged to acknowledge the crowd) or when a player scores. The more imaginative chants are reserved for the club itself. Brazilian fans are used to losing their best players anyway, so individuals generally don’t get the chance to build a real rapport with a club’s supporters. Coaches rarely last more than a few months which means playing rosters are very fluid anyway.

Because of this, the identity of the club itself is very strong. Atletico’s nickname is “Galo” which means ‘rooster’ and this ornithological imagery pervades at every opportunity. Almost everybody wears a club shirt of some description to the match. Brazil is a very religious country there is a comparison to be seen between the symbolism adopted by football supporters and those used by religion.

Each team in Brazil also has a specially written song unique to their club, which is called a ‘hino’ (hymn). ‘Hinos’ are littered with striking, almost fatalistic imagery. Atletico’s own includes phrases such as “uma vez até morrer” (once until death) and describes the club as “forte vingador” (strong avengers). I know many of Galo’s chants and have just about enough Portuguese to understand what they mean, but I still felt every inch the gringo inside the stadium.

The language is not nearly natural enough to be spontaneous to me yet, so the desire to yell out in English was strong at times. I just about managed to hold my tongue to avoid becoming the subject of greater local curiosity!  I’ve become so used to being a regular, cynical old hand in North London that viewing a game through the lens of an outsider was a broadening experience and one that helped me to understand others a little better. That’s precisely what travel should do. LD.

Follow me on twitter @LittleDutchVA

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