Rio de Janeiro — Brazil’s capital of soccer passion


By Joe Tash

RIO DE JANEIRO — On match day in Rio de Janeiro during the World Cup, the city turns into one enormous fan zone, bringing out the true passions of soccer aficionados from all over the world who have gathered to witness the beautiful game. Especially when Brazil is playing.

The great city of more than 6 million residents, with its interminable traffic jams and stunning vistas of Sugarloaf and Corcovado (the peak topped by the towering statue of Christ the Redeemer), virtually comes to a standstill. Shops are closed, everyone has the day off from work or school, and the image of the green soccer pitch is repeated thousands of times, from the jumbo screens set up on Copacabana Beach to the small TV sets in cafes, newsstands and apartments.

We took the subway to Maracana Stadium on Friday, July 4, to watch France take on Germany in a quarter-final match. The game was humdrum, with Germany winning 1-0, but the spectacle was worth the price of admission. German fans wore beer kegs on their heads, while their French counterparts carried baguettes and painted their faces in the national colors of red, white and blue.

A group of Mexico supporters wore oversized sombreros and posed for photos, even though their team had already exited the tournament.

Leaving the stadium after the match, we were swept up in a river of humanity, buoyed along by fans singing their respective fight songs. Brazilian fans chanted over and over that their hero — soccer legend Pele — scored 1,000 goals over his career, while Argentine superstar Diego Maradona did drugs. On the train ride back, a group of Americans sang “The Star-Spangled Banner” in honor of Independence Day.

As the start time for the Brazil vs. Colombia match neared, people streamed toward Copacabana Beach by the tens of thousands via bus, subway and taxi. Soon, the wide, crescent-shaped beach was packed as far as the eye could see, and the crowd cheered and jeered, depending on what happened on the field.

Vendors threaded their way through the dense crowd standing on the sand, carrying trays laden with


, Brazil’s national cocktail, made with sugar cane liquor, sugar and lime juice. Industrious hawkers sold everything from shirts to mockups of the gold World Cup trophy. Those selling unlicensed merchandise scooped up their goods and ran when the police came by.

Others shot rockets into the sky, and sometimes the fireworks jetted dangerously low over the heads of spectators.

Protestors were also in evidence. Someone set up a mock graveyard of crosses on the beach, while a roller-skating man in a Batman suit carried a sign saying, “Why should we be the soccer nation when we have no health care or education?” in English and Portuguese.

Music was everywhere, from impromptu drum circles on the beach to jazz combos playing on the boardwalk, which is paved with alternating patterns of black and white stones.

On a previous evening, we set out to listen to music and found a tiny club, called Bar Bip Bip, on a side street that had been recommended by our guidebook. As promised, the place was just a store front with only a few tables. Most of the patrons milled around on the sidewalk.

Two glass-fronted coolers stood at the back, and customers helped themselves to beer and wine, while the grouchy, white-bearded proprietor kept track on a clipboard from his station at a table in the front.

Around 10 p.m., the music started. Eight or nine players sat around the table, singing and strumming guitars and mandolins, and playing bongos, in traditional acoustic samba tunes. The unamplified voices and instruments were audible, until a man working on a battered VW bus out front revved his engine repeatedly, drowning out the music.

The bar owner made an impassioned speech, which a woman sitting next to us translated as, “Be quiet and listen to the music.”

The crowd at Copacabana the following night was anything but quiet as Brazil prevailed 2-1 and advanced to the semifinal match, which was set for Tuesday, July 8 (after press time for this newspaper). Despite the win, there was some bad news — Neymar, Brazil’s star player, had suffered a tournament-ending back injury.

But that could wait as Brazilians and foreigners alike savored the win over Colombia, drinking, dancing and singing late into the night.