For the past five months as we’ve backpacked across South America, getting steadily closer to Brazil, all anyone has talked about is the football. It seems to be what everyone is here for, even people who, like us, are only on the continent at the right time by happy coincidence. Throughout our whole trip, the lingering topic has been football. When the World Cup started, we were in Argentina, and the country turned blue and white overnight; flags lining every window, banners declaring ‘Vamos Argentina’, Messi’s face everywhere, clothes shops suddenly selling nothing but Argentina shirts. It was the only topic on the air, the whole country pulsed with the World Cup, shopkeepers and hotel receptionists were all keen to chat, to offer commiserations when England lost – our host even interrupted the We Are Tango show we went to in BA to announce the score of the England v Italy match that we were missing.
We arrived to a Brazil that was even more draped in football shirts, where entire cities closed down for Brazil’s games. In Belo Horizonte, the streets were empty, the shops were shuttered; what had been a busy city became a ghost town while people waited nervously for the kick off – and when they won the air erupted with confetti cannons, fireworks, screaming, car horns.
In Porto Seguro, the entire town was nestled under a gently rustling ceiling of paper bunting in the patterns of every flag in the World Cup. The atmosphere is one of constant joy, a complete party: I have never seen a country care so much, and so universally, about the World Cup.
So, I was really looking forward to watching the semi final against Germany with the locals in Paraty. The town closed roads and put up a huge screen in the main square, and that was where we stood in the grey drizzle with beer and caipirinhas surrounded by a huge crowd of yellow and green shirts. The image that stays with me was of three little girls, no older than ten, stood right at the front under a huge golf umbrella, hair done and nails painted with their tiny Brazil shirts tucked into pink leggings and bouncing excitedly to the thumping dance music as the town waited for kick off.
There are other images; the smells of popcorn and hot damp air,a girl in front of us burying her head into her friend’s shoulder every time Germany took the ball, the death wail that rolled around the square when the screen died and went black for a few seconds, yellow and green nailpolish, a boy my oldest nephew’s age and build stood alone, gripping his hair in frustration as he followed the game.
Within twenty minutes, the atmosphere had changed to one of desolation. Although there were some deserters, most stayed, and we saw tearful faces, grown men sobbing, a girl wailing inconsolably into her boyfriends arms. With the halftime score at 5-0, most football fans I know would have given up, but the Brazilian fans were still hopeful, still lively, still cheering every time their team went near the goal. Still passionate and desperately hopeful.
That was when it clicked: how much I love South America. Not an “I love South America” that could be synonymous with the way you might say “I love caipirinhas”, but a deep, true love. I love the continent’s warmth, it’s passion, it’s people. I love the mess, colour, culture, beauty, magnificence, the grumpy old and the joyful young, the love, the football, and above all the pride, the patriotism in spite of problems, corrupt governments, poverty. I love how much this trip has tested me, what a challenge it’s been, how difficult, how much I’ve proven myself. I love South America.
And just as I’d had this epiphany – gazing at the yellow-and-green crowd, the tearful, happy faces – Oscar scored his one redeeming goal and the air erupted into screaming, wailing, fireworks, horns, tears, cannons, hugs, fist pumping, more screams. The utter, unrestricted, total, passionate joy of an entire nation bottled into that one, small street. After the match, the mood snapped back to a party that didn’t fit in with my experience of football fans after their team loses; the square filled with music and more caipirinhas, people danced and laughed and celebrated – maybe it was having got to the semi final, maybe that final goal, or maybe just any excuse to party. But it was wonderful.