Main image: a Cruzeiro fan-club banner: “A love incomparable – a passion in blue and white”

The two Belo Horizonte teams in the Série A are currently bossing Brazilian domestic competition. Last Sunday, Cruzeiro won the league with two games to spare, their second title in a row, while last Wednesday night, Atlético Mineiro won the Copa do Brasil, beating Cruzeiro comfortably in the final to deny them the double.

I have lived in several major footballing cities, including Madrid, Buenos Aires and São Paulo, but in terms of passion none of them can touch Belo Horizonte. I went up to the roof on Wednesday night at fulltime and watched the fireworks going off over the city. It was like watching the news of some war-torn city in the Middle East, minus the houses exploding and buildings collapsing. The fireworks people launch – and almost everyone seems to use the same type – all make this quick sequence of explosions, like some sort of heavy machine gun, followed by a single, deeper pop. All across the horizon I could see fireworks going off, blue and green patterns blooming suddenly from a hilltop, so far away that the sound didn’t reach me. There was this big grey cloud of smoke, wafting across the neighbourhood, a vague smell of gunpowder. And of course, the screaming, “Galo! Galo!”[1] coming from all directions, in male, female and children’s voices. The local dogs hate it. Often when a firework goes off nearby you can hear some poor mutt yelping in distress. The noise must have stopped at some point, because I woke up in the night and everything was quiet. But all day on Thursday fireworks were going off around the neighbourhood (in the day! Surely there’s nothing to see?), and going up to the roof in the morning I could hear all the cars bashing away at their horns down on Avenida dos Andradas. There were atleticanos doing rounds of the neighbourhood, honking their horns and shouting out of the window, while one guy with an Atlético flag tied to his roof had saved himself the trouble of yelling by blasting a recording of Atlético crowd noise at full volume out of his car stereo.

The Minerão Stadium, home to Cruzeiro. Photo: WikimediaIt’s hard to know what to make of all this. On the one hand, I think fantastic, this is what I travel for: to live in places where people behave and express themselves in ways that are radically different from the culture in which I grew up. For anyone with even a vague interest in football, Brazil in general and Minas Gerais in particular are clearly interesting places to be. This is somewhere where for most people football is far more than just a game: it’s a political issue, a way of life, almost a religion. Children here have their football teams assigned to them before they have names, before they are born, before they are even a glint in their father’s eye. It can divide families: I have an acquaintance who supports Atlético in secret, because her whole family supports América Mineiro (the “other” Belo Horizonte team, who play in the Série B), and she says it would upset her grandfather too much were he to find out she is atleticana. That’s another thing: here, women seem almost as obsessed as the men. Of course, the stadiums still tend to be male dominated, and women generally aren’t the ones doing the rounds of the neighbourhood flying their club’s colours out of the car window, but still, they almost all follow, watch and talk about football. In contrast, amongst my female friends and acquaintances in the UK, I can’t think of anyone who cares much at all.

On the other hand, the obsession is so visible, so extreme and so universal, that if one does not participate, it can feel quite alienating. It is hard not to be reminded that I am an outsider when I am surrounded by people literally screaming for their local side at least two or three times a week. Moreover, the football culture in Belo Horizonte seems so natural and uncomplicated, at a time when, on the global level, the sport has long been becoming increasingly absurd and offensive. Modern top-flight football appears to operate in this kind of parallel universe, in which normal rules – such as national laws or economic principles – just don’t seem to apply. Football must be one of the only industries to escape virtually unscathed from the financial crisis, while its increasing domination by global capital is leading to ever more bizarre outcomes. There is surely no better example of this than FIFA’s awarding of the 2022 World Cup to Qatar, an act so shamelessly and nakedly corrupt it gives new meaning to the term “beyond satire”. Of course, Brazilians have plenty of first-hand experience of this kind of thing, thanks to this year’s World Cup (regarding which there is surely still much dirt to come out), and equally, Brazilian domestic football is hardly replete with examples of honesty and virtue (look no further than former CBF presidents João Havelange and Ricardo Teixeira).

But this all seems really distant when you look at the way people love their football here. Perhaps that makes the corruption of the sport all the more cynical, but in a sense all the less surprising. The masters of the modern game know that it virtually doesn’t matter what they do: people’s love for their football team is something irrational, unconditional, and they will continue to follow football and pay money to do so, regardless of how rotten the sport becomes. Again, the comparison between football and religion seems apt: just like religious faith, the Brazilian obsession with football cannot be explained away rationally. Support for club and country is akin to faith in God: no matter how bad things get, you stick with it. In this sense, it’s hard not to think of Marx’s old dictum about religion being the opium of the people: in Brazil, to religion (because there’s plenty of that around here as well, but that’s another blog piece) you can add football and television. Following Marx’s thought, I can’t help but wonder sometimes what this country might be like if people invested all the passion and energy they invest in football in something else, something better.

Perhaps we all need our opium though. And of all the ways humans choose to get their kicks, football is hardly the worst.

Tom Gatehouse is living in Belo Horizonte and blogs as Straytom on Para Inglês Ver

[1] Note for English readers: Atlético Mineiro’s nickname is “Galo” (“Cock”); Cruzeiro are “Raposa” (“Fox”).

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