James Young

James Young has lived in Brazil for the last nine years, alternating between Belo Horizonte and Recife. He writes about the country and its football for The Independent, Sports Illustrated, Howler, Rolling Stone, ESPN, Folha de Sao Paulo, The Blizzard, and others. His book of short stories about Recife, "A Beer Before Lunch," abeerbeforelunch.com is available on Amazon.

The country’s culture of warmth and openness has found expression in the stadiums

“We’re not cold like the English or the Germans or the Americans,” Brazilians like to tell those unfortunate enough to have been born elsewhere. “We’re a very warm, sentimental people.” It is undoubtedly an admirable quality, but the challenge of keeping one’s emotions in check may have cost the national team dear in its opening World Cup match against Croatia last week.

World Cup visitors will attest to the friendliness and expressive nature of the Brazilian people—from boisterous football fans to beaming agua de coco sellers at the beach. This general sense of chumminess was described by philosopher Sergio Buarque in his book Raizes do Brasil (“Roots of Brazil”). Buarque’s homem cordial (cordial man) theory argues that Brazilians like to break down the barriers that separate their private, personal relationships from their public or professional affairs, essentially seeking to make the world one sprawling, rambunctious extended family unit.

Everyone, from the president (Dilma) to women’s beach volleyball pairings (such as 2012 Olympic bronze medal winners Juliana and Larissa), is referred to by their first name, affectionate physical contact is common even among relative strangers, and when it’s someone’s birthday in a bar, the whole place joins in with the singing.

Homem cordial explains a level of sentimentality that can be surprising to stony-souled people from chillier climes. In Brazil, affairs of the heart bubble alarmingly close to the surface.Every song includes the words meu coração (“my heart”), and this is true whether it comes from the romantic country western musica sertaneja or the classic ballads of MPB (musica popular brasileira), usually stretched out over a number of beats to really get the feeling across. And these days, the coraçãozinho (“little heart”) hand gesture is everywhere, from teen selfies to Neymar’s goal celebrations.

As the grumpy, cynical gringo knows, however, all this open display of emotion is almost certain to end badly.

Perhaps no one should have been surprised when things got a little mawkish at last Thursday’s opener. In the weeks leading up to the big kick-off, the national evening news on giant TV broadcaster Globo included a ten-minute profile of each member of the Seleção. The paeons to the players’ heartaches, tragedies, and fights for redemption were accompanied by the sound of swooping strings and teeming with shots of family members overcome with emotion.

Some of the stories were genuinely moving. Jô’s brother Jean died in a car crash when the player was just 15. Daniel Alves grew up in the parched, desperately poor landscape of the Bahia sertão (the parched, unforgiving interior of the state). Not all were quite so profound. “Oscar was very shy when he was a kid,” says the mother of the Chelsea midfielder. No matter. Whatever the story, floods of tears from all involved seemed to have been made part of the contract.

The waterworks continued on opening day. Everyone expected an immense, moving occasion. Given the tension that surrounded Brazil’s chaotic World Cup preparations, the inherent pressure that comes with wearing the storied canary yellow shirt of the most successful international football team of all time, and the weight of 200 million souls demanding glory from the stands and the sofa, the Brazil players could have been forgiven for feeling a little cold in the belly (the local expression for butterflies).

There were early signs that the moment, however, had gotten to the players—captain Thiago Silva was moist around the eyes even before he made it out onto the pitch. Then, as the Brazilian anthem was bellowed out by most of the 62,000 fans present, the tears flowed unbridled. As the music dropped away and the crowd continued singing acapella, a show of patriotism that began during the Confederations Cup last year as an implicit expression of support for the mass political demonstrations that were taking place in the streets, at least half the team was blubbing.

Last summer’s lusty renditions of the anthem seemed to inspire excellent performances by the Brazilians, who transformed the raw power of the moment into kinetic energy. They scored early goals against Mexico and Spain, and of course Julio Cesar’s saved a penalty in the 12th minute of the semi-final against Uruguay. “The anthem has become part of the team,” said Silva on Thursday. “It has a huge influence.”

Against Croatia, however, it seemed as though Brazil’s emotions had gotten a little out of control. Visibly fired-up, the players started at a frenetic pace, making hard tackles early, and Neymar was perhaps lucky not to be sent off after swinging an elbow in the face of Luka Modric. When David Luiz tried to take a quick free kick and only succeeded in hitting the ball rather too vigorously at teammate Luiz Gustavo, Silva told everybody to calm down. Croatia, meanwhile, gleefully made Brazilian nerves jangle even more loudly after 10 minutes when its pressure coerced Marcelo to tap the ball into his own net.

Brazil’s emotional sugar rush eventually wore off, and the team was able to regain some composure and structure. Nonetheless, when things had looked ropy early in the game, as the crowd bellowed and shrieked hysterically from the stands and the ball pinged from end to end, it was hard not to wonder how on earth Brazilian hearts would possibly stand up to such drama for another six games.

Now it is on to Fortaleza in the northeast, Brazil’s hottest, poorest, and most passionate region, a place where the acapella anthem singing really took off last year—ironically, against the same Mexico side that the Seleção will face today. The fans are bound to give the team a rapturous welcome, but amid all the emotion, a few cool heads might make things a little less stressful for everyone.

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