Lost Samba – Chapter 06/02 – Brazil’s football triumph in 1970
The first game of the 1970 tournament was between the Soviet Union and Mexico, which my family watched in Paulo’s flat. To my relief we had a place to see the games. Despite being a dedicated left-winger, Paulo belonged to the twentieth century and owned a television set, despite the fascist propaganda, as he saw it, that set continuously spewed out. The fans dismissed both these teams as minor football potentates and we were only interested in the opening ceremony. From our vantage point, however, the situation was a bit different: Paulo was supporting the team with the inscription “CCCP” – the USSR – on their tops. The presenter called the team “Russia”, mentioning them as little as possible, which provoked a few grunts from our friendly-faced host.
Brazil played its first game a couple of days later. It was at night and on a weekday, too late and too awkward to watch at Paulo’s place. However, my parents allowed me to listen to it on the radio during dinner, ignoring my sister’s protestations. To the shock of Brazilians throughout the land, Czechoslovakia scored the first goal. The commentator’s dry words fell as a knife into the nation’s chest and outside there was a silence as though the end of the world had arrived. Sarah made the mistake of laughing at my anguish so I hurled a chicken thigh at her face and Dad sent me to my room. At least there, I could hear the game with no interruptions. Soon after, to everyone’s relief, Brazil scored and went on to win by four to one.
The next game had a greater significance to my family. Brazil’s adversary was England, the reigning world champion, and everybody kept asking my parents where they stood. Whom were they supporting? What would the result be? What did they think of the English players? How did Pelé compare to Bobby Charlton? Although neither of my parents knew any of the answers and in truth were wholly disdainful of football, there were enough reasons for us all to watch it. The Brazilians were about to challenge the British pose of world champions. Moreover, by coincidence, the referee was going to be the Israeli Avraham Klein: our surname!
The awaited game was on a sunny Sunday afternoon. From the early hours the bangs from occasional firecrackers were like church bells reminding Rio de Janeiro that this was a special day. Since I had woken up, Radio Globo, my indispensable source of football-related news, had been busy stirring-up the excitement. On the days that the national team played, Radio Globo suspended its regular schedule of programmes. The presenters spoke about nothing else and every now and then they interrupted whatever they were saying for live broadcasts of reporters who had managed to grab a piece of news from Mexico.
As usual, we went to the Paissandú Club at around 10 am. Caught up in the atmosphere, I put on my canary yellow shirt and, as the car emerged from the garage, I opened the car window and waved my giant yellow and green flag that I’d tied to a broomstick. Whenever we passed someone with the same shirt, I shook my fists outside the car and shouted out, “Brasil!!!”, and the responses echoed back with the same euphoria.
Arriving at the club, to my shock I immediately noticed perhaps the only Union Jack flag to be flying anywhere in Rio de Janeiro. It was hanging from a palm tree above a group of pale, middle-aged men drinking whiskey at the poolside. The other boys, the service staff, and I mumbled to each other comments questioning those Brits’ masculinity as well as the virtues of their mothers.
Some of us interrupted listening to the radio to take a dip in the pool, but did not stay long in the water. Instead, we massed around the lifeguard’s radio like a swarm of bees, falling silent whenever a reporter managed to interview one of our players. Around lunchtime, the increase in the number of fireworks going off across the city indicated that kick-off time was approaching. Television started transmitting live from Guadalajara and the streets emptied.
In order to catch the beginning of the game, we had an early lunch in the club’s restaurant. On our way to Paulo’s flat, we passed crowds of people gathering in front of the windows of electrical goods shops to watch the game on the TV sets that they had left on for the occasion. Almost all of these spectators held tightly a mini-transistor radio to their ears, much as people attach themselves to mobile phones today. I managed to convince mum to put the car radio on to Radio Globo so that I could hear what João Saldanha, now a commentator, was saying about the imminent game. As his slow and deep voice came on, I forgot the flag and concentrated on every word every word he said.
Paulo lived in a modest flat in front of our butcher and next to the bus stop on Avenida Barata Ribeiro. We arrived ten minutes before the game. The television was already on and we settled down in time to watch the players entering the stadium, stand in line and sing the national anthem. Soon after, the referee blew the whistle and the game started. The names of players who would soon belong to the world’s football pantheon resonated in the nervous silence: “Jair to Pelé, Pelé with the ball, to Tostão…. Gerson…. to Rivelino”. In Copacabana, every citizen was performing his or her duty of supporting their national team. The game shut out the rest of the world. The streets were completely empty: shops, police stations, hospitals, fire stations – everything was closed. If you were to have a heart attack, if your flat was to catch fire or if you were about to give birth, it was just your tough luck!
The beginning was somewhat nervous and boring. Zagallo used the tactic of holding his team back in the first half to then try to liquidate the adversary in the second half, trusting in his players’ greater fitness and in their natural Brazilian flair. However, nothing was guaranteed. Everyone was tense and the opposition was tough. In the second half, the heat had taken its toll on the English team and exhaustion was setting in. Their goalkeeper, Gordon Banks, was doing miracles to keep the match scoreless. We could sense that Brazil was about to mark a goal – it was simply a question of when and not if, but the wait was agonising. The excitement drew in even Dad and Paulo, and by now they were silent and fully concentrated. When the Brazilian attack finally broke through the English defence and Jairzinho scored, no Brazilian could contain his or her emotions and there were primeval screams in every home.
Of course I went berserk to the amusement of the adults – everyone in the room but me. We could hear the madness outside but the atmosphere in Paulo’s flat was very different. Mum was not supporting Brazil and despite her being in her fifties, she was the youngest grown up in the room. As soon as the game was over and the television transmissions returned to the studios in Rio de Janeiro, they all went back to serious topics – mainly Israel. I took advantage of having the TV entirely for myself, picked up the bowl of cookies, took a coke out of the fridge and switched over to Tarzan. My parents stayed waiting for the “savages”, whose shows of excitement had boiled over into the streets, to calm down before going home. As Brazil progressed through the tournament, celebrations lasted longer and the samba became wilder.
In the Cup final, Brazil beat Italy four to one, in one of the most famous games in football history. The campaign ended with Pelé setting up Carlos Alberto for a cinematographic shot from outside the goal area into the back of the Italian net. That convincing triggered a national catharsis that allowed the whole country to temporarily set aside its political differences and social problems. As this was the country’s third World Cup, the Jules Rimmet Cup came to Brazil for good, which sealed the glory. The victory also meant a success for the military’s PR machine. The relentless propaganda was successful in tying the regime’s image to that triumph and in injecting the country with nationalistic fervour. Now the regime felt legitimized to tighten their political grip on Brazil.
No one noticed that this was the way that the golden days of Copacabana found to say goodbye in a grandiose fashion. Within a few years, the beach side neighbourhood’s glamour would fade. People from alien social circles would replace the elite of Rio de Janeiro in its Hollywood style buildings. The upper class would move to the neighbouring up-market areas of Ipanema and Leblon, and even further south to São Conrado and Barra da Tijuca. Meanwhile, at night, the Avenida Atlantica would become the world’s biggest open-air brothel.