On our last day in Rio, the police closed the street in front of our Copacabana hotel around 6:30 am. We understood what was happening. Runners in the half marathon had surged past on Saturday morning, and we’d seen posters for the big (26-mile) event beginning at 7:30 am Sunday. The lead runners, lean and fast as greyhounds, blasted by shortly after 9 am. I couldn’t resist taking the elevator down to the street, where handfuls of spectators were applauding and exclaiming, “Bravo! Bravo!” I applauded too, but the leaders were so few and far between, I went back to our room. An hour later, I descended again, and the passing scene was much more lively.
I’d never cheered on marathon runners before, but it was a day of sporty firsts for Steve and me. We’d never before attended a professional soccer game, either, but we got tickets to watch Rio’s beloved Flamengos face off against the Sao Paolo Corinthians. I wasn’t brave enough to do this on our own. Some of the fans at the games are known to be a rough crew. Instead we signed up with Be a Local, a well-reputed Rio tour company to get not just the tickets but also transportation with a savvy escort.
At 1:30 pm we met up at a nearby hostel with Patrick, the Brazilian guide charged with shepherding about 20 young Brits and us. I’d been hoping he would teach Steve and me a lot about the subtle nuances of Brazilian football, but he didn’t speak English well enough for that. Still he seemed like a worrier, and conscientious, and when we got to the stadium, that was good enough for me. A vast sea of red and black (the Flamengo colors) surged around the entrance gates. In the thick of the contagious high spirits, I couldn’t resist buying a jersey for myself.
I was excited about the chance to see this temple to that most beloved of South American sports. The Macarana, as the stadium is known, was built for the 1950 World Cup games, and when it opened, it was the biggest such venue in the world. On dozens of occasions, it has held more than 150,000 fans. It was remodeled, though, for the 2014 World Cup, and the redesign reduced the capacity to about 80,000. At one point, the scoreboard announced that almost 50,000 people were present on Sunday afternoon. It sure felt like a monster crowd, bigger than any I’ve ever been part of. When the fans sang or howled or cheered, the roar filled our ears and ballooned out like a shock wave. When one of the players missed a shot and the crowd moaned, the anguish punched you in the gut; made you feel like doubling over.
I can’t report any play by play (and you would have to be a huge fan to find it interesting, if I did). We had to stand during the whole 90-plus minutes to see anything, as everyone else was on their feet nonstop. After the first half, I felt more exhausted than I ever have felt watching a World Cup game on TV. In person, the field is so huge and the players run so hard. The Flamengos seemed more dominant, but the Corinthians kept them from scoring until more than a half hour into the second half. Then a lot of stuff happened very fast, and the Flamengo fans were overtaken by a joy that bordered on dementia.The Paolistas couldn’t even the 1-0 score, so the sea of Rio residents seemed relaxed and happy, post-orgasmic, as they flowed out of the stadium into the night. We tourists stuck together in a tight pack and made it back to the bus and the tamer beach neighborhoods. But Steve and I have reflected often throughout this trip that the Brazilians seem happy in general, happier than the residents of any other Central or South American countries we have visited.
We muse that maybe what explains this is the fact that Brazil never gave rise to a brutal, bloodthirsty civilization like the Aztecs or Incas or Mayans. When Europeans arrived, they exploited the place, but with a relatively light hand. Later, Brazilians never had to fight and die to win their independence. Instead the Portuguese king’s son, a fun-loving, licentious guy, asked his dad (who was returning to his throne in Portugal) if he could stay and rule, and the old man said, “Sure. But you should ask for independence.” The son did, the old king assented, and Pedro became the newly freed country’s first emperor. Later, Pedro’s son freed all the slaves without any grisly civil war.
Add to this tranquil history the fact that Brazil, bigger than the lower 48 states, has vast stores of mineral and other natural resources. It is rich in rainfall and sunshine. No natural disasters plague it; no earthquakes or tornadoes or hurricanes or wildfires routinely wreck havoc here. “Only social disasters,” said Valdo, our guide in Belem — crooked politicians, corrupt business elites, arthritic bureaucracies. If Brazil could just ditch the whole lot, become as free of the old ruling classes as life is on the beach in Copacabana, maybe, Steve and I tell ourselves, this could be the happiest place on earth.