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March/April 2014

At five o'clock on Thursday June 12th, if all goes to plan, a whistle will blow in São Paulo and the 20th World Cup will begin. It will be hard to hear, because no fans in the world are as passionately noisy as Brazil's. They see it almost as a right that their team, the seleção in their famous canary-yellow shirts, will emerge a month later as the winners. For them, this is not just a football tournament, but an opportunity to exorcise a ghost from the national psyche.

The World Cup has been held in Brazil only once before, in 1950, and it turned into a national humiliation. On paper Brazil had the best team in the world. The government rose to the big occasion by building the Maracanã stadium in Rio, in two years flat. Brazil duly reached the final, where they faced Uruguay in front of an estimated 200,000 spectators, a world record. But the unthinkable happened: after Brazil had taken the lead, Uruguay stole two late goals. An anthropologist, Roberto DaMatta, described it as "perhaps the greatest tragedy in contemporary Brazilian history".

In a country that suffered dictatorship and hyperinflation a few decades ago, you might think this was an exaggeration. Yet many Brazilians would agree. Not for nothing does Brazil like to call itself o país de futebol—the football country. If France expresses itself through cuisine and Italy through art, Brazil does so by kicking a ball. Of course there is much more to it than sport: the world's seventh-largest economy, a powerhouse of energy and agribusiness, a vibrant democracy that has lifted tens of millions out of poverty. But it is on the pitch that this nation lives out its qualities and its defects. No Brazilian has ever won a Nobel prize, but their footballers have won the World Cup five times—more than any other country.

Along with carnival, soap operas and Portuguese, football has helped to knit a vast country of 200m people into a remarkably seamless nation. It exemplifies Brazilians' flair for teamwork, which has also been noted by management theorists. It is played everywhere and by almost every male and increasing numbers of women. Walk along any beach, or through any park, and you see dozens of games in progress, some highly organised, others just impromptu kickabouts. As this photo essay shows, Brazilians need only a courtyard in a favela, an empty flyover or a clearing in the forest to create a Maracanã of the imagination.

Football arrived in 1894 when Charles Miller, the son of an expatriate Scottish railway engineer, disembarked in Santos carrying two balls. Unknown in Britain, Miller is a household name in Brazil, commemorated in statues and street names. Brazilians swiftly took to the sport. At their best—the national teams that won the 1958 and 1962 World Cups and Pelé's all-conquering Santos FC—they turned football into an art form, o jogo bonito (the beautiful game). Gilberto Freyre, an anthropologist and historian, thought that Brazilians played football as "if it was a dance".

Freyre put this down to the influence of Africa. It was not by chance that Brazil began to win when black and brown-skinned players such as Pelé and Garrincha, the bow-legged winger born in poverty, became a majority in theseleção. In a country more scarred by slavery than any other (with the possible exception of Cuba), football is one of the great levellers, a route to overcome inequality. It is played with great verve by Amerindian tribes, as Alex Bellos shows in "Futebol", his brilliant book on the Brazilian way of life.

But the magical creativity of Brazilian football has often come with a dour, physical side. And as well as alegria—the spontaneous expression of joy that is an integral part of the Brazilian character—football displays the corruption, violence and cynicism that afflict the nation as a whole. League matches are often sparsely attended, and sometimes marked by hooliganism. Many clubs are poorly run, and some owners, dubbed cartolas ("top hats"), use them to achieve political power or for money laundering: Vasco, a club in Rio, had an owner who was known to pocket the gate receipts. Ricardo Teixeira ran the Brazilian Football Confederation as a fief for almost a quarter of a century before claims of corruption forced his resignation in 2012.

During the Confederations Cup, the dress rehearsal held a year before the World Cup, football became a flashpoint of public discontent, which is rare in Brazil. The budget for the 12 stadiums stands at over $3.5 billion and counting—three times more than South Africa spent on hosting the 2010 World Cup. The stadiums have been built to the exacting requirements of FIFA, football’s governing body. Protesters, angry that politicians have paid less heed to their demands for better public services, held up placards demanding "FIFA-standard" hospitals and schools.

Some lament that the World Cup will accelerate the gentrification of the national game, pricing many fans out of the stands. Others are confident that it will give the sport an upgrade in accord with Brazil's claim to be a rising power in the world. Despite its blemishes, football has, as DaMatta wrote in the 1980s, provided "a confidence in ourselves that no other institution has given Brazil to the same extent". Brazil has come far since then. Its leaders now have their eye on a permanent seat at the UN Security Council. For most Brazilians, that prize comes a distant second to regaining the World Cup. ~ MICHAEL REID

“This wall, a five-minute drive from the Maracanã, is dedicated to some of the greatest names in Brazilian football, all painted very artfully against the yellow and green of the national strip. Zico is on the left, Pelé in the middle and, on the right, with his famous bow legs, is Garrincha, a team-mate of Pelé’s and one of the greatest dribblers in history”

“This favela used to be a dangerous drug den, but it’s safer nowadays and very close to the training ground of Brazil’s elite police force, like the SWAT team in the United States. The kids play on this tiny pitch, surrounded by slum houses. I was on the pitch for this picture, running along with the players. I’m not a good footballer, so I’d always try to keep clear of the action. Otherwise I’d make a complete fool of myself”

"Just before nightfall I came across this boy and his uncle, and I thought their movement captured the joie de vivre of football in Brazil. It's about letting rip. I chose this location carefully. On the left, behind the boy, is Sugar Loaf Mountain. Next to his uncle's chest you can just see Christ the Redeemer. On the far right is Oscar Niemeyer's Museum of Modern Art, like a flying saucer on the hill. I wanted to put football in the context of these great emblems of Rio"

“Most of these inmates are in prison for drug-dealing or drug-trafficking. Some are in for murder. I had to go through the judiciary to get in, and then had to go through seven layers of security. I was watched very closely, and had to show them all the material I shot before I left, image by image. Football is the most important part of these prisoners’ lives. If they break the rules, football is the first thing that’s taken away. The inmates have a self-organised league, and they are brilliant players. The leg in the foreground is tattooed with the insignia of Corinthians, one of the hardest clubs in São Paulo”

"This seminary is about 400km west of Sao Paulo. The priests were playing in their robes against student seminarians. It didn't inhibit them: they won hands down. I was running with them on the pitch. I could barely keep up"

"Corinthians have an extreme, often thuggish fan club called Gaviões da Fiel, and this man is a member. I wanted to shoot his Corinthians tattoos. Suddenly, without me asking, he pulled out his rosary beads and got into this prayer position. Just below his hands there's a disc. Normally it would hold an image of Jesus or the Virgin Mary, but his shows the coat of arms of Corinthians—which is also tattooed on his scalp. Some of his cronies began taking the mickey out of him for being effeminate. He got angry and cut the photo session short. Then a mate of his turned up all bruised and beaten up. He'd been in a street fight with rival fans"

"I was trying to get a shot of the Sao Paulo skyline, which is famous for its skyscrapers. And then, about 200 metres away, I saw these young men playing football on top of an office building. It's at least 30 storeys high. I was gobsmacked. It justs shows the lengths people go to play football. They've got to be very dextrous not to lose their ball"

“The Minhocão is a raised highway that runs through the heart of São Paulo. It was built in the 1960s to ease congestion on the roads. Because the city has very little open space, on Sundays the local authorities close it to traffic so people can walk or play football. They close it at night as well to allow people living in the buildings nearby to sleep. But even then people take a ball onto the road”

“This scrapyard was packed with cars piled on top of one another, but there was this small space where these men—who all worked in the yard—could lay some tyres for goalposts and have a kickabout, or pelada. I was perched precariously on a stack of cars above them”

“This is the largest and oldest favela in Rio. About 150,000 people live in a horseshoe that wraps around the mountain, and every green space has been overtaken by brick shacks. There are, at best, four or five of these spaces where people can play football. I found that the word ‘football’ was a magic passport to get access. I managed to find a roof-top vantage point to photograph these boys, who all live near this little pitch, having a kickaround one evening. There isn’t much else for them to do”