Best and worst of football fandom firmly on display this past week in Brazil
The passions that football engenders have a huge capacity to bring to the surface some of the best and the worst of the human being. The game can forge international friendships, and it can turn neighbours into enemies. Both sides of the balance sheet have been on show in Brazil in the past few days.
On Sunday, a local cup final in Rio de Janeiro turned into an object lesson of the dangers of adults acting like children, and a warning of what can happen when teams see each other as enemies rather than opponents.
Vasco da Gama met Fluminense in the final of the Taca Guanabara, a halfway stage in the Rio State Championship. This is a high-prestige occasion between two clubs with a glorious history -- and one where tradition and modernity met each other head on.
By tradition, Vasco da Gama supporters have the use of the South Stand in the famous Maracana stadium. The giant venue was built for the 1950 World Cup. Vasco won the first local competition afterward, and as a prize were given the right to choose "their" end of the ground.
Now, though, the Maracana is a new stadium, rebuilt for the 2014 World Cup, and currently run by a consortium rather than the local government. Fluminense signed a contract giving them the right to take possession of that end of the ground.
Technically, Fluminense were the away side in Sunday's game. But the contract had not made full provisions for such a situation. Vasco, then, merrily went about selling tickets to their fans. Fluminense smouldered, the club president making intemperate remarks about going to war. They took legal action and, late Saturday night, a judge decided that the game would have to be played behind closed doors.
Just over two hours before kickoff, Vasco announced that they were prepared to pay a fine and disobey the legal order. They called upon their fans to come to the stadium. Thousands heeded the call -- only to be greeted by locked gates. The police refused to go along with the plan.
The first half-hour was played in a bizarre atmosphere. In front of no one but journalists, the match had the atmosphere of a training game, with every sound made on the field audible. Also audible, though, was the noise of the battle taking place outside the ground, where with sound bombs and pepper spray the police struggled to control the multitude who had come to see the game. After half an hour, common sense prevailed: It was safer to have the fans inside the stadium watching the game than outside battling the police. By half-time, some 30,000 had been granted admittance. Almost all were Vasco fans, and they could celebrate their team's 1-0 win. But Brazilian football has nothing to celebrate.
As Andre Kfouri wrote in the sports daily Lance!, "It is hard to believe that this was not a plan dreamt up by Machiavellian minds, such was the level of insanity. It was an authentic manual of how to ruin a game of football, with the fabrication of widespread disorder to produce corpses in the streets." Brazilian football can complain about losing its stars to Europe and elsewhere, but at times it can be its own worst enemy. Some of those caught up in Sunday's mess might well come to the conclusion that it is better to stay at home and watch Barcelona on the TV.
Thankfully, from a few hundred miles to the south comes better news. On Tuesday, the Chilean club Union La Calera were playing Chapecoense in the Copa Sudamericana, the continent's Europa League equivalent. The first leg, in Chile, had finished goalless. The return game in Brazil was an immense occasion for La Calera -- in the club's history, this was their first away match in continental competition. They held on for a gutsy 1-1 draw to advance on the away-goals rule. But it is not only La Calera who should be celebrating. It is everyone who believes in the power of football to create community.
Chapecoense, of course, are the humble club who suffered that dreadful air disaster toward the end of 2016. The touching side of the tragedy was the affection that they received from around the world -- and still receive from fans of La Calera. During the game, the travelling contingent of some 400 La Calera supporters voiced chants exalting their opponents. And at the end of the game, they made a point of cleaning the stand, and even the restrooms, in the Arena Conda stadium.
Chapecoense were deeply touched. "This was an attitude of giants which fills us with gratitude," they posted on social media. La Calera responded by thanking their fans, who "represented our club in the best way possible. And we thank Chapecoense for their hospitality. It was a pleasure playing against you."