Few love a party as much as the Brazilians and with the fiesta of music, dance, and colour in full swing this weekend, the nation besotted with football indulges in its other great passion, Carnival. And yet, there are more than a few links between the country’s two great loves.
While still at Santos, Neymar Jr. complained of having to play during the festival weekend while the rest of the country celebrated. Over the years, many European-based Brazilians such as Ronaldinho reported back for club duty from a trip home carrying a few extra pounds. Last year, Atlético Mineiro fined Ronaldinho and teammate Diego Tardelli after the pair arrived late for training following the Carnival in Salvador.
While Carnival has been celebrated for centuries, samba schools have been inaugurated into the Rio de Janeiro commemorations since the 1920s. Many of Rio’s largest schools such as Salgueiro, Unidos da Tijuca, Grande Rio, and Beija Flor were formed from, or owned by, football teams in the beginning. Many of the groups throughout the country owe their origins, and are still connected to, Brazil’s football teams. And like football clubs, the schools have their own flags, emblems, colour-schemes, anthems, and devoted life-long supporters.
Samba music has its origins in the African slave trade to Brazil. It was during the industrialisation of Rio de Janerio that the city’s black working class founded the samba schools which came to organize Carnival in its current form. During the military dictatorship of 1964 to 1985 the schools were closely monitored. Like Brazil’s World Cup victories, the ruling classes sought to use both samba and football to convey the glory of the country.
Last year, the Imperatriz Leopoldinense school in Rio paid tribute to former Brazil and Flamengo star, Zico as the theme for their entire performance.
“This is one of the greatest tributes one can receive. For a Brazilian, a samba school parade is right up there with a World Cup,” said Zico.
This year, the school’s parade theme is also said to be inspired by football, and an incident of racism against Brazilian national team player Daniel Alves. During Barcelona’s game with Villarreal, the right-back picked up a banana that was thrown from the crowd, peeled and ate it before taking a corner kick. In a statement Alves said: “We have suffered this in Spain for some time. You have to take it with a dose of humour. We aren’t going to change things easily. If you don’t give it importance, they don’t achieve their objective.”
His fellow professionals including Neymar, Mario Balotelli, Coutinho and Luis Suarez took to social media sites like Instagram to show support in a campaign that went viral. The incident is said to have inspired the Imperatriz Leopoldinense school’s president. Their 2015 parade theme is a stand against racism and will explore Brazil’s African roots, slavery and will also be a homage to Nelson Mandela.
In 2013 Póg Mo Goal visited the Vai Vai school in Sao Paulo. Formed after a split from a football club called Bandeau, from the Rio Saracura region, it is one of the schools with the most amount of titles in the Carnival parade Special Group. Closer to Carnival, the school rehearsals are open to the public and each night attracts locals and tourists to the Bixiga neighbourhood. There among the revellers, the dancers, and pounding drums on the closed street was Cafú, Brazil’s 2002 World Cup-winning captain. For a visitor wanting to experience Brazil’s two passions, there could scarcely have been a better mix. Looking like he could still do a job on a football pitch, and called down to the stage, Cafú walked through the crowd stopping for photographs and handshakes.
Each year the Carnival parade sees competing schools performing for votes with the results announced on Tuesday. Just like on the football pitch, teams can be promoted and relegated with the best schools closing the following year’s festival.
Gavioes da Fiel is the samba school of Corinthians FC in Sao Paulo. Back in 2012, things weren’t going well for Gavioes (The Hawks), trailing in ninth place as the results were read out. But it was a fan of the Imperio de Casa Verde school, incensed at the announcement, who scaled the barriers, grabbing the papers, ripping them apart. Chaos followed.
Fans of the Gavioes, drawn mainly from Corinthians hardcore following decided they’d heard enough too. They began pulling down fencing and invaded the Sambradrome, where the Carnival parade takes place, before eventually moving onto the nearby motorway.
With the announcement incomplete and the winning school unable to perform their victory dance, the police moved in as rival fan groups then set fire to parade floats.
And it these hardcore supporter elements that have caused concern for Brazilian football in recent times. In 2013, up to 100 people aligned to Corinthians’ support broke into the club’s training ground and attacked players after a 5-1 defeat to Sao Paulo state rivals Santos. Peru international Paolo Guerrero was grabbed around the neck, while some teammates had money and mobile phones stolen.
Clubs have previously threatened to strike if player security was not improved. Violence is becoming a high-profile problem for Brazilian football authorities. In 2014, a 34-year-old Santos supporter was killed while waiting for a bus following a derby match with São Paulo.
Writing in the Guardian, former Arsenal player Gilberto Silva described the Common Sense FC movement, a union he created and consisting of over 1000 professional players who have come together to protest against low pay, poor pitches, and lack of player security. The ‘weak response’ from the Brazilian Football Confederation led to threats of player strikes in the Brazilian championship.
During the previous season, numerous games in the Campeonato Brasiliero saw players refuse to compete immediately after kick-off in protest against fixture congestion. The state-championships are eagerly contested in Brazil alongside the national league meaning the off-season is short and the demands on players high.
For ordinary Brazilians, however, this weekend is all about Carnival. The schools will chase points on parade rather than the pitch while revelers will display the kind of footwork that’s become synonymous with the country’s soccer stars. “The relationship between football and samba is total,” says Zico, “To play well, you need to know to move flexibly, move your hips, like the samba.”