The interval is over in the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™ Group C opener in Recife. The Côte d’Ivoire team trot out of the tunnel, losing 1-0 against Japan, and shortly after play resumes a huge section of the crowd inside the Arena Pernambuco start chanting for the African team’s star man, Didier Drogba, who is sitting on the bench.
It is such a commonplace occurrence – fans imploring the coach to throw on a given player – that it is easy to lose sight of the significance of this specific situation. After all, we are in Brazil, in a stadium that apart from a sizeable group of faithful Japanese supporters is packed with local football fans who have little or no idea of the tactical options open to Côte d’Ivoire coach Sabri Lamouchi.
It is an illustration of what happens when a FIFA World Cup is played in a country that is not only football-crazy, but where the fans have the game in their blood. The Brazilians in the stand were determined to immerse themselves in the occasion, to the point that they were treating The Elephants as if they were their own team, and the African superstar as if he was their new idol.
“It was unbelievable, truly fantastic,” said Drogba after taking to the pitch early in the second half and having his every touch thunderously cheered as his side scored twice in quick succession to turn around the result. “I can’t believe how much love was being directed at me in another country. It was as if I was playing in Côte d’Ivoire.”
The country is welcoming by nature and crazy about football, so it’s not hard to imagine how the stars would be treated.
The sensation Drogba described mirrored what happened to a greater or lesser degree to several international stars throughout the group stage of the FIFA World Cup. Karim Benzema was left open-mouthed in Porto Alegre when the crowd sang his name following his brilliant display against Honduras. As a rule, if you are a star and do your talking on the pitch, football fans show their appreciation no matter where you are in the world. But at this FIFA World Cup, the local fans have completely taken the stars to their hearts.
“Over the last 20 years, economic and legal changes have made most big Brazilian players go to Europe,” Luiz Felipe Scolari once told FIFA.com. “This has greatly increased Brazilian fans’ interest in European leagues. They even adopt a team.”
It is a straightforward process. Brazilian fans love their football, and in getting to know foreign sides better, the great names of European football are looked upon as idols. All of a sudden, in this FIFA World Cup, they are getting the chance to watch players in the flesh who they have feasted their eyes on all year round on TV.
Even rivalries or loyalties tend to go out of the window. This was starkly brought into focus by the way the host country’s arch enemy Argentina was received in Minas Gerais by Brazilians cheering for them and sporting La Albiceleste colours. “It was beautiful and is easy to explain. It shows how the Brazilian people love Leo (Messi),” said the Argentinian Lucas Biglia. “Their love of the game surpasses all rivalries.”
The 2014 FIFA World Cup has proved that beyond all doubt. Brazilian fans know how to treat the great players, wherever they are from. The open training sessions have been sold out all over the country, collective hysteria hit home when Cristiano Ronaldo rolled into town in Campinas, the Germans and Bahia residents have been embracing each other – metaphorically and literally – and the English players felt so comfortable they even indulged in a spot of capoeira.
This runs deeper than the mere curiosity aroused by a foreigner visiting one’s country. It is truly embedded in the psyche of the Brazilian football fan. “If anybody doubted that the biggest stars would be well received, on and off the pitch, it’s because they don’t understand the Brazilian fan,” David Luiz told FIFA.com. “The country is welcoming by nature and crazy about football, so it’s not hard to imagine how the stars would be treated.”