/ 11 July 2014

Brasilia, a football cultural wasteland

Germany's Sebastian Vettel.
Germany's Sebastian Vettel.

It was half-time and Carlos Alberto Torres, who won the World Cup in 1970 with Brazil, was visibly displeased.

The Flevo Boys, an amateur club in the northern province of Flevoland in Holland, were hosting Braszat FC. They had given the Brazilians a hard time with feisty challenges as the wind had whiffled across the polder and over the field of play on a summer day in 2008. Torres, an ambassador for Braszat FC, stormed on to the pitch to argue with the referee.

Joao Vaz, an obese, middle-aged businessperson from São Paulo, watched from the touchline with preening eyes.

In 1991, Vaz had founded Brazsat Commercial Space Services with a group of private investors. Braszat collaborated with Nasa and ensured Brazil’s participation in the international space station project.

In 2007, Vaz bought the football club Recanto Esporte Clube in Brasilia, Brazil’s capital, and renamed it Braszat FC. He harboured Greek dreams.

Braszat FC became champions in the local third division, beat Volendam and the reserve team of Espanyol Barcelona on its European tour and got media coverage from Reuters and Al Jazeera.

Vaz wanted to put Brasilia on the football map. One day, Brazsat FC would enchant the crowds at the Mané Garrincha stadium.

Today, the Mané Garrincha stadium, Brazil’s national stadium, is a state-of-the-art venue set to host the play-off for the third place, its last World Cup game, but Brazsat is no more. In 2010, the club folded.

Symbolic decline
Brazsat’s decline is symbolic of a football-anaemic city.

“Brasilia has a problem of creation,” says Henrik Brandão Jönsson, author of the book Fantasy Island: The Brave New Heart of Brazil that looks at the world’s most renowned planned city.

“It is ‘unBrazilian’. You don’t have the dynamic of the rich living next to the poor.

“In the 1960s, some of Rio de Janeiro’s rich inhabitants moved to Brasilia,” Jönsson says.

“There was no need for a club. Gama was the first team, but the rich didn’t like the team. They considered it a club of the suburbs. They preferred to keep supporting Rio’s big clubs, like Flamengo and Botafogo.”

David Fleischer, a professor emeritus of political science at the University of Brasilia, says: “Brasilia has a ‘football culture’ based on fans who cheer for teams from Rio and São Paulo … The local teams do not have large fan groups. Many migrants and their kids brought their team allegiances to Brasilia with them.”

Brasilia was built according to modern urbanist designer Lucio Costa’s 1957 competition-winning master plan, which envisaged a capital in the shape of an aircraft with two winglike panels.

Architect Oscar Niemeyer designed the palaces and government building alongside the Axis Monumental. Brasilia has curvy lines, geometric shapes, family-friendly low-rise apartments and lush parks.

Brazil’s then-president Juscelino Kubitschek was the driving force behind the city’s inception. He wanted to unify the rural hinterland with the urbanised coastal hubs and highlight Brazil as a modern nation with a centralist government.

Brasilia rose from the red, dusty earth of the Cerrado, the tropical savanna. In 41 months, the herculean task was completed. The city was planned for 500 000 inhabitants, but the population has swelled to 2.8-million as Ceilândia, Taguatinga and other unplanned satellite cities mushroomed and exacerbated the problem of urban development.

The Mané Garrincha stadium narrative is as problematic as Brasilia’s. The reinaugurated stadium is a far cry from the downtrodden venue that in the 1970s and the 1980s was intended to demonstrate Brazil’s lustre, but never got completed.

“I tried to use the same philosophy adopted in the designs of Oscar Niemeyer,” Eduardo Castro Mello, the architect of the new national stadium, says.

“The ideas are similar to Niemeyer’s palaces, his pillars at facades and his buildings inside.”

Roundish roof
Last Saturday, thousands of Argentinian fans, dressed in their iconic blue-and-white striped shirts, flocked to the stadium. They walked on the Axis Monumental, where they visited Brasilia’s cathedral and the “Planalto”, two of Niemeyer’s landmarks, before they saw the concrete pillars that supported the roundish roof of Mello’s Mané Garrincha stadium.

Once inside the stadium, they cheered Gonzalo Higuaín’s goal, jeered the Belgians and taunted Brazilian fans with songs of Maradona.

The venue’s price tag of $900-million far exceeded the original price projection of $337-million. The Maracanã stadium, which will host the World Cup final, cost $490-million.

The lack of genuine football culture in Brasilia, though, sparks the fear that the pricy Mané Garrincha stadium will become a white elephant, like the stadiums in Manaus and Cuiabá, or even Rustenburg and Port Elizabeth.

“Brazil will play a game there every year,” Jönsson says.

“The big clubs from São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro will also play a number of games, but at the most you will have 10 to 12 games. A game every two months, that is expensive. The final of the Candango, the local championship, attracts 15 000 to 20 000 fans, even if Romarinho, the son of Romário, plays.”

At least this Saturday a capacity crowd will populate the stands of the Mané Garrincha stadium when Brazil bows out of the World Cup in the play-off for the third place.

Once all the fans, adorned in yellow, green and blue, have left, the question of Brasilia’s football culture and the Mané Garrincha stadium’s viability will remain unanswered.