Brazil's Other Team, Or So Portugal Thinks

The Portuguese national soccer team, including the great Cristiano Ronaldo, has been set up in Brazil for several days, pursuing fortunes as its forebears did here centuries ago, but not doing nearly as well.

Updated: June 22, 2014 08:46 IST
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'Shaming' the forefathers?: Portugal's challenge this World Cup in Brazil has been quite jaded - a 4-0 defeat in their opening match against Germany.

Brasilia: In 1500, Portuguese explorers arrived on the shores of what is now Brazil seeking, among other things, gold. Today, Portuguese adventurers have come here seeking merely goals.

They have not found them yet.

The Portuguese national soccer team, including the great Cristiano Ronaldo, has been set up in Brazil for several days, pursuing fortunes as its forebears did here centuries ago, but not doing nearly as well. A disastrous 4-0 defeat to Germany left the Portuguese in shambles, and they face the United States in Manaus on Sunday in a game for their World Cup survival.

When they square off, the teams are expected to have large contingents of supporters, with Brazilians possibly tipping the balance toward the Portuguese, who are hoping that long-held cultural, historical and linguistic ties will make them the second favorites at the World Cup, as some people believe.

"Portugal is the second team of every Brazilian," said Joanna de Assis, a reporter for TV Globo in Brazil. "If, God forbid, Brazil was out of the tournament, all Brazilians would support Portugal."

There may be some exaggeration in that, especially for older fans who recall the harsh treatment Pele received at the feet of the Portuguese in the 1966 World Cup, when they cut him down mercilessly with cynical tackles almost every time he touched the ball.

"I cannot say for sure who the fans would root for now," Roberto DaMatta, an anthropologist and expert on Brazilian culture, said in a telephone interview. "But for those who remember what happened to Pele against Portugal, there was no harmony back then. When we passed Portugal in football in the 1950s, we loved that."

Perhaps that explains why so many Brazilian fans were whistling at Ronaldo during Portugal's loss to Germany in Salvador, the coastal city that was once Brazil's principal port for slave trade. Then again, Ronaldo, Portugal's dashing and divisive star, is a special case because of his reputation as a prima donna. After Portugal's loss to Germany, a headline in a Sao Paolo newspaper read, "You Lost, Crybaby."

But Adrieli Franca, 21, a civil engineering student from Salvador, will have none of that. She attended last week's game in a crisp, new version of Ronaldo's maroon No. 7 Portugal shirt.

"I love Cristiano," she said. "I am crazy for him. That is why I am here."

Others have different opinions, like Anderson Dos Santos, 32, a taxi driver in Brasilia.

"Once there is no more Brazil, I don't really care," he said. "Portugal is OK for me, but they are not strong."

The relationship between Portugal and its former colony in modern times is not easily pinned down. Certainly, there is a connection reflected in the language, the common history and the names of at least two local soccer clubs: Portuguesa in Sao Paolo and Rio de Janeiro's Vasco da Gama, named for the Portuguese explorer whose ship is depicted on the team logo.

According to DaMatta, an essential element of Brazilian independence is that there was no violent uprising, perhaps reducing any lingering resentment toward the old colonial power. Moreover, Brazil served as the seat of power for the Portuguese empire for most of the 19th century.

"In 1808, King John VI fled to Brazil when Napoleon invaded the Iberian Peninsula, and he and his son and grandson ruled there for many years," DaMatta said. "This led to a different experience for the Brazilian-Portuguese experience, as the onetime periphery became the central power base."

Frances Hagopian, the Jorge Paulo Lemann visiting associate professor for Brazil studies at Harvard, said she never sensed antipathy toward Portugal when she lived in Brazil. But nor did she sense any special connection.

"Portugal is a country one-twentieth the size of its former colony," she said. "In most ways, Brazil has moved past Portugal as a developed country. I think even many of the elites look toward France."

But Portuguese remains the lingua franca. And although some Brazilians and Portuguese citizens say the language is identical save for a few words, others insist the accents and rhythm of speech are so different that it can be jarring.

"If we speak slowly, they can understand us," said Andre Ribeiro, 36, a car salesman from the Portuguese city of Porto who arrived in Brazil with a group of friends over a week ago.

Ribeiro said the Portuguese felt a natural kinship with Brazilians.

"Actually, we are more like brothers," he said. "That is how they have treated us here."

DaMatta said that besides language, Brazil inherited many things from Portugal that help characterized Brazilian culture. (Soccer was not one of them. Legend has it that soccer, Brazil's most popular sport, was imported by the son of a Scottish rail worker in the late 19th century.)

"Oh yes, we have the same sexism, the same corruption and the same assistance by the state to help certain people become millionaires," he said. "Portugal built no schools here, no universities, and they were late with health care. Everything was late."

In modern soccer terms, there doesn't appear to be universal antipathy leveled at Portugal, other than toward Ronaldo.

"The only animosity is directed toward Argentina,'' said Fernanda Fontes, a 33-year-old nurse who grew up in Salvador until moving to the United States at 16.

And although DaMatta said there was not enough cultural exchange between the countries, Portugal served as safe harbor for many Brazilians during the years of inflation in the 1980s and '90s. Many of those who went to Portugal were dentists, and according to DaMatta, they put some Portuguese dentists out of work.

"We have the best dentists in the world," he said. "So what did they do? They made laws limiting the ability of Brazilian dentists to work in Portugal."

Soccer players, however, have had no difficulty finding work in Portugal. The best Brazilian players may prefer to go to the more lucrative Spanish league, but Deco played for Porto from 1999 to 2004 (before moving to Barcelona). Today there are dozens of lesser-known Brazilian players in Portugal, according to Eurorivals.net, far more than in other European leagues.

Now, all the best Portuguese stars, including Ronaldo, the so-called crybaby, are playing in Brazil. Even he says they have been treated like another home team, which they hope will continue in Manaus.

"We have gotten nothing but fantastic support since we have been here," Ronaldo said. "With all the Brazilian hospitality, it has felt like home."

Now, if they can just get the goal.

© 2014 New York Times News Service

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