Don't Call it Luck: The Divine Powers of the Soccer Fan

If superstition decided soccer matches, all matches would end in a tie. Still, that has never kept fans from turning to rituals, magic, prayer or just odd practices to give a helping hand to the Brazil national soccer team.

Updated: June 28, 2014 09:39 IST
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Soccer fans in Salvador and beyond believe the outcome of the matches is somehow in their control.

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Salvador: There is a saying in this coastal city of mixed religious heritages and many creeds that goes more or less like this: If superstition decided soccer matches, all matches would end in a tie.

Still, that has never kept fans here from turning to rituals, magic, prayer or just odd practices to give a helping hand to their club, or to the Brazil national soccer team, which plays Chile on Saturday in the Round of 16 at the World Cup.

Whether it is wearing the same shorts for as long as the team is winning or leaving a sacrificial chicken and other offerings on a street corner to some African deity, fervent soccer fans in Salvador and beyond believe the outcome of the matches is somehow in their control.

"I write the name of the opposing team on a piece of paper, put the piece of paper inside a glass and put the glass in the freezer," said Heraldo Souza da Silva, a businessman and father, explaining his strategy of "chilling the adversary," generally applied to his local team, Esporte Clube Vitoria, but adapted to serve Brazil during the World Cup.

Talent does not always dictate the result in soccer. Luck is the 12th player on the turf, and there are plenty of stories about clearly weaker teams scoring against much superior opponents. Think of the United States' 1-0 victory against England in the 1950 World Cup, also in Brazil, a stunning feat by a U.S. squad made up of part-time players, including a teacher and a hearse driver, against a team considered one of the best in the world.

Nelson Rodrigues, a Brazilian playwright, had a name for those unlikely and inexplicable goals, at least in earthly realms: "gol espirita," or spiritualist goal, because, it is said, they can happen only by divine intervention.

Brazilians are certain that such intervention expresses itself in many ways. Fans of Cruzeiro Esporte Clube, a top-level squad from the mountainous state of Minas Gerais, say the team had no chance earlier this year against San Lorenzo de Almagro, its Argentine opponent in the quarterfinals of the prestigious Copa Libertadores, because Pope Francis is among the team's staunch supporters. (These days, rumor has it that the pope's prayers are for Argentina, his home country and a soccer powerhouse.)

"Luck interferes, for sure, but the most ardent soccer fans don't call it luck," said Ordep Serra, a professor of anthropology at the Federal University of Bahia, who has researched extensively the role of religions in Brazilian communities. "To them, it's the prayer they prayed, the ritual they followed. There is chance in soccer, and though people know they can't control or predict things that happen by chance, they're quick to assign meaning to them."

This month, writer Joao Ubaldo Ribeiro, who was born on an island off the coast of Salvador, wrote that his father confined him to the bathroom for many of Brazil's games at the 1958 World Cup in Sweden after realizing Ribeiro was there, flushing the toilet, when Brazil scored against Austria in its first match. (My father, who is from Salvador, refuses to let my mother in the room whenever his beloved Esporte Clube Bahia plays. He said it was to avert the temptation of blaming her for the team's losses, of which there have been many of late.)

In Rio de Janeiro, Jose; Ribeiro, a rapper, fasted until the end of Brazil's friendly match against Panama on June 3, out of belief that "on an empty stomach, it's easier to channel my energy to the players." (Brazil beat Panama, 4-0.)

That afternoon, at a bar just blocks from Maracana, Rio's famed soccer stadium, Guilherme Vieira donned the same "lucky shirt" he was wearing when Brazil beat Spain in the finals of the Confederations Cup last year. Roberto Sant'Ana carried in his pockets the same three rocks he picked up years ago, after he heard in a dream that if he took the rocks to a stadium, any game, his team would win.

"I can't tell you it's 100 percent, but I'll tell you one thing," Sant'Ana said. When Brazil faced France in the quarterfinals of the 2006 World Cup in Germany, "security told me I couldn't bring the rocks with me," he said. "And Brazil lost."

Serra, the anthropologist, half-jokingly said that here "even atheists make exceptions to plead the saints for help for their team." It almost seems as if superstition is contagious.

Simon Johnson, who is from England, was a soccer fan in his home country, but hooligans were wreaking havoc at the stadiums back then, so he stayed away. When he moved to Salvador in 1993, he said, the first game he saw was a Vitoria match and the team went on to reach the finals of the Brazilian championship.

Johnson has worn the same black Bermuda shorts he had on that day to every game he has attended. They have been washed so much that they have gone from black to gray.

"The shorts," he said, "are the key thing."

Augusto Cesar, a priest in the Candomble; religion, a mix of Roman Catholicism and African polytheism that is one of Salvador's dominant faiths, has another theory.

"Soccer is a game, like everything in life, and though you can never tell what's going to happen when the ball starts rolling, it never hurts to ask for a little protection from above," he said.

But in the end, Cesar conceded, "even with your saint as the arbiter, most times it's the best team that wins."

© 2014 New York Times News Service

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