I went to a massive taunting festival and a soccer game broke out.
My interest in soccer has been growing since about 2001. That was when I got hooked on the U.S. National team’s games in World Cup qualifying. Its performance in the 2002 World Cup just served to complete my passage from casual observer to actual fan.
Or, at least, I thought I could classify myself as a fan until I came to Brazil. Compared to the average Brazilian soccer fan, my interest in the sport can be more accurately described as more like the young lady who watches the game with her boyfriend to show him that she’s cool and likes sports.
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Never was that more apparent than on that Sunday in February, when I attended the Atlético-Cruzeiro match at the lumbering, concrete wonderland of a stadium in Belo Horizonte - Mineirão. They bill the rivalry “The Classic” and I now understand why.
A little background: Atlético and Cruzeiro are both from Belo Horizonte, and both call Mineirão their home field. Both compete in the top level (Série A) of the Brazilian league (Campeanato Brasileiro). Cruzeiro’s nickname is the Raposo (Fox) and Atlético’s is Galo (Rooster).
The teams also compete in the Minas Gerais state championship (Campeanato Mineiro), a league unto itself. Atlético and Cruzeiro are by far the best teams in the state, and almost without fail one or the other wins the state title. Of course, this year, Cruzeiro managed to lose to Série-C Ipatinga in the title game, thus helping to explain why they actually play the games.
The real truth of the matter is that Belo Horizonte is a city divided – you are either a cruzeirense or an atleticano. It is a person’s defining characteristic in this town.
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Coming from the U.S., I avoid taking sides all together and tell people I root for América, a remarkably bad Serie-C team in Belo Horizonte. So I get to avoid any angry exchanges and instead get people looking at me with pity and confusion, which, in all honesty, is how people here tend to look at me anyway.
The difference between Cruzeiro and Atlético fans is marked. Cruzeiro fans tend to be a bit more affluent and somewhat snobby. This could stem from the fact that Cruzeiro is by far the best-run club in Brazil. It has a fantastic training facility (Toca da Raposo) and can usually out-bid any team in Brazil for quality players. However, the average cruzeirense will generally at least half-heartedly root for Atlético against out-of-state rivals, provided the game has no effect on the Foxes.
What Atlético (a.k.a Atlético Mineiro nationwide to differentiate the club from Atlético Paranaense in Curitiba) lacks in money and overall success, its fans make up for with pure lunacy. They wear the phrase “Galo Doido” (Crazy Rooster) proudly on their sleeves. To say that atleticanos despise the cruzeirenses is a total understatement. If Cruzeiro played a team fully comprised of blood-thirsty Draculas and Frankensteins, atleticanos would cheerfully root on the gruesome monsters.
On February 20, the two teams played at Mineirão, and I got to be there together with 60,000 completely out-of-their-mind Brazilians. For security reasons, fans for rival teams are separated at Brazilian soccer stadiums. I was on the Galo side, as my friends were atleticanos. It was easily the most primal experience of my life - and I was raised by wolves, as I revealed long ago in my short autobiographical story, “Hey, Look At Me! I Was Raised By Wolves!”
I can honestly say that Brazilians are, on average, among the nicest people in the world. Put Brazilians in a stadium for a huge rivalry, however, and they become something so completely indescribable I’m not even going to try to describe them. My friend wisely took off his Atlético shirt while we were driving near a thong of cruzeirenses on the way to the game. I knew that the niceties were over.
Being the wise American that I am, I managed to get a fantastic seat, right at mid-field. Having the normal “Hey-I’m-American-nothing-bad-can-ever-happen-to-me” attitude, I had chosen a seat located right next to the Cruzeiro section, separated by one row of empty seats, which was wisely manned by about a dozen, gun-and baton-wielding cops.
We got there about an hour before game time. For that hour, and on through the entire game and post-game, Galo and Raposo fans endlessly taunted each other. And taunting in Brazil is a bit different than it is in the U.S. Most of the taunts are in convenient chant and song form, and most involve some reference to sticking something up their opponent’s rectum.
Like I said prior, it was quite primal. I mean, I didn’t actually see anyone throwing their own feces at anyone, but I’m not discounting the possibility that it occurred.
Luckily for me, there were no incidents of violence. Brazilian police, it seems, will gladly use their batons and guns, and the fans are crazy, but mostly non-suicidal.
Even better for me, Atlético won the game 2-0, with both goals coming on headers from Galo’s stylish forward Euller. Both came in the first half and were met with the kind of excitement that you would only find if Elvis were to show up in Memphis one night, looking great and telling everyone he was just frozen for the past eon and his new album had just been released.
All in all, it was a mind-blowing experience. Atleticanos left the stadium confident that this season they’re superior to Cruzeiro, while the cruzeirenses left the stadium confident that the team will buy some new players before the Brazilian league begins.
I left the stadium exhausted, thrilled and so keyed up I went home, went to bed and slept for 10 consecutive hours. I can’t wait until the next one. It was classic.
Belo Horizonte Soccer Travel
* More about Mineirão Stadium on The Stadium Guide website.
* The official Cruzeiro website
* The official Atlético Mineiro website