Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Na raça - São Paulo

Brazil: The country of football. Photo credit:

Brazil is known as the country of football (futebol if you are Brazilian, soccer if you are American). Everyone, except 41 million Argentinians, know that Pelé was the best player to ever live, and there is no shortage of great players coming out of here most years, Neymar being the most recent. What you don't get a feel for if you've never visited or lived in this country is how deeply football runs in the blood of many male Brazilians. 

I am not talking about spectator sports. I am not talking about watching Palmeiras, Corinthians, Flamengo, Gremio, etc on any given Saturday or Sunday. I am talking about playing it. From the poorest residents of the favelas to the wealthiest members of the social clubs here, most boys-to-men can play and will play for much of their lives. Everyone has heard Ronaldo Fenomeno's stories of wrapping socks one over the other to make a ball and playing with that. One of my own sons will kick anything that is remotely round--playing with a rock in front of a cage in South Africa attracted a fierce reaction from an apparently-Corinthiano cheetah.

You can play it anywhere. Photo credit:

My husband is one of those who has played his entire life. Starting on the campus of a university in the interior where his parents were professors, he has played football as often as he can. At the university where he started playing, there are still games every Saturday one hour before sunset. Everyone knows when it is time to show up. No one calls to confirm; not a single email is exchanged. I watched them once at this grass and dirt field surrounded by tall trees. The age range went from 17-75. The teenagers ran and ran, the older men selected strategically their moves. The oldest, with a large beer belly, played goalie and shouted out "encouragement" in colorful language. These men are not necessarily friends off the field, and sometimes not even on the field, but for an hour and a half every Saturday, until it is too dark to see, they are out there playing football. Na raça.

"Na raça" is translated indirectly as participating in something with energy and enthusiasm. If you speak Portuguese, you can look here. If you don't, you're going to have to trust me because I could not find a Portuguese-English translation. Literally translated, "raça" means people (or race) that share a common origin or physical, linguistic or social characteristics. I like to think of it as the race of footballers who share a common love of this game.

Photo credit:

My husband is now in his mid-40s and has played football since he could walk. He loves it. Besides the Saturday football game, he has played on school teams (including at our grad school in the US and in primary school in England), corporate teams, whenever invited (conferences sometimes have a social football game where no one is social on the field, but all the enmity is also left there) anywhere, and now he has started to play at the club after a five month hiatus from soccer. 

The hiatus was provoked by a game in June where he broke two arms and had five stitches in his head. When I say my husband plays football "na raça", this would be an understatement. At that time he was playing with a group of former co-workers at a society-sized field in the city. "Society" fields in the city are around 50 meters x 30 meters (regular fields are twice this) and normally surrounded by low concrete walls topped by chain link fence. My husband decided he needed to make a goal against two 20-year olds and ran too fast to stop in time for the wall--and went in head first with his two arms outstretched to protect his head. Two fractured arms and stitched head at the emergency room later, he only comments that the worst part is that he missed the goal. 

This particular group of players has since disbanded (fear factor from seeing how my husband will eat concrete rather than lose a game) and my husband went to check out the "racha" at our club this Monday. Now, don't confuse "racha" with "raça"--a "racha" is a pick-up game with whoever shows up that day. The racha starts at 4:15 pm and ends at 6:45 pm. How this group of men (guesstimate on ages from 24 to 64) have this time period free every Monday and Wednesday is a mystery to me. 

Playing "na raça" at the club

My husband had to start out in goal because he was the 11th to arrive (5x5) and the game was on. I know nothing about the sport, as you all know, but I have to say that it looked like some good fun, good running and good swearing. So much for the "no swearing" sign.  They play hard. My husband went down a couple of times, and I sweated a re-break of an arm and the possible resurgence of my life as a chauffeur. But except for some major soreness yesterday and today, there is no semi-permanent damage.

I absolutely love the idea of this sport that courses through the blood of many Brazilians. It does not course through mine, but I see how it is deeply within one of my sons as well. I hope he will play it always, and always with the same enthusiasm as his dad (minus the concrete wall). Na raça.

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