There’s no question that you have to see some football (soccer) when you’re in Rio de Janeiro. The issue is whether you go independently or on a tour. I went with a couple of other travelers on my first trip to Rio fifteen years ago and while it was fun and the atmosphere was wild, we didn’t come away feeling we’d learned something. This time – during our two weeks in Rio as part of our grand tour of the globe, we took Viator’s Rio de Janeiro Soccer Match and Stadium Tour. Now, I wouldn’t recommend you go any other way. Here’s why:

Photo Taken by Terrence Carter

Photo Taken by Terrence Carter

1. You’ll get a pre-game briefing on the way

On the mini-bus headed to the São Cristóvão stadium to see a clássico or derby between Botafogo and Vasco de Gama, two of Rio de Janeiro’s four most popular teams (the other two are Flamengo and Fluminense), our guide Luis reads out the players’ names and jersey numbers to our small group so we know who to watch out for. He tells us that both teams wear black and white, but Vasco’s jersey has a red Maltese Cross and Botafogo’s a star. Vasco is the team of Brazilians of Portuguese heritage and Botafogo is the team of the working class. Botafogo is currently placed 5th and Vasco de Gama 12th on the championship table, and the top four teams will play in the South American Cup next year. Vasco are currently at number 12 in the competition but if they win tonight they’ll go up three points; if Botafogo lose they’ll drop 8 points. It’s an important match and now we understand why.

2. You’ll get a wealth of brilliant in-depth background information

Photo Taken by Terrence Carter

Photo Taken by Terrence Carter

Luis, a Brazilian who has lived in Rio for 26 years, has been guiding football tours several times a week, since 1987! His briefing is a combination of hard facts, fascinating stats, and personal recollections. “Botafogo was Brazil’s champion team in 1985 and Vasco won four times in 1974, 1984, 1994, and 2000,” Luis tells us. His memory is impressive. He rattles off statistics and scores from games he saw way back – he recalls a 1994 match when Brazil beat Italy in Pasadena, another game when Brazil beat Japan in Yokohama stadium, and Ronaldo scored well – and he recollects matches featuring the great Brazilian players Pelé, Garrincha, Didi, and Kaká. Luis believes Garrincha is Brazil’s best player, even better than Pelé, whom Luis actually met.

3. You’ll get loads of insider info, local insight and juicy tidbits

“Garrincha could have been Brazil’s greatest player if he stayed off the bottle,” Luis tells us sadly, “He had many women but he married his childhood sweetheart and had 11 children! He was a genius at football! His story is heartbreaking.” Luis tells us that they’re expecting a whopping 20,000 people tonight, which isn’t much for Rio. “It’s nothing compared to the biggest match ever at Maracana, Flamengo versus Vasco, which attracted 80,000 fans,” he says, “But it’s a work night and most of these people have to get up early tomorrow, but it will still be exciting.” Last year’s champions were Flamengo, “But they’re not so good this year,” Luis explains. “Because the best players went to play in Europe. And of course their goalkeeper Bruno Fernandes murdered his ex-girlfriend…” It’s all fascinating stuff that we wouldn’t have learned had we come on our own by train.

4. You’ll learn about Brazilian culture and social history too

Recalling the 1970 Mexico City match when Brazil won, Luis says: “I remember it vividly. Everyone in Rio was listening to it on transistor radios! Only the very rich had televisions in Brazil in those days.” Speaking about a game between Brazil and Uruguay when Uruguay won, Luis explains that it was a national tragedy. “Brazilians died of heart attacks! People were speechless. They were crying. The government declared one week of mourning!”

Photo Taken by Terrence Carter

Photo Taken by Terrence Carter

5. You don’t have to sweat the small stuff

A bus picks you up from your accommodation and drops you home again, and Luis fully briefs us on where the bus will park, how far we’ll have to walk, and where we’ll meet up again if we get separated. He even tells us what jerseys we should buy – the authentic ones cost R80, the fakes go for R40 – and where we can get our hotdogs and burgers before the match begins. When we arrive, Luis distributes the tickets, and we follow him past the spruikers, through the gates, and up the colossal ramps into the swanky new stadium to our excellent seats on the middle level, slapbang amongst the Vasco de Gama supporters, with a fantastic view of the stadium.

6. You can focus on the important things

Because Luis has taken care of all the tedious stuff, we can focus on people watching, soaking up the atmosphere, and really concentrating on the game.

Soon after we arrive, spectators dressed in their team’s jerseys and colours, start to trickle in. There’s a palpable tension in the air and an energy that doesn’t take long to ignite. The spark comes from the organized groups of hardcore fans down below in the seats behind the goalkeepers, Vasco at one end, Botafogo down the other. Their job is to motivate the fans up in these seats as much as the players. Each of the sides’ organized fans boast groups of drummers and as it gets close to game time, they begin to beat their drums loudly and chant their team songs. Some of the spectators around us join in. One young guy with a giant Vasco flag draped around his body yells out the lyrics passionately as he punches his fist into the air. And the game hasn’t even started yet!

7. You’ll get your own personal running commentary – if you want it

“They’re all good players,” Luis says, rubbing his hands together. “It’s going to be a good game tonight.” We’re just five minutes into the game when a Vasco player, Felipe, misses a goal and the Vasco fans around us get to their feet and hurl abuse down at the guy. “Puta!” they all shout, including an elderly man sitting beside us who is bright red in the face. It seems there’s no room for error. “It looked easy,” Luis says. “He should’ve got it,” he says, shaking his head. Soon after, there is a penalty against Vasco that wasn’t really a penalty, and the fans around us erupt in anger again, this time directed at the referee. There is more abuse hurled, and an old guy nearby looks like he’s going to have a heart attack. When Ramon scores the first goal for Vasco the supporters on our side of the stadium go wild. They scream, cheer, applaud, hug each other, and start to roar out football songs that everybody seems to know the lyrics to except our small group. The atmosphere is electric. “Vasco are playing much better,” Luis says, rather pleased. “They’re more on the offensive.” Later at halftime Luis tells us: “Vasco are playing very well – and this is Botafogo’s stadium! I’ve never seen them play so well before. I think they’ll win tonight.”

8. You’ll meet Brazilians – and have a translator to help you make friends

Photo Taken by Terrence Carter

Photo Taken by Terrence Carter

A fan standing alone on the other side of Luis asks where we’re from. Luis explains that he’s guiding a group of foreigners here to see the game. The guy is pleased that we’re interested. His name is Enrique and he’s an engineer from Barra da Tijuca. I’ve noticed he’s been on his cell phone all night, texting and making calls. Enrique explains that he’s communicating with his friend, a Botafogo fan, directly opposite us on the other side of the stadium! They come to matches together, separate for the game, and meet at the end to return home! Who would have thought…

9. You’ll get to meet and learn from diehard football fans

Although I like watching a game of football – or any sport when I travel – I’m not what you’d call a fan, so I enjoy meeting people who are. A British guy in our group spends his holidays travelling the world visiting football stadiums, and has seen hundreds! Today, he tells us, he visited the spiritual grounds of the teams we’re seeing tonight to watch them practice. Although he’s disappointed we’re not heading to the famous Maracanã Stadium, which recently closed for renovations in preparation for the next World Cup and Olympics (the tour normally includes a pre-game visit to the Maracana’s fascinating museum), he’s excited about visiting the sleek new São Cristóvão stadium we’re headed to, considered to be a fine example of contemporary stadium design, and his expertise adds to Luis’ already excellent briefing.

10. You’ll have a blast!

Luis was right – the game was exciting. Although we had no attachment to either team before the match, it didn’t take long before we found ourselves rooting for Vasco, simply because we were seated on their side and surrounded by their fans. The most fascinating aspect for me wasn’t what was going on down on the field, but watching the fans. When Vasco scored a second goal, their supporters went crazy. They were ecstatic, spontaneously hugging and kissing their neighbours who they hadn’t said a word to until then. When they were done with their neighbours they ran up the stairs, stepped over seats, and reached over to embrace people in the second and third seats away from them to share the joy. When Botafogo scored their first goal and their fans went wild, the Vasco supporters were livid. They punched firsts into the air and raised their arms turning their hands in a gesture that said: “what’s this about!” They screamed, they yelled, they hurled abuse at players on both sides, calling them “Puta!” We witnessed the full range of emotions it’s possible for a human being to experience, from ecstasy to agony, and it was extraordinary. When the game ended in a draw, we were disappointed. Although it was apparent the police and referees weren’t. “The refs like it when it’s a draw,” our new friend Enrique says, “Because then nobody hates them!”

Lara Dunston

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