The World Cup has brought out the carnivalesque nationalism, the cultural diversity deeply connected to people’s symbolic identity of their country. Mexicans, a large contingent coming from the US, wearing the dark green of the national team, large sombreros and wresting masks. “Pura Vida!” shout the Ticos in red, as if they are all working for the Costa Rican tourism industry. Americans in stars and stripes in whatever manner possible, the more different ways from shorts, socks, hats, underpants, supposedly the better. On the metro the other day to the Maracana stadium, there was a Russian couple dressed as Tsars, the large fur hats unbearably hot even in a Rio winter.
When we got on the bus to go to the Greece and Japan match several days ago, there was a small contingent of Japanese, immediately identifiable by the life size Dragon Ball Z character sitting in the back of the bus. A full body white and purple body suit with a tale. Bizarre. When I pulled out a Japanese flag to show them we were supporting Japan during that match, one of the women smiled, bowed her head and thanked us several times.
The Japanese have become famous in Brazil for cleaning the stadium after matches and even after another disappointing game against Greece, they had pulled out blue garbage bags and began moving through the stadium picking up not only their mess but also the mess of everyone else. The Japanese are one of the more ‘odd’ groups of supporters. They have arrived in all different manners. It is not uncommon to see young Japanese women following the national team on their own, an oddity for almost every other country. Then there is the organized tour buses of middle-aged Japanese couples, following an upheld umbrella as if they were going to see Iguazu Falls and not a World Cup match.
In the stadium the Japanese became a large block of deep blue, young and old, men and women, all together and unlike the Uruguayans and Costa Ricans, they were all standing and singing for the whole match. Japanese have become an interesting hybrid of South American and Japanese stadium cultures. Polite, reserved, and controlled outside of the stadium, they do not have the typical exuberance of other travelling countries. There are not the hordes of young Japanese men walking the streets drunk and singing, in some ways to the discontent of many Brazilians who want to sell trinkets and caipirinhas to the visitors. They disappear to their hotels when there isn’t a match.
Outside of the stadium, however, the Japanese transform into some of the most fanatic supporters at this World Cup. Bags of headbands supporting Nippon appeared outside the stadium, ladies handing them out to Brazilians and pulling them into the cause. Immediately when in the stadium they took up their positions and began to beat on their single drum.
Unfortunately FIFA has made it very difficult for supporters to bring in instruments into the stadium, most groups have either smuggled in an instrument or been very limited. A fear that the televised audience would complain about vuvuzelas once again has dramatically limited the atmosphere in the stadiums. It is hard not to notice how much FIFA has made the World Cup about the television audience, a clean and sanitized football. Much like the all-seater stadiums with large empty sections devoted to the super wealthy. In Natal, the VIP section was empty, prime seats gone unused because of the inaccessible prices. Similar to the transformation of the Maracana, once a stadium built for the mass public, has now been transformed into an upper-class venue, wide seats for those who can afford the ticket price. The culture inside the stadium managed and controlled to provide the right type of acoustics needed for the television. Oohs and ahhs at balls passing just wide of the goal. Just enough noise to communicate excitement but not too intrusive that someone might write a complaint on twitter.
On the far side a small group of Greek supporters rallied around a lone trumpet player, also very enthusiastic and unstoppable even when surrounded by a group of security. I wonder if FIFA was not so concerned about its ticket prices and its television audience if it could not organize a more partisan experience for the followers of the national team: concentrate the Greeks and Japanese more into sections of the stadium to provide more comfort and stronger support.
When we moved into the Japanese section during the second half, we could feel the intensity and passion of their supporters. They had not stopped singing for a single minute of the match, though their voices picked up the intensity of the match. Borrowing the melodies of South American stadiums, some of the songs were familiar enough for the Brazilians who also joined in. As Japan pressed and narrowly missed the goal, Brazilians also tried to urge the players onwards. Some who watched the game on television claimed it was one of the more disappointing matches of the tournament; it was hard to have that impression when in the stadium. The fanaticism of the Japanese supporters, and the heart-breaking disappointment in the tie, gave the match an important emotional content that makes even the most ‘boring’ games feel significant.
The Japanese national team at the end of the match made their way over to the supporters section, and in a deep bow apologized to their supporters in unison. Supporters applauded their team and then turned their blue bags used in during the match for balloons into garbage bags.