Cup Mania Runneth Over in Brazil

In the only country to win the World Cup four times, soccer is not a sport. It's a passion.

Streets are nearly empty, banks close, and schools let out early when Brazil plays in the Cup. Fans scrutinize the tactics of the team's coach more closely than those of the president.

Most people watch the Cup at home on TV. But in one working-class neighborhood of Rio, Cup watching has turned into a carnival, set in front of a 120-inch TV on a make-shift stage.

Take Friday's match between Brazil and Denmark, a game to see which team makes the semi-finals in the Cup's host country, France.

Pulsating drumbeats and scantily clad samba dancers animate a crowd of some 3,000 people, who have gathered in a district known as Tijuca, near Rio's famed Maracana stadium.

Like many of Rio's streets, streamers with the national colors of yellow and green fill the air. Entire families - including pets - wear the Brazilian flag either as a halter top, T-shirt, cape, hat, or wig made of glittering tinsel. Children proudly wear the team's canary-yellow jersey with the No. 9 of superstar Ronaldo.

Although Denmark easily beat Nigeria 4-1 in its last game, nobody at the Tijuca event believes Brazil will lose.

"Brazil by 4-0," says Silvia Souza, whose two dogs, Ramon and Pookie, are dressed in green and yellow sweaters. "It's important that we spur our players to victory."

"Brazil by 4-2," says Ilson Lorca, a retired bureaucrat who wears a costume of plastic soft-drink bottles with glasses fashioned from bottle caps perched on his gold-painted nose. A soccer ball sits perched atop a Mad Max-type spiked helmet. "Call me E.T.," he says with a smile as he waves a large Brazilian flag.

Next to him stands Orlando Marujo, an ex-seaman, who clutches a replica of a World Cup trophy he made from clay. He calls himself a "messenger of faith" for Brazil's coach, Mario Zagallo. He bursts into a rap song that he composed: "The Penta [Brazil's fifth World Cup title] is in the air; speak Zagallo, it's your turn to smile."

Tijuca's tradition of watching the Cup together began in 1978 when 10 teenagers put a 14-inch TV set outside their homes. Four years later, they painted the sidewalks, hung huge banners, and lured more neighbors. "From there, the idea took off," says Ronaldo Nappo, one of the original teens. "Today, we attract crowds of up to 25,000 people."

By 1990, City Hall joined in by sponsoring live music after a Brazil victory. "Obviously, we don't party if the team loses," says Mr. Nappo.

A loud roar announces the beginning of the game and the crowd seems happy that it has finally begun. But elation quickly turns to shock less than two minutes later, after Denmark taps in the first goal. Men and women cover their heads in horror. The numbing drumbeat stops. Mercia Xavier Silva, a retired housewife dressed in a flag T-shirt and green tinsel wig, passes out miniature flags. "Keep the faith, we will score soon," she says.

Nine minutes later, Bebeto, a veteran striker and star of the 1994 Cup that Brazil won, makes Mrs. Silva's prediction come true by scoring Brazil's first goal. Fans screams in unrestrained ecstasy, hugging each other while jumping up and down. Fireworks echo throughout the neighborhood. The drums return.

When midfielder Rivaldo chips in a shot over the Danish goalie in the 26th minute, the crowd chants in unison: "Penta, Penta," and Mr. Marujo waves his clay trophy while running in a circle.

Most rooters seem relieved when the first half finally ends with Brazil ahead by 2-1. But relief turns to shock once again after Denmark scores soon after the second half begins. Raimundo Santos, a water filter salesman, groans and gnaws at the fabric of a flag he is holding. "I get nervous," he says.

When Rivaldo puts Brazil ahead 3-2 with his second goal, Santos drops to one knee and crosses himself. "The Americans are the world champions in basketball, but nobody beats us in football [soccer]," he said.

As the game reaches its closing minutes, Denmark makes several futile attempts to send it into overtime. By this time, some 10,000 fans have gathered to scream at the wide screen and scores of smaller television sets. They plead for Brazil's defenders to ward off the attacks.

With two minutes to go, three middle-aged women faint. When the game finally ends, Mr Lorca is waving his flag, Mr. Marujo is lifting his trophy up to the heavens, and Mrs. Silva is crying and kissing anybody who crosses her path.

Ten minutes later, the celebration begins to the lilting sounds of Salgueiro, one of Rio's carnival samba schools.

Even Maria de Lourdes Ferlin, one of the women who passed out, is alert and savoring the victory. "My health is not important," she say. "What's important is we reached the semi-finals."

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