Moral panic on the pitch
You learned it quite early on. If someone tugged at your sleeve, or touched your back, or whiffed a kick close enough to your shin, you immediately slowed down and tripped yourself. Then you glanced at the referee and said, “Porra, falta caralho!” (roughly, “Fuck — foul, dammit!”). You could murmur this sentence under your breath, squint and throw your arms up in the air, and fall to the ground with the pious expression of a saint, grasping your shin and writhing with the pain of your unseen injury. Or you could just shout it so the whole pitch heard, in a crackling little whine: Porra, falta caralho!
It depended on what line of acting you favored. I preferred discretion. When touched on the back or gently tapped on the shin during improvised matches at school or on the hot tarmac next to my grandfather’s house, I’d fall and then rise slowly, picking up the ball and placing it under my arm with a smirk of mock amusement on my face. I can’t recall where I learned this style. Perhaps it was an attempt to channel the more elegant midfielders of the 1994 World Cup — the Bulgarian Hristo Stoichkov, the Romanian polymath Gheorghe Hagi. I couldn’t shoot, couldn’t pass, couldn’t dribble, couldn’t even run. I was a loathsome player. But I often dove.
My cousin, a couple years older than me, was, by contrast, admired for his skills; his father sometimes talked about sending him to Rio de Janeiro or São Paulo to try out for the big national-league soccer teams. My uncle was even more skillful, and fast on the pitch despite becoming quite stout in middle age. They dove, too.
My grandfather never played much, but he was the most obsessed with the game. In the late ’70s he became chairman of Dom Bosco, a small soccer team from our hometown in Mato Grosso state. He often told me about the year they tied Corinthians at an away match in the Brazilian Championship (Campeonato Brasileiro) — an occasion Corinthians fans have no doubt forgotten but that my grandfather talked about until he died. By the time I was born, in 1983, my grandfather was no longer chairman of Dom Bosco. But his house was so cluttered with memorabilia, so full of newspaper clippings, desolate trophies and flags, and white-and-pale-blue jerseys, that I always thought of him as still in that line of work.
My favorite item in the house was a small golden statue of a lion that gazed out toward the horizon, its little chest thrust out. The trophy was a reference to Dom Bosco’s nom de guerre: “The lion on the hill.” I liked its camp sentimentality, its tackiness, the cheap gilded material from which it was made. But what I most liked and disliked about it, I now realize, was its naive derivativeness: its embodiment of that Latin American tendency to place aspiration elsewhere, to pick a foreign reference as the symbol of local truth and morality. There are many kinds of animals in Mato Grosso’s swamplands — alligators, leopards, tuiuiús (stately birds with fine, elongated beaks), and ariranhas (vicious little seals that swim in packs and can maul you to death if provoked). But there are no lions in that region, and there are almost no hills.