Faith a rite of passage to world domination for devout Brazilians

When Brazil have lifted a trophy in recent times they have usually done so hand-in-hand with Jesus

David McKechnie visited Our Lady of Aprecita Basilica, which contains the unusual 'Room of Promises', where Catholics come to ask for divine intervention - especially in matters of football. Video: David McKechnie

Sat, Jun 7, 2014, 10:00

In the corridor of souvenir shops near the vast, red-brick hangar of the Basilica of the National Shrine of Our Lady of Aparecida, just down from the temple of McDonald’s in the food court, traders ordinarily unwinding for the day have a final piece of business to attend to: Brazil v Panama. In fact for some, this pre-World Cup friendly is the only action they have seen on a sleepy Tuesday at Aparecida, 160km from Sao Paulo on the road to Rio, and so there is the awkward self-consciousness of a mistimed tackle when we disturb Marcelina, glued to the small screen in the corner, just as Neymar puts Brazil ahead with a tasty free-kick.

As the commentator exhales a hackneyed howl of “gooooooooooool!” – sounding so inappropriate during a friendly – Marcelina skips in her seat. “Gol de Neymar!” she beams. Mutterings and yelps leak through from neighbouring stalls. It is the first visible manifestation of World Cup fever in this retail area surprisingly uncluttered by national team tat. What kind of people come to the national shrine? “All kinds,” she says. “Some of them make promises.” She does not mean promises to buy or to return, but promises to Our Lady of Aparecida – Brazil’s mother of promises – in the most ancient kind of scratch-my-back transaction: Our Lady answers prayers, and people make an offering in return.

Bizarre museum

Offerings made in the shrine’s “Room of Promises”, in the bowels of the complex, have a sort of literal symbolism, making this an eclectic and bizarre museum for the man in the street’s hopes and dreams. In one corner a collection of wax legs hang from the ceiling like an artist’s abstraction of a choreographed dance routine - presumably offered by people who have recovered from injury. In the glass cases around the room objects are organised into groups: toy planes and cars (for safe travel), dolls and baby pictures, hats, farm animals and sewing machines.

Some of us scan the room hopefully for receptacles with hair.

The main attractions today are the cabinets with sporting paraphernalia (a dancer’s dress, boxing gloves, motorbike helmets by the dozen), especially those dedicated to football: signed boots; club and international jerseys (including Ireland’s); footballs and scarfs; figurines and photographs. Ronaldo the Phenomenon has a case almost to himself, its centrepiece a signed jersey offered after his recovery from serious knee injury before the 2002 World Cup (he flew here, with his mother, by helicopter). Surely new material has been piling up before Brazil’s big kick-off next Thursday?

The old woman behind the desk shakes her head, reaching down for the single football item to have arrived today – a Coritiba club jersey, signed on behalf of the striker Ze Eduardo with the message: “Thank you for the great achievement”. Later we check his stats: no goals this season.

The marriage of football to rites of faith, superstition, ritual and even magic is a phenomenon all round this world and possibly the next, but in no other country is such a diversity of traditions brought together for a sport so central to national self-definition. “Futebol is a sport and a machine, which socialises people in Brazil,” the renowned Brazilian anthropologist Roberto DaMatta writes in his essay Sport and Society. “It is a highly complex system for the communication of essential values and a domain which guarantees cultural continuity and permanence . . . Through futebol we are led to the kingdom of equality and social justice.”

The religious terminology is as appropriate as it is topical. Unusually in recent times, Brazil begin this World Cup without the overt presence of evangelicals, whose prominence at recent tournaments (most notably Kaká and Lúcio) has made them the public and sometimes controversial face of Brazilian celebration. When Brazil have lifted a trophy in recent times they have usually done so hand-in-hand with Jesus. This year, after an admonishment from Fifa, most players are keeping their faith to themselves.

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