By Miles Evans
On paper, Saturday’s mid-table clash between two of Rio de Janeiro’s top clubs, Vasco da Gama and Flamengo, was relatively meaningless in the context of the championship race.
You would need convincing, however, that ‘meaningless’ will ever find its way into the lexicon of the Brazilian football supporter.
Rio is a city that oozes contented passion; a love of the simple things in life taken to the level of art form, and nowhere is that passion more overt, joyous and unrestrained than in its worship of football. The journey to my first taste of the Brazilian game was an odyssey in itself.
The drive from the buzz of Copacabana beach takes you through streets thronged with animated football supporters spilling out onto the pavement while the commentary from another match blared from rickety televisions and into the night sky.
Ten minutes later, with the tourist hub behind you and a mammoth tunnel negotiated underneath one of the stunning mountains which skirt the city, come the favelas.
Even though it is clearly what they are, do not call them slums. They don’t like that translation here. The word belies the nobility these ramshackle settlements have gained; it betrays the fight against the elements, authority and adversity over which their residents rightly believe they have triumphed.
The mass of dark, ochre huts, garages, shops and dwellings give way to areas of greater wealth as the football crowds heading to the stadium become more evident.
The neat Joao Havelange Olympic Stadium emerges unexpectedly from the rows of tight, dilapidated housing. It is a pristine, white stadium where Usain Bolt will be defending his Olympic titles when the Games come to Rio in 2016.
The walk to the stadium is all smoky bustle; flag sellers flaunt their wares with rhythmic exuberance, makeshift food stalls emerge from the darkness and vendors politely nag for your hard-earned Reals.
The game is everything you would expect of a match with Brazil at its heart; all neat passing, confident turns and huge endeavour. 'Route one' football is also an absentee from the vocabulary in the Selecao's homeland.
Bolt will be at home here, with the Vasco fans draping Jamaica flags and Rasta imagery around the perimeter fencing to demonstrate their rebellious streak.
The kits looked like a remake of a QPR-Crystal Palace game from the early 1980s, but the quality of the football was generations superior.
Vasco took the lead with a terrific 35-yard driven free-kick from Nilton which barely got two feet off the ground such was the sweetness of the strike.
A torrential downpour dampened the ardour of the fans momentarily, as Flamengo piled forward after the break in search of a pride-salvaging equaliser.
And so it came with three minutes remaining when Marcos Antonio Gonzalez benefited from a goalkeeping howler to level the scores: cue the riotous response from the Flamengo fans, the tennis-court sized flags unfurled from out of nowhere and the impromptu samba celebration.
|"Those who did turn up showed that the 2014 World Cup and the Olympics are in safe hands"|
Flamengo pressed on for what would have been a deserved winner, given their possession and dominance, but it wasn’t to be and Fluminense cavernous lead at the top of the table remained unthreatened.
The crowd was officially 10,000, but, to be honest, it looked fewer. Colleagues debated whether such a ‘meaningless’ match would entice such a low crowd in England, France, Germany, Spain or Italy, and they had a point.
But those that did turn up showed that the 2014 World Cup and the Olympics are in safe hands. The passion of the people combined with a mineral-fuelled economy is a potent cocktail.
Their mega-events may lack the polish and veneer of a London 2012 or a Germany 2006, but what they will showcase is an unbridled love of sport set in the most spectacular of natural backdrops.
These rough edges are what football, and sport, is all about.