Spanish Football Info editor Jamie McGregor is currently enjoying all that Brazil has to offer. So naturally, we asked him to write about it for us.
The constant beating of drums, the colour, the dancing, the screaming, the singing, the joy on people's faces; it's all around me. Bora Bahia! Campeão Carioca! (come on Bahia, Champions of Rio) screams the guy behind me. But I'm not in Rio, I'm in Salvador in North Eastern Brazil. On the pitch, Rio side Fluminense are being put to the sword and in the stands the carnival atmosphere is in full swing. Full time score: Esporte Clube de Bahia 3 Fluminense 0.
Alex Bellos described Bahia fans as the most colourful he had seen and it's hard to disagree. I've never seen a group of fans quite like them. In Europe, the fans don't sing, they chant. There's something rather aggressive about it, no doubt aimed at intimidating the opposition. Here, the fans play drums, they sing and they dance. The purpose doesn't seem to be to intimidate, it's just an urge, a release, a passion or maybe just an escape. The beat, like the dancing, is constant, it never stops. Then again, after spending several days in Salvador this doesn't come as a surprise.
Rhythm is everywhere here. It's the way people talk, the way people move, it's even in the church people go to (I was witness to an argument over whose church was the best based solely on the music played at sermons). Everybody seems to be, to some degree or other, musically and rhythmically gifted. I joke that there are 180 million people in Brazil and they're all better dancers than me, however, surrounded by such a scene (or maybe just to fit in) even an uncoordinated Scot like myself can't help but go with the flow and dance a little.
So what makes Bahian fans so colourful? It's almost certainly not the action on the park. Despite the three goals, the game itself is pretty boring. For all the skill and glamour of the national side, the reality is that the standard in the national league is extremely average. Nor is it Bahia's illustrious history. Bahia have only won two national championships, one in 1959 and another in 1988. That being said, the 1959 one was special given it is considered the first truly national championship and Bahia defeated the great Santos team of Pelé in the final. However, outside those two championships the club's only real success has been at state level where their only real challengers have been city neighbours and fierce rivals Vitoria.
To most Bahia fans' delight, Vitoria are currently a league below them in Serie B. So what is it that makes these fans turn out with so much passion and make so much noise? After all, Bahia has the second highest average attendance in the league at around 20,000 (Corinthians of São Paulo have the highest). A side note here, while 20,000 doesn't sound too impressive for a Premier League side in a football mad country, it should be noted that ticket prices have tripled in the last few years and this in a country where many people live below the poverty line.
To return to the question, what is it that makes these fans so colourful? When talking about his fellow Brazilians in his autobiography Pelé says “we are by nature a musical people, and we have faith. We are by nature optimistic. No matter the difficulties, the suffering or the disillusionment we always have faith that things will get better. We believe”. Brazil is renowned for its music, for samba and capoeira but where did they come from? They came from African slaves and Salvador was where most of the slaves arrived.
Salvador was the first capital of colonial Brazil (1549) and with its large port, grew quickly due to the slave trade. Of course many of the slaves were later moved to other parts of the country and by 1763 the capital itself had moved to Rio but African roots remained in Salvador. Today the city is considered the centre of Afro-Brazilian culture and you can see it everywhere in the food, the music, the dance and the people themselves. If Vasco da Gama from Rio represent the Portuguese community in Brazil then Bahia represents the Afro-Brazilian one. Bahians are proud people, they'll tell you that their food, their samba and their capoeira are the best. Globally everyone knows about the Rio carnival but in Brazil it's the Salvador carnival (the largest street party in the world according the Guinness Book of Records) that everyone considers the true one.
That their football team is an extension of this is obvious. In that sense, results don't matter because Bahia are a special club. Like Athletic Bilbao in Spain, they represent a group of people, a culture. While they might not be able to beat teams on the park, they can out-sing, out-dance and out-party anyone off it. It's perhaps for that reason that Salvador is known as the capital of happiness in Brazil and going by Pelé's definition alone, it certainly makes sense.