I embarked on my month-long trip from the Bay Area to Brazil, expecting adventure, excitement and a lot of soccer—football, as it’s commonly known outside the United States. What I didn’t expect however, and to my pleasant surprise, were desi connections in the South American country, a long way from India.
Football and Brazil are often uttered in the same breath, having won the FIFA World Cup tournament a record five times—in 1958, 1962, 1970, 1994 and 2002—and has been a favorite to win every time. Besides being Brazil’s favorite pastime, the passion for the sport reaches far and wide, attracting fans from all over the world with a kindred spirit, eager to watch the “Jogo Bonito”—the beautiful game—being played in Brazilian soil, take in the sights and experience the euphoric atmosphere first-hand. Several hundred Indians were among the almost six million people who visited Brazil between June 12 and July 13 and watched 32 countries compete for the coveted gold trophy.
Jayanta Bhowmik, a software developer from Fremont, California, was one of them. “I never thought I’d be able to attend World Cup Football in Brazil,” Bhowmik said. “It was a lifelong dream.”
A resident of California for the past 19 years, Bhowmik said he grew up in India and played football in school and college. “I continued playing even after coming to the United States until I injured my ankle badly a few years ago,” Bhowmik said.
Having made frequent business trips in the past to Sao Paolo and Rio de Janeiro while managing global development for Microsoft in the past, Bhowmik wanted to experience a different region during his last visit.
“This time I wanted to check out the Amazonas region,” Bhowmik said. “Hence Manaus. I loved it—the people, the natural beauty of the region and the local food.”
Manaus, one of the tournament host cities, is the capital of the Amazonas, the largest state in Brazil, and an important port of entry for tourism and trading. Inspired by the surrounding mighty Amazon rainforest, the brand new sustainable stadium—Arena da Amazônia—was built in 2013 to hold almost 43,000 people.
Bhowmik was among several thousand red-, white- and blue-clad United States supporters—including my husband Suresh and myself—at the USA vs. Portugal game in Manaus. We proudly waved the Stars and Stripes and loudly joined in the stadium-wide chant of, “I believe that we will win.” Team USA tied with Portugal but moved up to the round of 16 with more points in the group due to their win against Ghana.
Thousands of brightly clothed fans from around the world packed into the stadiums sporting their team colors, waving flags, cheering and chanting.
“I’m glad that I got the opportunity,” Bhowmik said. “It was a great experience.”
Several hundred fans sporting USA jerseys in red, white and blue attended the pre game party hosted by the United States Soccer Federation (USSF) in Manaus on the eve of the match. Sunil Gulati, an Indian American and president of the USSF, was visibly pleased and thanked the fans for their support. In March Gulati was unanimously reelected to a record third 4-year term as USSF president and in April he was elected to a 4-year term on the FIFA Executive Committee. Gulati is also a senior lecturer of economics at Columbia University. Many credit Gulati for developing soccer and increasing its visibility and interest in the United States and raising the sport to a new level.
Long before Bhowmik visited the Amazon region from the United States, traders from India set out for Brazil, for a different reason.
A group of Sindhis pioneered the first phase of Indian immigration by arriving in Manaus in the 1960s during Brazil’s rubber boom to take advantage of customs free trading. They later set up shops and businesses in the area. Ramsons, first established by an Indian businessman, is a profitable and popular chain of stores selling household appliances and home goods, located in malls and shopping centers across Manaus.
Manaus, an important port for trading and tourism, is conveniently situated at the confluence of the two rivers—Rio Negro from Colombia and Venezuela and Rio Solimões from Peru—which combine to form the mighty Amazon. Huge ships regularly negotiate the 4,000-mile waterway, transporting goods and cargo to and from other countries to Brazil.
People travel in ferries and use the river system like the freeways in the United States. River villages, among the verdant rain forest, are self sufficient, each with about a dozen homes on the water supported by a school, church and restaurant.
Indian immigration to Brazil continued through later decades. Professors and academicians arrived in Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo in the 1970s and were followed by nuclear scientists and computer professionals in recent years. Additionally, the migration of other people of Indian origin from other countries have increased the Indian population in Brazil to a little less than 2,000 among about 200 million people.
In addition to assimilating themselves into the Brazilian way of life, they have also maintained close cultural and economic connections with India.
Krishnaswamy Rajagopal, professor of chemical engineering at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, arrived in Brazil in 1971 and never left. Graduated from Loyola College and the University of Madras (Chennai, India), Rajagopal completed his higher studies at the University of Florida and married Mallika in 1975. Indian businesses and universities constantly invite him as guest lecturer and for consultation, he said.
Despite challenges and compromises, they lived and raised their children in Rio. Their son Ram completed his graduate and doctoral studies at the University of California, Berkeley, and is currently associate professor of electrical engineering at Stanford University.
Mallika, who studied economics at Ethiraj College in Chennai and the University of Madras, has held several jobs in Brazil including being a consultant for TV Globo Internacional, when she assisted the network with the filming of the International Emmy Award-winning Portuguese television soap opera, India—A Love Story in 2009.
“I helped with everything,” Mallika said. “The casting, costumes and story lines for all the episodes.” It was very popular and was one of the most watched shows on Brazilian television, Mallika said.
The Rajagopals regularly receive invitations to hobnob with Indian celebrities and diplomats during their visits to Brazil. In July they traveled to Brasilia to meet with India’s newly elected Prime Minister Narendra Modi during the recent BRICS summit hosted and chaired by Brazil.
The acronym for five major emerging economies—Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa—BRICS members signed the document on July 15 to create the $100 billion BRICS Development Bank and a reserve currency pool worth over another $100 million to encourage commercial, political and cultural cooperation between the five nations.
The Rajagopals extend their hospitality to Indian artists and performers in Brazil by arranging their concert tours and sometimes, hosting them in their home. Having meals in their home is a certainty, Mallika said.
Since Indian spices and lentils are not easily available in Brazil, they request family members to bring essential items either from India or the United States, she said. More than a dozen family and friends stayed with them during the World Cup, she said. It was chaotic and hectic but her guests had a great time, she added.
Although Indian grocery stores and restaurants are scant in Brazil, a few eateries had items with an Indian twist such as Brazilian samosas with cheese or meat filling at the Football museum’s café in São Paulo and ginger or cilantro-infused caipirinha, Brazil’s national cocktail made with cachaça (sugar cane hard liquor pronounced kashasa), sugar and lime. Accustomed to “water, no ice” in the United States, I got used to ordering “agua, sem gas”—water, no gas, the popular sparkling water—in Brazil.
Having been to two World Cup tournaments before—France in 1998 and South Africa in 2010—I was excited about watching the games in Brazil, often referred to as the country of football, especially the Brazilian team known for its skillful, free-flowing and samba-like swing style and made popular the world over by legends like Pelé, Garrincha and Ronaldinho. Although we watched many matches in the packed bars, cafes and restaurants, watching the Brazilian team win against Colombia live in the quarterfinals at Arena Castelão in Fortaleza was an unparalleled experience.
We got to the stadium early to people watch and enjoy the atmosphere. Anxious and excited Brazil fans sporting their customary yellow jerseys waved flags and sang patriotic songs, eager to see their team win and progress to the next round. Some Colombia fans were also in yellow, while others were in red, their away color. The seats filled up quickly and pretty soon we were among 60,000 strong, a vermillion-hued sea of turmeric with a sprinkling of chili powder.
Engaged with every move and pass throughout the match, the passionate fans would sometimes disagree with the referee’s rulings and break into arguments flailing their arms wildly. Impromptu discussions would sometimes turn into arguments involving the whole row. And the arguments would suddenly pause to allow the people in the section to stand with raised arms and join in a stadium-wide wave.
Their euphoria and their pursuit of the sixth championship title ended with this match in Fortaleza, as a few days later, Brazil faced a crushing loss to Germany in the semifinals in Belo Horizonte. The country was despondent and the fans heartbroken, but they shelved their grief to cheer the remaining teams.
Everyone was there to bask in the spirit of the tournament. No one was bigger than the game and it clearly showed.
Brazilians endeared themselves to the foreigners with their hospitable and helpful attitude. They went out of their way to assist foreigners, whenever and wherever they could, according to Gautham Subramaniam, who had traveled from Ahmedabad to watch a few matches. “The people were amazing,” Subramaniam said.
If you needed directions, they wouldn’t just tell you how to go, but many times they would walk with you and show you where to go, Subramaniam said. He was very impressed with their warmth and helpful nature, he said.
Watching a match at the Maracanã stadium in picturesque Rio de Janeiro, where Pele scored his 1000th goal many decades ago, was an unforgettable experience, Subramaniam said.
About 65,000 fans streamed into the refurbished Maracanã on July 13 to fanfare and closing ceremony performances by Carlos Santana, Shakira and others. Germany beat Argentina in the finals to win the championship.
Despite protests and discontent among some Brazilians about their government spending more than $11 billion on public works improvements—including 12 new and renovated stadiums—and widespread concerns about crime and unrest, the World Cup in Brazil was an amazing show.
Local businesses have begun gearing up for the 2016 Summer Olympics to be held in Brazil, preparing to draw more crowds from all over the world.
Brazil is yet to win the World Cup at home, much to their fans’ disappointment. But they are winners in my book.
Jana Seshadri is a freelance writer who lives in Brentwood, California.