Brazil isn’t alone in having a national identity so tied to a single sport. India, for one, could claim to be more obsessed with cricket than Brazil is with soccer.
It is impossible to quantify which country is more passionate about their favorite sport. But, at the risk of angering a billion people from Kashmir to Kerala, Brazilian soccer fans are at least more committed to theirs.
At this World Cup, Brazilians have filled the stadiums no matter who was playing. In Cuiaba, for example, the Arena Pantanal was packed every match. The western Brazilian city of 500,000 people is no soccer heartland, but it embraced the tournament even though the Seleção didn’t pay a visit.
When India jointly hosted the last Cricket World Cup, its grounds were often half empty. Delhi’s ragged Feroz Shah Kotla Stadium, which would’ve been put down years ago if it were a dog, was a sea of dirty, empty seats for an evening match between South Africa and the West Indies. Likewise, Chennai’s M.A. Chidambaram Stadium was a third full, at best, for a weekend match between England and South Africa.
In Indian cities populated by millions, World Cup matches between cricket’s elite teams failed to fill stadiums. In remote Cuiaba, tens of thousands of Brazilians dressed in the yellow national shirt turned up to watch South Korea play Russia, one of the least glamorous ties of this World Cup. They cheered for South Korea, FYI.
In India, even when the national team is playing, fans have been known to only show up to see a certain batsman and then leave when he is dismissed.
There is widespread poverty in India—much worse than in Brazil—but that doesn’t mean hundreds of millions of people can’t afford to go to a cricket match. Tickets for the 2011 Cricket World Cup weren’t prohibitively expensive in the group stage, selling for as little as $0.20 in Sri Lanka, which co-hosted with Bangladesh and India. The cheapest tickets weren’t much more in India, at least in the group stage.
It’s not entirely the public’s fault. There were problems with ticket distribution throughout the 2011 World Cup. Security personnel at Indian cricket stadiums do their best to sap all the fun out of attending a match. Spectators are barred from bringing a host of belongings, including cameras, into stadiums. I’ve had chewing gum confiscated—perhaps they were worried it might get stuck in my hair—and a friend even had a lonely condom taken from his wallet and thrown away. Good job it had expired in the middle of the 1990s.
In Chennai, security guards took my loose change because coins weren’t allowed in the ground. Water and any other liquids were also banned. Parched, I went to the drinks counter to buy a soft beverage (alcohol isn’t allowed in Indian cricket stadiums) with some rupee notes. I was given my change in coins.
Brazil’s World Cup was a much more spectator-friendly experience. The organizers gave the impression they actually wanted people to be there.
Millions in India watch cricket on television, but that experience has become such a trial that a real fan needs little incentive to go to a match—a World Cup one, no less—when it is in their hometown. Televised cricket milks every opportunity to roll the same advertisements in a torturous rotation, over and over. It is the televisual equivalent of waterboarding. As uncomfortable viewing experiences go, watching cricket on TV in India ranks right up there with stumbling upon an episode of “Two and a Half Men.”
World Cup fans in Brazil had a much better excuse to stay in and watch from home: advertisements don’t ruin soccer broadcasts because they only come at halftime. Yet the stadiums were full. Great sports events are best witnessed in the flesh.
The fans also knew the World Cup won’t be coming back to Brazil any time soon. The country had to wait 64 years since it first hosted the tournament, in 1950. The Cricket World Cup will be back in India as soon as 2023, which will be the fourth time the country has hosted the event. The 2014 World Cup is a once-in-a-lifetime experience for Brazilians. The Cricket World Cup is a once-in-a-decade experience for Indians, but that’s no reason not to go when the circus is in town.
Brazilian fans also seem to take defeat better, even when it is delivered in such shocking fashion as the 7-1 drubbing by Germany on Tuesday. India won the 2011 Cricket World Cup and the celebrations provided a memory for the ages, with the country erupting in fireworks and car horns on the night of the April 2 final. It was a different story in 1996, when fans went on the rampage in Kolkata’s Eden Gardens as Sri Lanka was on the verge of victory in the semifinal against India. The burning of effigies and attacks on players’ homes are pretty common. That’s not being committed to a team; that’s madness.
I was in India during the 1996 Cricket World Cup, too, living in the hill station of Ootacamund in Tamil Nadu. I remember walking into town and seeing scores of people in the street peering through the window of an electrical goods shop, where an already out-of-date television was broadcasting a World Cup match.
It is a shame the stadiums in the 2011 World Cup weren’t as full of eager spectators as the streets of Ooty were that day, or as in Brazil throughout this five-week soccer extravaganza.
How can a country claim cricket to be like a religion when so few people show up for church? Brazil wins this one.