Vasco, Vasco, Vasco… The football song is ringing in my ears from the game tonight and probably won’t be one I soon forget.
After a very nice day doing a city tour with my group, it was established that the majority of us would go to a rivalry game of two Rio teams, Vasco and Flamengo. The stadium was far and we left the tour early to get there in time. We parked at a gas station, met more people on a different tour and then walked towards the stadium. The streets were packed and our group stuck out like a sore thumb because none of us were wearing the appropriate colors. So people were naturally staring and yelling VASCO at us everywhere we turned. Walking past the blocked off streets, there was obvious police presence and as we walked past almost every fan yelled profanities at the men and women standing guard. There was so much energy, but I was very on guard about trying to protect my stuff and keep track of our group, seeing as two guys in my program got mugged yesterday. Once it was time to go in, there was no concept of a line and I was literally lifted off the ground by the sheer mass of people and was herded towards the bag check area. Rosemary and I, an incredibly sweet girl from Atlanta, just naturally decided to be each other’s partner and we absolutely did not let go of each other while still trying to keep tabs on our bags. At one point we were using all our strength to prevent ourselves from being carried apart!
Once we got through, we found seats and listened to the massive fan singing going on through the entire stadium. It was actually quite exhilarating and would have been one of those beautiful make-me-cry collective humanity moments except I didn’t know the songs so I felt slightly removed. At one point, the giant flag came over us and we were encased in the jumping and chanting fans which was intoxicatingly stimulating. There were a few people that were very nice and made eye contact during songs, celebrating with me.
Not even ten minutes into the game, a fight breaks out into the crowd just to our right. We all were shoved to the left to make an impressive amount of room I didn’t think existed before with how packed the stands were. Police and other men run in trying to break it up, but the space still remained. Soon after, a second fight broke out and we got pushed even farther. The police intervened and stared spraying pepper spray to break things up. Vasco had a really great attempt at a goal but got a foul called and shortly after Flamengo scored, 0-1. The crowd didn’t explode like I thought it would and once halftime hit everyone was able to sit down and take a break.
The second part of the game was noticeably more relaxed and I was able to actually watch what was going on. Being tired and experiencing all the stimulation was a lot for my system and I felt big waves of fatigue hit me. I was happy I wasn’t drunk because otherwise I might have just passed out. Once the clock was running down to the wire, people were already lining the blockades around the field and taunting the police that were down there. I saw people climbing walls and yelling, spitting at officer’s feet and throwing everything they could onto the field. Shoes, beer, cans, fireworks, anything! If a fan got a little too heated the police would literally charge the blockade with their batons, ready to smack the fan’s legs to the other side.
It was a general understanding that our group would just wait until things cleared out before we moved out and then, probably 40 feet to my left, four fireworks and tear gas bombs go off. People run to the right side and my hand finds Rosemary’s again. We were instructed not to speak a lot of English because it would be dangerous on the streets so we subtly try to consolidate our group and find our guide a few rows up. I try to look for other group members but its very obvious we are missing people. Fans suddenly come running down the street and another bomb goes off. We take shelter a ways away behind some cars and again try to recollect. Our shirts were over our noses and our eyes watered. We collect a few more people and try to proceed back to the gas station where we were parked but don’t even make it 40 feet before we again see a mob of people running away from the proceeding assault, and we are forced to crowd behind the trunk of a van. Two bombs go off right next to us and I see audacious men, turned urban warriors, storm the street with shirts tied around their noses. They were throwing bottles and whatever they could find on the street as ammunition toward the police and in my head I thought this is what a revolution would look like.
The police storm the front on horses and push everyone back so we have just enough time to walk through the gap towards the station. We go around because another street is blocked by a rising cloud of gas and on the next block I was shocked when I saw a woman laugh as she casually walked the crowded sidewalk with her boyfriend. I felt like this was a pretty serious moment, and casually laughed as though it was just another day (This, I would come to realize later wasn’t that shocking of an event for Brazilian standard). We make it back to the station with whatever fragment of our group managed to stay with us. All the girls immediately crowd together, happy to see each other because we know that if a woman was alone in this situation it could be dangerous. I’m relieved and then one guy from my program calls me, wondering where we are. I drop him our location and just hope he is okay, not knowing how else to help him because I’m still unfamiliar with the city. We all get in the van once its apparent he is not showing up soon. Our driver goes back towards the stadium and just as that happens, another parade of people run past us and our block gets gassed. People take shelter behind our car, not knowing if anyone was in there and then run like animals from forest fire. Our group member then goes missing for another hour and after several phone calls, several location drops and an attempt to go to him, we end up back at the front of the stadium to see the players leave in shaded cars. After some frustration, we gather him and finally get dropped off.
One girl in my program says on the way home that while she was watching the tear gas bombs go off, she found herself very fortunate because this is many other people’s reality and they’re not just tear gas bombs, they’re real bombs. That comment struck me hard because it was a sobering reality that I had never been able to understand or conceptualize before that night. In this situation, all the frustration and anger of the people were directed at the police. Brazil’s bureaucracy, I would learn later that week, is very complicated and the people’s mentality towards the police is not positive because of the massive corruption scheme, gentrification in the favelas, and the prominence of racism and classism. Citizens have good reason to not trust their “peacekeepers” and knowing that in hindsight, I can see why they reacted as they did. It was absolutely a “them versus us” mentality and the whole thing smacked of revolution. The entire event was not based on soccer at all, the game was simply used as a medium to foster the environment in which they wanted to fight back. It was an absolutely crazy and scary night, but also very real and inspiring. I felt scared but I also felt that it was something worth witnessing. Something that deserved to be held. This is the type of life I want to be living, not the one where I am comfortable and removed and privileged. Life is dirty and I need to remove myself from the bubble of perceiving it to be clean.
Tonight I saw a boy who was maybe ten get tear gassed for the first time. His dad poured water over his face as he produced chemically-laced tears. The father held his son to his shirt and urged him not to rub as he tried to protect him from the street light. This moment helped me see that these people know an incredibly different reality than I do, but that doesn’t make them any less human or any less equal. The country they live in may need to make changes but within it still lies hope, courage, and love. I commend the Brazilian people for doing what they think is right, even in the face of doubt.
Go, Vasco, go.