The Museum of Football brings Brazil's glorious history to life
JUN 19, 2014 9:15a ET
SAO PAULO --
Our cabbie felt strongly. "Brazil didn’t play Mexico," he bellowed in Portuguese. "It played its goalkeeper." Clearly, he was still sore over the home country’s 0-0 draw from the day before, in which Memo Ochoa - the Mexican goleiro, to use the local parlance - somehow kept the Brazilians at bay with a series of stupefying reflex saves.
The vigor with which he argued his points went a long way to explain the existence of the building he had picked us up from: O Museo Do Futebol - the museum of soccer. It is a shrine to all that Brazil has accomplished in the sport that was brought to these shores when Charles Miller, the 20-year-old son of a Scottish railway engineer, returned from boarding school with a pair of soccer balls and a rulebook in 1894. It is a monument to all that it has won, those five World Cups and all the rest - and, for posterity, some stuff about the 14 World Cups not won by Brazil as well. It is a statue to Brazil’s greatness, manifested through soccer, the only thing that really counts anyway.
You walk in and dodge the clusters of pasty Englishman in ill-fitting shorts in town for their game with Uruguay. Then you weave through a row of goalposts, one for each World Cup, either decrying Brazil’s inability to win it, or glorifying one of those five wins. Every edition of the cup that is won is immortalized in every imaginable way here - even if, to Brazilian sensibilities, their winning the World Cup is just everything falling into its right place. Every World Cup not won is a national tragedy, a terrible conspiracy of evil fates and spirits victimizing the Cup’s rightful owner into giving it up.
In the next room, people gape breathlessly at a jersey Didi wore at the 1958 World Cup, the first one to put a star on the hallowed yellow jersey. A battered replica of the original World Cup - which went missing right here in Brazil many years ago and was never recovered - draws a thick crowd trying to photograph the tiny statuette. A nearby booth plays all the songs recorded by Brazil players over the years - it’s easy to miss that, and I suggest you do.
Up the first escalator, Pele welcomes you on a video. He’s simply called O Rei here - The King. He beckons you to take in more of the glory. Moving holograms of Brazil's 25 greatest players haunt a dark room, spookily confronting you with all those laureled mononyms: Tostao, Admir, Garrincha, Romario, Ronaldo, etc.
Up another escalator, running below the stands of the Municipal Stadium of Sao Paulo that houses the museum and is still used when the local professional clubs need a couch to crash on, the hum and thrum of the Brazilian terraces are broadcast onto projectors to make up an awesome illusion.
From there on, it's mostly footage and sound, a symphony of interactivity that seizes your attention into a chokehold. Fathers tell sons about the sights and sounds and smells of their youth. About their heroes. And the heroes before their heroes. There’s a lesson here for soccer in the United States. The National Hall of Fame is currently homeless, ever since closing down in Oneonta, New York. In a country that has far more soccer history than it is conscious of, there is no place for one generation to tell the next about the games they saw, the stars they worshipped. Whereas nothing is lost to time here, there is no place now to make those historical links in the USA, to connect all the dots drawn by generations.
Towards the end of the exhibit, before patrons can juggle a ball with a projection of Neymar and kick a penalty in a simulator, Pele's jersey from the 1970 final - the third of the three stars - is suspended in a glass case. No frills needed there. Just the glass and a spotlight. A grandfather, a father and a son, in descending order of age, stare at the simple cotton shirt of a yellow that hasn’t faded in 44 years, adorned with two digits on the back. Number 10. The King’s jersey. They are transfixed.
For minutes they stand motionless, look, and say nothing. It’s impolite to speak before the king has spoken to you.