Brazil's 12th man feeling every kick from the sidelines

A fan enjoying Brazil's penalty shoot-out win at a cafe outside the Maracana.

To truly understand what football means to Brazilians, one has to watch a football match with them.

To see Selecao fans go through the gamut of emotions, from ecstasy to despair, then to pure jubilation in just over two hours warms the soul. It is what sport is all about.

They say that football is a religion in Brazil. If that is indeed the case, then Rio is its cathedral.

Home to famous footballing institutions like Botafogo, Flamengo, Fluminense and Vasco da Gama, Rio is the spiritual home of Brazilian football, where people play beach football late into the night, illuminated by the hustle and bustle of the lights along Copacabana beach.

For the best example, so far, of what football and the Brazil national team mean to the majority of the country's 200 million population then one didn't need to look any further than the second-round match against Chile.

I sat with a cafe full of Brazilians outside the Estadio do Maracana, where the Colombia-Uruguay game was to be played.

They cheered David Luiz's opening goal like they had just won the World Cup.

But when Alexis Sanchez equalised, the streets went deathly silent, save for the odd female scream.

Watching the penalty shootout was the most nerve-racking of all.

Each Brazilian penalty was cheered by chants of "Vamos" and the player's name.

And each miss was greeted by groans and some slapping of foreheads.

The responses to Chile's penalties were more light-hearted.

Brazil supporters shook their fists in the air, as if trying to cast a hex on the kickers.

It may have seemed like a long shot, but when Chile missed three penalties to help Brazil through to the quarter-finals, hey, it's hard to argue with it.

"It was close, but all that's important is we won," said a relieved Renato Bastos, 29, an engineer from Sao Paulo, who was in Rio to watch the Colombia-Uruguay game.

"I tell you, the World Cup is ours now. To come through on such an emotional day, it's a sign."

Added Rio native Thiago Vasco, 21: "The whole country would have been down if Brazil had lost.

"It would not have been good for the World Cup, and the tourists too. So for the sake of the World Cup, Brazil must not lose."

Seeing what it means to Brazil, I hope Vasco gets his wish.

This article was first published on June 30, 2014.
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