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It seems to have been Brazil’s left-back Marcelo who came up with the idea. When the national anthem was played before a match, he told his teammates, they should keep singing after the music stopped. It would be a display of patriotism for the fans. It has become a ritual. At Brazil’s matches here, crowd and players belt out the words together a cappella. For a minute, the nation is made flesh.

In many countries, the national football team – with all its virtues and faults – is felt to incarnate the nation. But that’s particularly true in Brazil, football’s superpower. And it’s even truer during a World Cup in Brazil. A vast disparate country is now doing its best to unite around a team of multimillionaire expat footballers.

Looking around the São Paulo stadium during Brazil’s opening match against Croatia, you saw how tricky it is to call Brazil a nation. In this country of endless skin hues, almost all the spectators were white. They were the people who could afford the tickets. São Paulo’s educated classes were also the Brazilians most angry about wasteful spending on the World Cup. A survey carried out by Datafolha just before the tournament found that whereas 51 per cent of all Brazilians favoured hosting the tournament, only 41 per cent of Paulistas did. The crowd in the stadium roared the anthem with defiance, a Brazilian businessman told me. Their message: they loved Brazil despite the government.

After the game, Brazil’s coach Luiz Felipe Scolari cannily pandered to the crowd, saying it had driven his players on. “Never again can you say São Paulo doesn’t support the national team,” he lectured us journalists.

All of Brazil now supports Brazil. During England-Italy in Manaus, local people in the crowd sang, “I am Brazilian, with much pride.” In one of the world’s most isolated cities, in the faraway Amazon, they were claiming membership of the nation too.

At Brazil’s previous home World Cup in 1950, the Seleção’s “legendary” defeat in the final match against Uruguay probably wasn’t even noticed by most illiterate rural Brazilians. This time, Carlos Fausto, anthropologist at Rio’s Museu Nacional, emailed me from the isolated Kuikuro indigenous group deep in Brazil’s Xingu region: “Everyone here in the village was watching the Brazil match.” In fact, he wrote, the Kuikuro were watching the whole tournament nonstop. “Yesterday we saw all four matches. They love football. Of course, this is mostly true for the youngsters, especially men. But Chief Afukaká, who is about 65, is a great football fan.” Mutua Mehinaku Kuikuro, an indigenous person with an MA in anthropology, says football is “Xinguano neo-culture”.

Brazilians in cities gather for family barbecues whenever Brazil plays. Watching the Seleção is a ritual of togetherness, for family, neighbourhood and nation. It’s not quite accurate to say that Brazilians love football. Rather, they love watching Brazil in World Cups. Organising the thing seems to interest them less. I’m writing this in Salvador, where outside my hotel window bulldozers are still digging up the beachfront mid-World Cup. A few leaky Portaloos cater to visiting fans.

In this festival of Brazilianness, Brazil’s players have an awkward role: they need to prove that they are members of the national family. The World Cup is the one competition in which footballers have to present themselves not just as professionals (their usual self-description) but as citizens, fans, patriots.

The players can distantly recall being ordinary Brazilians. When I interviewed Brazil’s playmaker Neymar recently for Red Bulletin magazine, he described his family celebrating the country’s last world championship, in 2002, when he was 10: “We went to my granny’s house, we had a barbecue, everyone shouting ‘We’re champions!’ like real fans.”

But almost all of Brazil’s players emigrated in early adulthood to earn millions in Europe. They have been globalised. Marcelo’s anthem strategy was just one of their ploys to reach out to fans. Brazil’s captain, Thiago Silva, told the French magazine So Foot: “Our team bus had tinted windows, so we could see Brazilians party but they couldn’t see us respond. Júlio César [the goalkeeper] got the tint removed so we could see one another.”

It may not suffice. Tostão, a world champion with Brazil in 1970, warned in his thoughtful column in the Folha de S. Paulo newspaper: “If Brazil wins, the players will be heroes. If they lose, they will be called mercenaries and unpatriotic.” But it depends partly on how they lose, says Geraldo Zahran, professor of international relations at São Paulo’s Catholic University. “What we can’t stand is losing and then finding these guys partying afterwards in a big club, like in 2006.” If the players sweat the shirt they may be forgiven defeat. Hence the odd crunching tackle for an unimportant ball in midfield.

Only one portion of Brazil is excluded from the national family: the government. (The same is true in many countries right now.) President Dilma Rousseff attends games but keeps her head down while the crowd belts out abusive songs about her.; Twitter @KuperSimon

Illustration by Luis Grañena

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved.

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