By Paulo Prada
RIO DE JANEIRO (Reuters) - Few people know the words. Fewer still can faithfully carry its bouncy melody.
But a resurgent national anthem in Brazil is transforming each World Cup appearance by its national team into a collective expression of the country's frustrations – both on and off the soccer field.
A spectacular tournament so far has temporarily quelled the economic and political unease that for the past year led over a million Brazilians into the streets to protest a long list of grievances, including $11 billion in spending to host the Cup.
An anthem by definition is a rallying cry, particularly at big competitions. Rather than just expressing historic national pride, however, the anthem has recently come to embody what Brazilians hope their country can be.
Compared with their perfunctory mumbling of the anthem at sports events past, Brazilians are now elevating the song by flouting time limits of tournament organizers and extending the truncated game version, long after the music officially stops, with a raucous, a cappella rendering of the whole thing.
So spirited is their insistence that many players, including 22-year-old star striker Neymar, wept before Brazil's 0-0 draw with Mexico on Tuesday. Fans are feting the anthem, a convoluted pastoral that celebrates Brazil as a "colossus," almost more than the games themselves, especially considering a tepid Brazilian team so far.
"It was the highlight," says Juliana Evangelista, who was at the match against Mexico in Fortaleza. "I cried at the stadium and I cried again when I watched it on video."
The anthem, whose music dates back nearly two centuries, has always enjoyed respect in a country whose size and cohesion stand out in an otherwise fragmented Latin America. Even during a two-decade military dictatorship, when ruling generals appropriated Brazil's national symbols, students used to sing it at protests because police were too reluctant to beat them until they stopped.
NOT A SIMPLE SING-ALONG
Since democracy was restored in 1985, the anthem and Brazil's flag have enjoyed more levity. The flag, for instance, is now a fashion fob, adorning everything from Havaianas, the ubiquitous Brazilian flip-flop, to bikini bottoms.
"People have a little more fun with the symbols than they used to," says Deusdedith Alves Rocha Junior, a history professor at UniCEUB, a university in Brasilia.
The anthem is not the easiest thing to toy with.
The music, a march with romantic flourishes and a soaring melodic progression, is hardly a simple sing-along. And the lyrics, with elaborate syntax popular with poets when the words were drafted a century ago, fluster many with arcane metaphors such as that of a land "lying eternally in its splendid cradle."
Its revival started a year ago, when Brazil faced Mexico in the same Fortaleza stadium for the Confederations Cup, a World Cup warm-up. The mass protests over spending were roiling the country at the time and Brazil fans, in a show of support for a team it did not blame for the excesses, spontaneously kept singing after the speakers stopped.
A few days later, as teargas from nearby protests wafted into Rio's Maracanã stadium, a roaring rendition helped rattle Spain. A pumped-up Brazil drubbed the defending world champions, foreshadowing the calamitous World Cup the Spaniards would have.
Though the protests have since grown smaller and more scattered, the anthem's momentum continues. Searches for the music and lyrics have surged online in recent weeks, according to Hitwise, a company that measures Internet traffic.
Brazilians, not always a politically engaged citizenry, say the anthem is resonating because many of them are disappointed that the country has once again failed to fulfill its historic first-world ambitions.
After a decade of economic success, Brazil is now in its fourth year of lackluster growth. Rising crime and rickety schools, hospitals and roads are daily reminders of shortfalls.
"People want a better country," says Fabricio Vicentini, a musician who watched the recent Brazil game in Rio. "The anthem reminds us of that."
(Editing by Todd Benson, Kieran Murray and Jonathan Oatis)