RIO DE JANEIRO – His plastic commemorative Rio Olympics beer cups were stacked nine high. A 10th one filled with Skol, best described Bud Light without the flavor, topped them, creating a wobbly goblet. Based on this, I knew he was my kind of people when I stood next to him on a concrete stoop, behind the last row of seats at Maracanã Stadium.
The gold medal men’s soccer match between Brazil and Germany had a thrilling first half followed by a tense but lackluster second half. This was only rumor to me, by the way, because in true Rio Olympic tradition, my journey to the stadium was mired by late buses and abject weirdness; like when the driver made an unscheduled stop in the middle of a highway to let a man out so he could locate a bar to watch the match we were trying to reach via the bus. Such is Rio.
I arrived at the start of the first overtime and ran to the first open space I saw, standing on my toes and angling my neck to look through several sets of shoulders at the field. I was in good company, amongst the Brazilian faithful, clad in gold jerseys, chanting and singing like they wouldn’t need to speak for the next several days. Maracana, also the site of the opening and closing ceremonies, is a cauldron of sound: an open stadium with a curved overhang that circulates cheers like a centrifuge.
My friend with the beer – something sold, by the way, through the end of the game, unlike at an NFL or MLB event in the States – is wearing a red and green soccer kit. He points to a logo that resembles an ancient language: an ‘F’ being spooned by another ‘F’ while being embraced by a ‘C.’
“Fluminesi,” he says, pointing a few more times for emphasis. It’s the logo Fluminense of Brasileirão, the top tier of Brazilian soccer. They’re 114 years old and call Maracanã home, and their moniker is derived from an old nickname for the people of the state of Rio De Janeiro. So, in a sense, not all that far removed in inspiration from “Knickerbocker.”
My local Brazilian soccer lesson is broken up by my friend hurling obscenities – which, after a month in Rio, my gringo ear has been trained to notice – at the field, both in hatred of the Germans and in frustration with his own side, which is getting the better of the play in the overtime but can’t convert a game-winner.
What this gold medal match meant to Brazil: From a fútbol perspective, it wasn’t even in the conversation with the importance of the World Cup; the same distance as, say, an Olympic golf medal might be from The Masters.
But from a national pride perspective, this might as well have been the only event that was held at the Rio Games. The gold medal was at stake, but so was something much greater: one last chance to feel civic pride after weeks and months of the rest of the world dropping its collective pants and defecating on Rio like it was the water at the Olympic sailing venue.
This was Canada winning ice hockey in Vancouver. This was Andy Murray winning tennis gold at Wimbledon.
This was the happy ending. This was the memorable moment. This was everything.
So of course it goes to penalty kicks after the score remains tied 1-1, because why not reduce one of the world’s most incredible team sports down to blind luck and bad guessing? (But that’s another column.)
As the Germans prepared for their first kick, my new friend with the 10 beer cups tugs my shoulder and spins me to him. He raises one arm and speaks loudly over the deafening noise of the fans.
“LEFT HAND. YOU HAVE TO PUT YOUR LEFT HAND ON IT.”
Lest there be any further mystery about the identity of “it,” he takes his left hand and grabs a handful of his crotch, like a pitcher grasping a softball.
“LEFT HAND. ONLY WHEN THEY KICK.”
Ah-ha! So this is the universal language of sports superstition! I speak this language, with an embarrassing fluency.
“To jinx them, right?” I ask.
“YES JINX. BUT ONLY THE LEFT HAND. NEVER THE RIGHT. NEVER NEVER THE RIGHT.”
There’s no time for my next question, about the Gremlins-esque set of rules that cover the genitalia voodoo of this fan tradition. (What happens if we grab with the right? A hole in the space-time continuum opens?) Matthias Ginter of Germany is about kick. So like my friend and an entire row of other Brazilian men, I take my left hand – I mean, never the right, everyone knows that – and place it on my junk.
“LEFT HAND!” my friend declares, despite its apparent ineffectiveness. Another German goal, matched by one by Brazil.
“LEFT HAND!” I hear again, and I start to wonder if I’m doing this right. If the Germans keep scoring, do I, like, squeeze harder?
I feel like I’m letting this nation down.
Germany scores. Brazil scores. “LEFT HAND!” Germany scores. Brazil scores. “LEFT HAAAAAANNNND!”
Nils Peterson of Germany is the sixth kicker, as we continue to cup ourselves in anticipation. He fires the ball. Weverton, Brazil’s keeper, guesses correctly, makes the save and sends Maracanã into an explosion of joy, because all one needs in PKs is one save or a miss to open a door to victory.
My friend is leaping around, spilling beer on the fans in front of him with one hand, grabbing his sack with the other.
“LEFT HAND! I TOLD YOU! WE DID IT! LEFT HAND!”
A cursory search for this tradition yielded no concrete evidence that it’s widespread. I asked a few of my soccer-crazed friends and they hadn’t heard of it. “Left hand” could be localized, like when Maryland football fans shake their car keys on a third down defensive play. It could be personalized, as my friend and his buddies developed their own brand of voodoo during long days at Maracanã.
Whatever the case, I was witnessing a wonderful microcosm of fandom within the larger celebration at the Brazil match, one that resonated with me as a fanatic who used to think that the New Jersey Devils would win or lose based on whether or not 12-year-old me was drinking pink lemonade while watching the game. (Therapy helped.)
In this moment of glory for a nation of people, one man, with his hand on his scrotum, believed wholeheartedly that he had influenced that nation’s most beloved team’s victory at the Rio Olympics.
That man was me.
My hands off the merchandise again, Neymar’s final kick sailed into the goal and Brazil had its Olympic time capsule moment.
I hugged everyone around me and jumped into the air in celebration, pumping my fist directly into the low concrete ceiling above me, like an oblivious idiot. I was bleeding, after slicing up a couple of knuckles.
It was my right hand.
Never the right hand.
If only I had listened.
Listen to Yahoo Sports’ Greg Wyshynski podcast from Rio on GRANDSTANDING, featuring a Ryan Lochte Controversy Edition with Pat Forde of Yahoo Sports and Bruce Arthur of the Toronto Star!
Live from Rio: Ryan Lochte, international fugitive; the strange side of the Games: