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They’re everywhere.

They’re where you’d expect to find them, of course: in towns and cities, their 90-degree angles set on regulation lines atop benign green carpet. But they’re also everywhere else. By the roadside, on corrugated scrubland. Next to one-room wooden churches, in place of a cemetery. In the gardens of smart houses, barely enough room for a two-a-side kickabout beneath the barbed-wire fencing. Behind scruffier homes in poorer towns, grass kept in check by grazing cows. And on beaches, the dimensions of the pitches they bookend existing only in the imaginations of those who play within them.

That Brazil is obsessed with football isn’t an original observation. Entire books have been written about the subject. Still, for a newcomer, its visibility is striking. Pitches seem to occupy every patch of flattish land, and plenty of bumpier ground to boot. On the sand under winter sun, teams of two play a hypnotic hybrid of football and beach volleyball that amplifies the country’s reputation for exquisite ball-control technique. And elsewhere, the sport occupies newspapers, shirtfronts, endless conversations. Every bar with a television, and every bar has a television, will be showing a game if there’s one to show. (One exception last week: a Japanese bar-restaurant in the isolated, highway-side town of Miracatu, where the screen above us instead offered a Brazilian misunderstanding of Strictly Come Dancing.)

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The modest but immensely likeable city of Santos is known to the wider world chiefly for its football team, by many measures the most successful club in Brazilian history (and, not coincidentally, the team with which Pelé spent his domestic career). The city lives, breathes and sweats football; you can’t walk a block without catching sight of the team’s iconic striped crest on a shirt, a flag, a wall. Their history is perhaps rivalled only by Corinthians, founded in nearby São Paulo in imitation of London’s now-defunct Corinthian FC and now the richest club side outside Europe.

The sights (men), sounds (banter) and smells (meat, onions) shortly before the 9.50pm Wednesday-night kick-off for this local derby are much as you might find outside Upton Park at 2.30pm on a Saturday. (The late start is apparently due to the desire not to disrupt Brazilians’ nightly consumption of soap operas, a national obsession on a par with football.) Inside, too, the seating hierarchies are as a European visitor might expect: hardcore, full-throated support behind the goals; quieter-but-keen fans on unreserved benches in the more modest of the two pitchside stands; camarão sandwiches high above the dugouts. Everyone stands for the bafflingly Teutonic jauntiness of the Brazilian national anthem.

The surprise comes when the whistle goes. There’s none of the guarded, tactical play that often characterises top-level European football; nor, beyond the frequent fancy-dan stepovers and backheels, is there much evidence of this being a beautiful game. When Santos get the ball, they run with it, full pelt, straight at Corinthians. When Corinthians get it back, they return the favour with a similar lack of guile. Nobody really gets anywhere, but at least they get there quickly. During the single season their team spent in the Premier League in the late 1990s, fans of Barnsley FC regularly, cheerily sang ‘It’s just like watching Brazil’. This messy, relentless and invigorating spectacle is just like watching Barnsley.

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‘The 1-1 draw helped neither team,’ read the next day’s newspaper report. But that doesn’t stop those that were there (surprisingly, the 16,000-capacity ground was only three-quarters full), those that watched it unfold on TV in the streetcorner botecos and those that simply read about it the next day from lamenting every failed corner and misplaced pass, perhaps illustrating where their idols went wrong from between the posts of a nearby goal.

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from Curitiba, Brazil