June 20, 2014
At Ponto do Espeto in the Coração Eucarístico neighborhood of Belo Horizonte, Ana Paula Rocha and friends react to a Chilean goal versus Australia.

In Belo Horizonte, Brazil’s third largest city, soccer fans from all walks of life enjoy having a little money at stake in the World Cup – and even the federal government wants in on the action. Throughout the tournament, Caixa Econômica Federal, one of the largest government-owned banks in Latin America, is promoting a special edition of its popular Lotogol game in hopes of raising millions of dollars to support the 2016 Olympic games in Rio de Janeiro.

Lotogol players can buy their tickets at any one of the hundreds of Caixa branches across the country. In the neighborhood of Planalto, the line at lunchtime runs out the door, full of people like Agnaldo Braz Cunha, a driver for Coca-Cola who picks up a couple lotto tickets when he does his everyday banking.

“I usually play the games with huge prizes like Lotomania or Mega-Sena,” Cunha says, “but it’s fun to have a little money riding on the matches.”

The Brazilian federal lottery hopes to use proceeds from its World Cup edition of Lotogol to fund projects for the 2016 Olympic and Paraolympic Games in Rio de Janeiro.
Chris Arnold

For less than a dollar, players fill out a slip predicting the final scores of five of the week’s World Cup games, penciling in whether each team will score zero, one, two, three or more goals. During the first few games of the Cup, hundreds of players won about $30 by predicting three final scores correctly. One player predicted four final scores and won about $15,000, which is more than a year’s pay for many middle class Brazilians. Nobody won the $20,000 prize for hitting all five final scores – the odds of doing so are about 1 in 9.8 million – but the jackpot will keep accumulating until a lucky winner hits the mark.

As with all lotteries, the house wins by design, and proceeds from the World Cup Lotogol will be divided between the Ministry of Sport, the Brazilian Olympic Committee and the Brazilian Paraolympic Committee, among other agencies.

While the government is eager to milk revenue from lotto players, the most common way to find some World Cup action is to participate in a bolão, which is an informal sweepstakes akin to joining a March Madness pool.

Entering a bolão has long been a popular way to bet on soccer and Formula 1 racing in Brazil, but the World Cup is drawing thousands of new players into the fold. Some are organizing pools through slick new websites, but those companies often charge service fees north of 20 percent. That’s why most players prefer to join one at the neighborhood bar or plaza where some enterprising sports fan will organize everything for just 10 percent of the pot.

At Ponto do Espeto, a bar and snack counter in the Coração Eucarístico neighborhood, the plastic chairs and tables fill up quickly for big soccer games. Jokey Polaroid headshots of dozens of regulars are tacked up on the wall, many of them wearing the same fake mustache. Paulo Matina is one of those regulars, and he keeps the sign-up sheet for his bolão in his back pocket. For the equivalent of about $10 you join can and try to predict the 2014 World Cup champion. So far about 20 people have entered. Matina says Brazil has been the most popular pick, but Germany and Argentina are a close second and third.

On the first Friday of the Cup, Matina and his girlfriend Ana Paula Rocha are watching Chile beat up on Australia. They’ve both put their money on Argentina to win it all, but with different motives.
“I’m rooting for Argentina because if they win, there’s no way [Brazilian president] Dilma [Rousseff] is going to be reelected this year,” says Ana Paula.

Paulo prefers to keep politics and soccer separate. “For me, it’s all about the quality of play,” he says. “I want Brazil to do well, but Argentina looks much stronger.”

It’s hard to avoid mixing politics and soccer when frustration with FIFA and the federal government spurred nearly 50,000 Mineiros to protest in the streets during the Confederations Cup last June. But there’s more than political discontent feeding the Argentina fever.

On the night of Argentina’s opening match versus Bosnia and Herzegovina, tables full of fans sporting Lionel Messi jerseys pack into Fanáticos sports bar in the city’s northern zone to cheer on their favorite player. While some of them are immigrants from Argentina, many are Brazilians who’ve donned the colors of their country’s archrival.

Nicodemos Fernandes Silva, a sales manager who travels Brazil regularly for work, says Messi has captured the imagination of every true soccer fan.

“For anyone who loves the game, Messi is simply beautiful to watch,” Silva says. At a time when Brazil is opening itself up to the world and the country’s best players have their sights set on European clubs, Brazilians are less inclined to blindly cheer the national team. When Messi scores his first goal of the Cup, Silva has to raise his voice over elated fans around the bar. “I think most Brazilians just have a more global perspective now than they did 20 years ago.”

Chris Feliciano Arnold is the recipient of a 2014 Literature Fellowship from the National Endowment of the Arts. His reporting on the Roger Clemens perjury trial was an honorable mention in The Best American Sports Writing 2013.

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