Will there be a zebra on the field this Saturday when Flamengo meet Athletico Paranaense in the all-Brazilian final of the Copa Libertadores?

Flamengo certainly hope not. They are strong favourites and if there has been a “zebra,” it means that an upset will have taken place.

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The expression comes from the jogo do bicho (Animal Game), Brazil’s semi-clandestine lottery in which instead of numbers, animals are used. The zebra does not feature in the game. So, many years ago when there was a big surprise result, one bright spark said it was as unlikely as the zebra coming up in the jogo do bicho, and the expression stuck.

If Flamengo are hoping to avoid a zebra, both goalkeepers will wish for an absence of chickens. A frango (chicken) is the word used for a glaring goalkeeping error — clearly invented by someone with bad memories of trying to catch a chicken as it ran through his legs.

Saturday’s game will be a test of nerves for the goalkeepers, and for everyone else. We are, undoubtedly, at the hour when the jaguar drinks water (a hora da onca beber agua). This quaint expression is used to describe the vital moment. When the jaguar is thirsty, the time comes to find out who else has courage to go to the water. But perhaps the jaguar can be avoided with the cow dribble (drible da vaca) — playing the ball one side of him and collecting it by running round the other.

The Brazilian game is full of references to the animal kingdom, including a particular favourite: the corner where the owl sleeps (o canto onde dorme a coruja), used especially when a free kick goes into the top corner of the goal and the shot is so perfect that the slumber of the owl suffers a rare interruption.

So many of these expressions owe their existence to a rustic past. Like, for example, the penalty area being referred to as the zona do agriao (watercress zone). The idea is this is where everyone needs to tread carefully in such wet conditions.

The English roots of the game are another linguistic course. After all, the sport in Brazil is called futebol. Old timers will refer to the game as the esporte bretao (British sport), and also talk about the beque (defender, from “back”). These terms are dying out, but there is one that comes from English that remains essential to the Brazilian game — craque.

Craque derives from “crack” — as in “crack troops,” the finest in the military, though some argue the word was first borrowed in Brazilian Portuguese to describe an excellent racehorse. Whatever, all down the ages the craque is the key figure in Brazilian football, the individual talent capable of tipping the balance on his own.

The craque makes his marker look like a perna de pau (wooden leg — an insensitive way to refer to a bad player) and exposes him as a player with a cintura dura (an inflexible waist). There are few more damning verdicts on a player than to call him a cintura dura. To have flexibility in the waist is highly prized — on the dance floor, on the football field and in life more generally. Jogo de cintura (to be able to play with the waist, to have the adaptability to deal with different situations) is seen as a key survival skill.

There is an excellent example of jogo de cintura in Brazil’s football commentators. Radio is hugely important to the culture of the local game. Radio did much to spread the popularity of football, and there is a rich tradition of commentary tricks, which has since also migrated to television.

The most famous, of course, are the endless “GOOOOOOOOOOOL” shouts when the ball hits the back of the net. This is not just a celebration. It was also borne of necessity.

In many Brazilian stadiums, the media cabins are a fair way from the pitch. Identifying the goal scorer is the most important part of the commentator’s mission, and, especially in the days before TV monitors, it is not always easy. The prolonged shout, then, not only conveys the motion of the moment — it also gives the commentary team some breathing space to get this vital detail correct. Like so many things in Brazilian football, the goal celebration lights one candle to passion and another to pragmatism.



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Brazil soccer lexicon of animals: Zebras, cows, jaguars, more

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