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Brazil's Most Important Matches Aren't at the World Cup

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In perfect fulfillment of gender stereotypes, I don't watch sports.

Not into the hockey thing. Can't get jazzed about curling. I'll watch a little tennis because I used to play, but the French Open usually passes without my knowing (or caring).

I'm immunized against World Cup fever.

But while I won't follow the scores or watch any games, I am interested in the part of Brazilian football that has nothing to do with athleticism. Think of the American TV series Friday Night Lights. Football in small-town Texas is a metaphor for optimism. Coach Taylor's drills are about more than winning high school games. He gives both the all-American jocks and youth with criminal backgrounds the tools to win at life.

For Brazilians, soccer is about hope. In fact, the sport is one of the country's most effective social programs.

Hope is important in a place where one out of five people lives in poverty (in Canada, the rate is one in 10). Soccer is good for Brazil's self-esteem. So often we hear about the violence, the drug addiction and the slums, but on the soccer pitch Brazil is the envy of the world.

Soccer is the foundation of social life in the country. It's not obvious from watching World Cup matches in palatial stadiums on your high-res TV, but Brazilians depend on grassroots games. The ones played barefoot and shirtless on mud banks, the Amazon river basin and dirt fields build and bind Brazil's communities. They erase differences. Everyone can kick a ball. Brazilian anthropologist Robert DaMatta wrote in a 1982 essay that "... the rules don't change, and this makes everyone equal on the field..."

The sport also acts as a social worker. It improves the lives of kids who grow up in slums where hope droops like laundry on a clothesline. The Favela Street project enlists ex-drug traffickers as coaches. They teach kids to play soccer instead of stand on street corners. The game builds their confidence. It gives them a safe place. It also challenges sexism at a young age. Though most participants are boys, Favela Street engages girls -- a big feat in a country that has long believed soccer is a men-only club.

From 1941 until 1979 it was illegal for ladies to play (naturally, it was deemed "incompatible with the female form"). Yet despite Brazil's ongoing culture of misogyny, the sport is becoming a gateway to women's rights. Marta Vieira da Silva, a five-time Brazilian FIFA world player of the year has spoken out against discrimination. She challenged the World Cup to use women referees. As part of The Guerreiras Project, professional female players teach girls to kick the ball and discuss sexism in soccer. The more women play and understand the sport, the more influence they will have in society.

Guerreiras mm from GUERREIRASPROJECT on Vimeo.

In the country of Carnival and samba music, soccer is a religion. The Globe and Mail's Stephanie Nolen interviewed a Brazilian professor who made his eight-year-old daughter take lessons so she could "have secret knowledge of the language that is used by those who still hold the balance of power." Nolen described how discussing soccer gives men "a way of talking about everything -- emotions, identity, beauty and suffering -- that they could never do directly in a country where gender identity is still so rigidly constructed."

Soccer has also helped to bridge racial divides. To be clear, racism still exists in Brazil. It was one of the last countries to abolish slavery, in 1888. No Brazilian major-league teams have black presidents. But historically, soccer has facilitated racial mixing in the country. Elite clubs hungry for talent opened themselves to black players soon after slavery ended. The style of African-Brazilian players, which mixed the traditional martial art capoeira with classic European technique, became a national trademark. It was called "o jogo bonito" -- the beautiful game -- and was more creative and spontaneous than the Anglo-Saxon version. Soccer incorporated ethnic diversity rather than rejecting it.

You wouldn't know the social effects of soccer from the World Cup's cheesy anthem and glitzy opening ceremony. But the sport's influence in Brazilian society can be found painted across the faces of manic fans. Over the next month, when I glimpse the game at a bar or hear cars horns in Little Portugal, I won't think of FIFA or a score I don't care about. I'll think about how for most Brazilians, soccer is a lifeline.