Doha, Qatar – Since 1986, nothing has deterred Brazil’s unofficial World Cup drummer Wallace Leite from attending the most prestigious footballing event on the planet.
Age, injuries, family commitments, nothing has kept the Brazilian and his drum from the World Cup.
The 60-year-old from Sao Paulo has been at the last 10 world cups, tirelessly carrying and playing his Surdao (Brazilian drum) at every match featuring the Canarinha – “little canaries” as the Brazilian team is affectionally known owing to their bright yellow team jersey.
“It’s a natural high,” Leite said of drumming and the World Cup. “It’s like I have found the fountain of happiness,” he told Al Jazeera, decked out in the same outfit, featuring shades of Brazil’s national flag that he has worn to all his team’s games at the tournament in Qatar.
He prays the outfit will bring his side luck.
For Leite, it is all about the “positive response” he gets from the hordes of fans that gather around him when he plays the Surdao, in what he calls his “perfect place”.
“There are no issues, no politics, everybody just there supporting Brazil,” he said.
His instrument of choice is the Surdao, a 7kg (15lb) Brazilian drum he played at every World Cup game since the 1990 tournament in Italy. Previous to that, Leite said he had used a smaller type of percussion drum though the pitch was “too high” for his liking.
The Surdao helps keep “the rhythm together”.
“I feel I can move and hype so many more people with [the Surdao],” he adds.
Cutting a slender figure at 79kg (174lb) and 177cm (five feet, nine inches) in height, he admits that banging a large drum at month-long World Cup tournaments takes a physical toll.
“I have had several injuries including hurting my arms, shoulders, and of course neck. I’ll get a massage after the tournament or some therapy,” said Leite, whose day job in the United States, where he lives, is a computer hardware expert. “Many people say, well isn’t it all so hard? And I say yes, it is hard, but the satisfaction is greater.
“It’s just wow,” he adds as a look of wonder crosses his face when he recalls his time playing to crowds in dozens of stadiums over the past decades.
‘Feel very special’
Leite, also known as Wallace Das Copa (World Cup Wallace) by his fans, said people regularly approach him for pictures, interviews and even autographs at the tournaments.
“It’s not like I am some celebrity, but it does make me feel very special.”
Residents in the countries hosting the World Cup have often invited him to their homes for meals or taken him to tourist spots, such as the Kruger Park for a Safari tour in South Africa, a visit to the Kremlin in Moscow, and camel ridding in Qatar.
“I have made so many friends around the world, learned so much about different cultures and customs, not everyone has a chance to do that. It’s a blessing,” the 60-year-old said proudly.
When asked what had been his favourite host country, he answers diplomatically: “All of them”.
“Every country has so much to offer in terms of kind people, beautiful places to visit. it’s hard to choose,” he said.
His fondest World Cup memories are, he said, “probably Mexico”.
According to Leite, the Mexican “people fell in love” with the Brazilian football team back in 1970 when the World Cup took place there. The team included football legends like Pele, and the Mexican crowds were mesmerised by the team’s uniquely creative style of play. Brazil would go on to win the trophy in Mexico, defeating Italy 4-1 in the final, with Pele scoring four goals in the tournament.
When he arrived in Mexico for his first World Cup in 1986, he said Mexicans “embraced” him like he was one of their own.
“I felt at home in Mexico. Oh my gosh, people were so nice. I didn’t spend any money. People would pay for everything,” he recounted.
“I would go to restaurants where they play mariachi music and they would say ‘let’s stop mariachi, we want to hear Brazilian samba’. In the streets people would be dancing and singing at all times of the day. The interactions I had with people, it was a great feeling.”
Can Brazil bring home a sixth World Cup?
Leite said he “certainly hopes” this will be the year the most coveted trophy in football returns to South America.
Exasperated, he says: “It’s been 20 years since we won.” Brazil last lifted the World Cup – their fifth – in 2002 in Japan.
For the first few tournaments, Leite said his wife Carmen, who works in the fashion industry and also from Sao Paulo, would accompany to all the games. “She would sing with me, dance in the streets,” he noted.
However, as time passed by, the drummer said Carmen would stop coming as frequently.
“It was just not her thing … like it is for me. For her, it became routine.” Leite, who said he prepares for weeks before the tournament even starts, organising his costumes and making new music, Carmen does urge him to spend more time with her and his two adult daughters.
“When the time comes (for the World Cup) she thinks I focus on it too much … that I’m too crazy about it,” he said. “But overall, she supports me.”
When asked how long he sees himself playing his drum at World Cup tournaments, he said he had no “time frame”.
“Only God knows,” he adds. “As long I can move, have good health, shout, and play my instrument, I will keep doing it.”