Lifelong love affair: Johnny Warren visited Brazil more than 30 times.
Tall, tanned but not as lovely as she once was, the Girl From Ipanema Bar is doing the trade of her life.
Loud-mouthed Argentineans, noisy Mexicans, rowdy Colombians, sweating Englishmen and even a smattering of wide-eyed Australians are trying to grab the attention of the busy waitresses.
The brutal Rio de Janiero sun is cutting this bar no slack, either.
Warren with daughter Shannon and Brazilian icon Pele.
This is where two friends, the composer Antonio Carlos Jobim and the poet Vinícius de Moraes, wrote an iconic song on beer coasters, while sipping Brahma, inspired by an 18-year-old beauty that passed them each day.
That was the summer of 1962. Now it’s just one of the boxes every tourist this side of the big Jesus statue must tick.
During this World Cup, and especially on this sweltering Wednesday, it is as weird as the Jedi bar with last drinks called.
Trailblazer: Johnny Warren at the 1974 World Cup. Photo: Kirk Gilmour
Despite this, Johnny Warren - the never forgotten godfather of football in Australia - would be smiling with approval from whichever seat in the grandstand he’s taken since his death from lung cancer a decade ago.
Warren’s affinity with Brazil was almost as strong as his affinity with the game, although the two go hand in glove.
He visited this country more than 30 times during his life, starting in 1984, and it was this bar a block from the beach where he would start each day whenever he was in Rio.
Johnny Warren posing with Socceroos teammates and mascot en route to the 1974 tournament.
“He called it ‘The Office’,” recalls former Socceroo Andy Harper, who came with Warren to Rio after they had watched Australia lose a World Cup qualifier to Uruguay in hostile Montevideo in 2001. “Let’s meet at The Office. It was ridiculous because we were all staying at the same apartment anyway. He’d be off for his morning walk along the beach, smoking, just to get himself set for the day.”
In his highly acclaimed 2001 autobiography, Sheilas, Wogs and Poofters, Warren detailed his deep passion for Brazil and, in particular, Rio.
He wrote: “The cariocas give the city a magical quality by its warmth. They seem to be always dancing, enjoying music and playing football. Having to spend the rest of my life there wouldn’t worry me at all.
“It doesn’t cause any distress that the girls are all beautiful either. The beach in particular is always a hive of activity and there is always football being played. It is normal to see old men hanging around kicking a ball because in Brazil absolutely everyone plays futebol. You don’t see the same thing in Australia. I can remember watching a group of kids playing a game just off the beach using an empty Coca-Cola bottle as the ball.”
What isn’t revealed in those pages was how Brazil - from its people, to its natural beauty, and to the football, of course - released him as a person, according to those who knew him best.
As one of the Socceroos from Australia’s first appearance in the World Cup finals, in 1974, Warren was for decades at the vanguard of “The Mission” to gain a firmer foothold for his code in Australia.
But his fight wearied him. Brazil was the bandage.
“The place made him happy,” Harper says. “That whole Latino culture eased his angst. If you spent some time with Johnny in Australia - and I spent a bit and was very fortunate to do so - he had very anxious idiosyncrasies. I’m not sure what was driving it internally, but the manifestation of it was that we couldn’t get the sport of football organised well enough, quick enough. He was always on edge driving that agenda.
“Brazil gave him that freedom. He was a guy who was astute with his money, but when he got to Brazil he was like a one-man ATM. Street buskers: he'd throw notes at them. Working people struggling to make any money: he would be buying everything off them. He was a one-man charity.”
Then there was the religion of football.
“When you spend your whole professional life feeling like you’ve been belting your head up against a brick wall, to go to a country like where this football thing is accepted and what people do with their lives, it gave him great sense of arriving,” says Harper. "A great sense of self. The place unlocked him, emotionally.”
"The respect he received in that country was different to his home country because he never felt the same acceptance as an athlete in Australia. He was accepted as a personality in Australia. That was different to being accepted as an athlete."
That said, Brazil bit Warren on the hand the first time he arrived in the country, as it often does to most foreigners.
It was 1984, and his 14-year-old nephew Jamie was showing much promise as a player, whose dream had been to be “just like his uncle”.
Together, they set out on an adventure to Brazil’s largest city, Sao Paulo, in a bid to learn more about the game, the way it was meant to be played.
“It was a long time ago, but it feels like it was yesterday,” Jamie recalls. “It was amazing for a young Aussie kid from a small coastal town to firstly have a holiday in Rio with uncle John, who I idolised.”
In Sao Paulo, they had a trial lined up with leading club Palmero before they left.
“We went to the stadium and knocked on the front door,” Jamie recalls. “They didn’t know we were coming. They had no idea. They invited us in, we stood on the main pitch while the Palmero officials were discussing us. They said they knew nothing about it, see you later. John was furious.”
They went back to the hotel, and then Johnny headed out into the Sao Paulo night to consider what their next step should be.
He came in many hours later, snored his head off but the next morning decided to fly to Rio. He marched up the steps of the Brazilian Football Confederation and explained the situation, and his position as one of the Socceroos from 1974.
They were extremely accommodating. Jamie could either train with Fluminense, or Flamengo, the club of the great Zico.
For the next six weeks, they had their own chaperone, attended many games at the Maracana and immersed themselves in the game of football.
And the city and people of Rio de Janeiro.
“Just going to Brazil with uncle John was a mind-blowing experience,” Jamie says . “I was so proud that he invited me along. His passion for the game, when he was in Australia, [meant] that he was working non-stop for the game. He loved the game, but he loved it when it was played with beauty and skill, and he was against anything that wasn’t in the best interests of the game. For him to go to Brazil, to be living in that culture: the beach packed with foot-volley courts, the music, the women, the warmth of the Brazilian people… It didn’t get any better for him.”
Warren’s association with Brazil also brought him to Pele, with whom he struck a friendship over the years through their respective football camps.
“Australia has regularly made it to the World Cup in the last few years,” Pele tells Fairfax Media. “Johnny Warren did a lot for football in his own country and his legacy is living through the Australian national team.”
What Brazil never made Warren feel was inferior, in terms of football.
He met with Flamengo officials in 2002.
“One day we’ll see Australia and Brazil playing in the World Cup final,” he told them.
The officials politely dismissed the suggestion. We are Brazil.
The Socceroos won’t progress beyond the group stage, but Warren would approve of the country he represented playing in the World Cup in the country he adored.
“It would definitely be a dream come true to at least see his country of birth, and country that he represented so proudly, playing against the country that was the benchmark for the game all over the world,” says Jamie. “This would no doubt be his proudest moment.”
Johnny Warren dreamed large. He lived even larger. When it came time to die, he wanted it to be in Brazil.
Harper recalls meeting him on George Street on the day Warren was diagnosed with cancer, and his first instinct was to live the rest of his days in his second home.
Says Harper: “His line to me was, ‘I’m just going to go and die in Buzious, a fishing village north of Rio’. That was a metaphor for him. I’ll forget the struggle here, I’ll just die where I am happy.”
He passed away in Sydney in November 2004. Australia qualified for the World Cup finals a year later.