This week in my class on popular sport and the modern world, we are discussing Brazilian soccer. In particular, we are moving towards discussions of cultural representations of “samba football” within and outside of Brazil. Our reading, Howard Goldblatt’s Futebol Nation, makes some fascinating arguments about the connections between the evolution and celebration of Brazilian soccer and the twists and turns of Brazilian politics during the twentieth century.
In effect, soccer performed as a unifying force in Brazilian conceptions of nationhood, particularly during the golden era of the 1950s and 1960s when Brazil won its first two World Cups in 1958 and 1962 following the infamous Maracanazo, the defeat to Uruguay in the Maracana stadium in 1950. The prevalence and importance of black athletes, particularly Pele, who would soon be recognized as the best player in the world and who is frequently named as the best of all time, did much to undermine attempts by Euro-Brazilian elites to define the Brazilian nation as a white one against all demographic evidence. This era of unbridled success, optimism and flair on the field was interrupted by the imposition of military rule in 1964. Victory at the Mexico World Cup by a team still hailed today as the best ever soccer team in 1970 was followed by over two decades of under-achievement as Brazilian soccer stagnated alongside the rest of society.
Goldblatt’s assertions are bold, effectively arguing for a clear link between the most popular sport in Brazil and the political and cultural journeys made by Brazilians in the twentieth century. This discussion ties directly into a major theme in my course: do sports reflect major issues and developments in societies or do sports enjoy a specific role in driving those issues and spurring those changes?
Growing up in a soccer mad extended family, I long held the assumption that Brazil were the defining standard in international soccer and in soccer more broadly. The Brazilians did not just win; they won with style, playing the game the way it was meant to be played, with joy and flair. In 2018, despite plenty of trends in Brazilian football towards ostensibly pragmatic goals in their tactics, soccer fans across the world have a set of assumptions in place whenever they see a Brazilian play the game. Brazilians should, among other things, be something special. They should be capable of things the other players on the field simply cannot do. This attitude is captured neatly by a famous television advertisement in the 1990s when, after being informed of a flight delay, the Brazilian national team starts kicking a ball around the airport, celebrating a love of the game and making incredibly complicated skills look commonplace.
This has long been a romantic celebration, though the last decade or two have put a real dent in a reputation that brought Brazil enormous good will around the world. The 2014 team was terrible and worse, was chronically unambitious and mediocre in their style of play. The national team’s association with Nike some time ago now began to spur cynicism across the world. Still… the magic is still there, and much of the disappointment across the world in 2014 reveals a hunger for the real Brazil to return. Perhaps this summer at the World Cup in Russia we will find out if the horrendous defeat to Germany in the 2014 World Cup Final, that seemed to immediately traumatize an entire stadium and nation, will spur a comeback similar to that following the Maracanazo of 1950.
One final thing. Much of the Brazilian passion for soccer stems from a sense of ownership over the game. Brazilian fans recognize their players have traditionally been better than those of other nations, and perhaps more importantly have played with more flair and style. Soccer fans across the world see the sport as “the beautiful game”, a phrase invented by Pele and celebrated by Brazilians. England is the home of football but Brazil gave the sport life and elevated it to something special. In the last couple of decades, Brazilian football embraced a harder, more dour approach to the game. Suddenly Brazil was fielding large men who can hit hard more often than diminutive geniuses, and looking to play percentages. This year’s team features a different cast of players: Firmino, a flawed but hugely talented forward player who plays somewhere between the roles of centre-forward and advanced midfield playmaker; Coutinho, another player caught between midfield and the forward line who could perhaps be one World Cup away from superstardom; and a raft of less romantic but hugely important players such as goalkeeper Allison and midfielder Fernandinho. If Brazil’s concessions to the more depressing facts of life, emblematic in the embrace of hard working but limited forwards in 2014, signaled a crisis for football, would a more romantic, free-wheeling return to form in the famous gold shirts and blue shorts this summer signal a regeneration?