You know you are hooked to a football game when you start second-guessing the moves of the team you support and also play coach. This behavioral pattern betrays your anxiety, affiliation and degree of devotedness. A loud “no” and a curse are thrown at a mid-fielder who fails to spot the overlapping right-back despite the wise bark from the lazy-boy recliner. A guttural “yes” welcomes the goal when the forward drops the ambitious option of nut-megging the goalkeeper and endorses the couch’s recommendation of a conservative one-two.
What ends this hectoring is that sudden magical twinkle on the field, bringing with it a humbling moment of stunned silence. In this fleeting instant, the master shows the smart guy watching TV his place. It is this humiliation, or rather, this reverential surrender of the defeated, that ignites undiluted awe. With time, this awe turns into respect that lasts for a lifetime.
Several generations of Brazilian footballers have made second-guessing fans look like fools and, in the bargain, won over legions of worshippers. These are diehard loyalists, not fair-weather friends. The football intelligentsia, like after the recent 0-0 draw against Mexico, has often announced the fading of the Brazilian magic. Stories of legends who sold out and of new stars being shoe brand-puppets have often been used to strengthen the assumption that “futebol arte” has lost out to “futebol forca”.
But those debates haven’t influenced the masses. The people’s team on planet football remains the same. And that is why travelling to Brazil for this World Cup is more than sports tourism. It is a pilgrimage to the land of Selecao. Brazil have had bad games, even forgettable World Cup campaigns, but that hasn’t affected the numbers that follow them in the firm belief of experiencing those humbling moments of stunned silence.
To call the Brazilian ball-players creative is to state the obvious, like calling Einstein intelligent. Digging deeper, you discover that trickery and innovation share space in that uniquely Brazilian DNA. An Argentine friend had once floated a theory about the way career paths are drawn in Brazil. Most kids, he said, are either born with dazzling dribbling and dodging skills or they acquire them early in life. The unathletic get weeded out; they go on to join the country’s reputed advertising industry or take up the fine arts. The more unscrupulous among the failed footballers join the country’s famous con industry.
It’s a credo with no credibility, but somewhat believable. For long, the beautiful game in Brazil has had a thin layer of charming deceit. Duping a rival, leaving him in the lurch is how one earns his stripes and builds his reputation in Brazil. Garrincha, the most romantic footballer ever, they say, would beat a defender once, back track, have a rematch and sell him the same lemon again before moving to the next challenge. It was to watch this trick that fans would travel miles.
Each star has his own show. Imitation isn’t flattery here but an easy option that could get you lost in streets filled with ball-juggling kids. Things have changed now, but back in the day, it was also the lack of regimented training and of assembly line academies that cultivated creativity. As in Pakistan’s tape-ball circuit, where competition and survival force you to discover a doosra or reverse swing, necessity mothers invention in Brazil.
It is this originality, which shows in Socrates’ blind back heel, Denilson’s 60 stepovers a minute, Ronaldinho’s wild runs, that stays in the mind long after. Those “wow” moments knitted together form the fabric of Brazilian football. It helped that they won the World Cup five times but even when they lost they were “beautiful”.
The class of ’82 was far from the silverware, but Socrates, Zico, Falcao, Serginho are still revered for their style of play. Careca, Kaka, Robinho have gone home defeated but only after spreading joy. Once again, they are calling the present bunch the worst side, which plays boring football. But the TRPs for Brazil games aren’t plummeting. The title “Canarinho (little canary)” comes with a halo and that yellow jersey has a golden hue.
Football romantics, and there are many, are ever-forgiving and easily impressed. Brazil’s missed goals are more celebrated than some stunning strikes by others. Pele selling the Uruguay goalkeeper an audacious dummy in the 1970 World Cup semi-final still gets YouTube views while Gareth Bale’s run-run-run-strike against Barcelona earlier this year is fading.
Since the days of Pele, through to Ronaldinho and Neymar now, the smile has featured prominently on the game faces of most Brazilian players. For years now, the scholarly inventiveness of the multiple world champions has been accompanied by the charming casualness of a back-bencher, not the smugness of a class topper. That’s why you love getting fooled by them. Play it again, Neymar, sell us a dummy please.