World Cup football is Brazil’s turf in a way it is no other country’s. The Selecao are the only team to have participated in every tournament so far. They have won the Cup five times — in 1958, 1962, 1970, and then in less spectacular fashion in 1994 and 2002.
The arc of their sporting history has such potency and flair, it carries such social and cultural resonance that, as David Goldblatt points out in his superb, and superbly timed book, Futebol Nation: A Footballing History of Brazil, they are the second favourite team of most fans with a team of their own in the reckoning, and the favourite of those of us without any partisan tugs. So when football’s greatest event — by some estimates, sport’s greatest show — opens in Brazil next month, it comes against a deep backdrop that reminds us of how football has benefitted Brazil and how Brazil has enriched the sport for all of us.
It comes, also, against the tensions, still simmering, that spilled over last summer and rocked Brazil with the some of the most challenging protests after Lula’s welfare programmes had put the country on a more even track.
Goldblatt tries overmuch to make the case that in no other sphere besides football has Brazil, the fifth largest nation on earth by area and population, made a mark, but his account of the sport as a mirror to the politics, social changes and conflicts of Brazil in the past century is convincing and rivetingly told.
At its best, football has made the public sphere more socially inclusive, given Brazil’s historically daunting divisions based on geography and race. Brazil’s football – O Jogo Bonito, the Beautiful Game — has enabled a self-confident identity. Writes Goldblatt: “When (a) leading commentator criticizes the Selecao’s opponents for a fumble or misplaced pass, he says with a mixture of pity and contempt, ‘They don’t have the same intimacy with the ball.’
It is a tone that assures you that he and his listeners are quite convinced that whatever its origins, whatever the competition, it is only in Brazil that football is truly at home, sunk deep into the web of meanings and memory that the nation has spun around it.”
But football is also a mirror to much that troubles Brazil: the flight of its best players to more lucrative, competitive leagues overseas paralleling its economy based on the export of raw materials; the country’s persistent inequalities across region, class and race; the widespread corruption and nepotism that’s seeped into football federations; and the violence that inhabits Brazil’s public spaces.
These are the historical factors that seemed to put in jeopardy, last summer, the Confederations Cup in Brazil, as a protest against a hike in bus fares in Sao Paulo caught on across the country and targeted, among other things, spending on hosting the World Cup. It was, eventually, deftly handed by President Dilma Rousseff, who got the legislature to back her as she kept down fares, brought in doctors from Cuba to strengthen the health care system and committed to reserving oil revenue for education.
She may not be as prone as her rockstar-status predecessor, Lula, to using football and footballers in getting popular support for social and economic reform, but her defence of spending on the football tournament may stridently make the point that sport cannot be left to its administrators alone — it must respond to the demands and desires of spectators and those to play it at less elite levels.
Besides corruption and the irrational spending on some stadia — for instance, Brasilia, the capital, constructed a 70,000-capacity stadium instead of the previously planned smaller one, in order to make a bid for a quarter-final, even though the city’s football matches get far fewer spectators — some of the sources of anger that Goldblatt cites bear listing. FIFA bulldozed its way on protecting sponsor brands in opposition to local law and Brazil’s plea for cheaper tickets for older people and students.
It barred musical instruments from stadia, after the racket created by vuvuzelas in South Africa, this in a country known for its samba football! The hosts ignored the legacy-driven development plan for the iconic Maracana in Rio as a part of a public space devoted to multiple uses. All this to whose benefit?
The football will likely be of the highest quality in Brazil this summer.
But keep an eye out for the message from beyond the field of play, in the stands and on the streets. Something may be changing in how we go about the task of making sports administrators much more accountable to spectators and fans. n