Soccer in the Land of the Tupiniquim

I wrote this article in May, just before the start of the World Cup in Brazil. I post it now, believing it has lost none of its relevance. 

I’ve passed by the stadium where the opening game of the World Cup will be held at least a dozen times. You can see it from the gaps of the Itaquera metro station. There were lots of cranes, unearthed dirt, and lobs of concrete. The “future” of an otherwise dreary lower-middle class São Paulo suburb. I’ve never been curious enough to get out and see the construction up close.

Soccer hasn’t ever held much interest for me. I used to play, but I wasn’t somebody you’d want on your team. The damned ball never went where I asked it. However, I used to watch it on TV and buy a jersey of a local team in every country I visited. Sports are the easiest way to a stranger’s heart, and I’m not good at talking to strangers.

In Brazil, that team was São Paulo FC. They’d won a couple international tournaments, even beating out AC Milan and Liverpool. They were also the team of a good friend of mine and of an ex. Nowadays, they’re decent but never great. Always a few steps behind the eventual state champion be it Corinthians, Palmeiras or Santos. I didn’t watch many games, but it was fun to keep up, laugh at the barrage of insults on- and off-line. When the 2010 World Cup arrived, everybody became my best friend (as long as I was wearing the green and yellow). The day after the Netherlands knocked Brazil out, I mourned along with the rest.

And I’ll admit it: I’ve gotten lazy. My Brazilian wife never stops to watch her favorite team. My friends all share other common interests with me. After a while I became sick of the volley of firecrackers keeping me up at night and the street parades trapping me for hours inside of hot poorly-ventilated buses. I was done putting on the gruff macho voice and playing pirates with Peter Pan.

But in the land of the tupiniquim, soccer never grows old. Every foreigner will tell you that futebol is a religion here in Brazil. Blame it on Pelé or on Nike. These aren’t fair weather fans like in the US who might occasionally dip into the sport the few days of the year there is no football, basketball, baseball or hockey on TV. This is genuine passion. It’s in their DNA or in the tropical heat and the sensual rhythms or who knows, I’m running out of clichés. The point is that soccer means something here!

…what exactly does it mean?

Former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva said in a speech in 2007 after Brazil was chosen to host the World Cup, “Soccer isn’t just a sport for us, it’s more than that, soccer is a national passion.” Together with Carnival, it’s the best known example of a lust for life supposedly unique to Brazilians. In this vision of Brazil, its people love like the heroes of epic poems or at least the protagonists of popular soap operas; they dance samba with such joy that they could overcome any of life’s problems; they treat strangers like close friends, acquaintances like long lost brothers; they try to leave everybody in the group happy; they’re playful, fun-loving and obsessed with simple pleasures; their love for romance is only outmatched by their love for the team they hold in their hearts and their desire to share this love with everyone.

It’s this Brazil and this meaning of soccer that Lula is referring to when he says, “The thing that will most excite the players, the journalists and the directors of soccer the world over, more than the fans… will be the extraordinary behavior of the Brazilian people. The treatment that this people will give, you can be certain it will leave a mark on the history of the World Cup…”

This vision can be seen in many examples of Brazilian popular culture including the romantic comedy Romeo and Juliet Get Married, which tells the tale of a man who roots for Corinthians and a woman who cheers for arch-rival Palmeiras and the difficulties they face to get their sports fanatic family members to accept the union. In a recent advertisement, Nizan Guanaes, one of the most important publicists in the country, explains, “This country is a presidential democracy, but during one month it will become an imperial dictatorship. His excellency, Soccer, will reign; that cruel tyrant who mistreats us, and still we love him so much.” It’s the greatest of national traditions that brings together rich and poor, black and white, young and old, man and woman, all together for the only game that matters. It’s the reason Brazilian pop rock band Skank asks in one of their songs, “Who’s never dreamed of becoming a soccer player?”

But more than just a unifying force, soccer is also hailed as the grand equalizer in Brazil. It’s a sport where poor dark-skinned boys like Pelé or Garrincha, who also had crooked legs, could become national heroes and quite wealthy ones too. This isn’t nothing in a country where 72% of Brazilians earned the equivalent of two minimum wages or less in 2010 according to a census of the IBGE (Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics). It’s a sport where the ex-Portuguese colony is the only five-time world champion and where European teams fight to give its players multi-million dollar contracts as did Barcelona last year with recent acquisition Neymar. In a world order where Brazil is known as “the country of the future and always will be”, “not a serious country”, just another interchangeable poor violent Latin American country or the country that’s destroying the Amazon rainforest, Brazil’s total dominance over developed nations in soccer is a source of pride.

This was the Brazil and the meaning of soccer that President Dilma Roussef hoped to address in a speech she gave before the sorting of teams for the World Cup in 2011 when she said, “Brazil continues to be identified as the country of soccer and this flatters us… But our people have many reasons to be proud… In the last eight years we lifted 40 million Brazilians into the middle class. We are a country that promotes social inclusion and that has in its ethnic, cultural and religious diversity, one of its greatest resources…” Brazil’s dominance of soccer represents an ideal of social and racial equality that she argues her administration has fought for and come close to achieving. In both aspects the world ought to respect and learn from the country.

Sérgio Rodrigues from Veja magazine, which is vocally opposed to Dilma’s administration, agrees with the importance of soccer and the World Cup to the nation, “It will be necessary to demonstrate live, before the eyes of the planet, that the title of “the country of soccer” is not an empty slogan… [It’s] the chance to allow the Brazil of our dreams to coincide with the Brazil of our reality… the beautiful story of Brazilian soccer, an epic that coincides wonderfully with our own political and social evolution in the twentieth century…” He goes on to emphasize what this Brazilian ideal of soccer is, “wasn’t this a tale of claiming of space by poor players and of how they sculpted out of the hard rock of a European game a creation full of surprises and sinuous lines that the world reveres as the ‘Brazilian school’… ‘soccer in verse’ as opposed to the “soccer in prose” of the Europeans… the principal aesthetic contribution that Brazil gave to the world…” Brazil too has something to offer humanity, and it starts with soccer, but it won’t end there.

But all is not right in the land of the tupiniquim. Support for the World Cup has fallen, sporadic protests interrupt the fanfare and preparation, and the edifying grandiloquent vision of soccer appears under attack. From the shadows an internet truism whispers, “The people are only Brazilian once every four years.”

This is the soccer that’s the opium of the Brazilian masses, panem et circenses, the green giant whose dazzling feats draw attention away from the man behind the curtain despoiling the nation’s treasures. It’s everything that is wrong with Brazil, that poor corrupt mutt who would rather play around with his black-and-white bauble than go to school and take responsibility for the future of his land, that grinning Don Juan who would rather con his way into money and into the bedroom of his best friend’s wife than do an honest day’s work. It’s a Brazil that’s selfish, lazy, inefficient, illiterate, incompetent and in denial.

This is the soccer of the military dictatorship. It’s General Médici in 1970, the president at that time, with his arm around Pelé’s shoulder after Brazil won the World Cup, and the crowd chanting, “All of us together, Brazil marches onwards!” It’s the 1972 Independence Cup, which Brazil hosted to celebrate 150 years of independence, an expensive nationalistic bonanza that few watched, and many European national teams skipped. This is the soccer where club presidents would become politicians, and politicians would become presidents of clubs. It’s a national league, which by 1979 under the rule of Admiral Heleno Nunes, commissioner of the ruling body of Brazilian sports, had expanded to 96 teams, as more and more entries were granted in exchange for political favors, leading to a popular saying, “Wherever ARENA [the political party of the military dictatorship] is doing poorly, another one gets into the National.”

This is the soccer of betting scandals, match fixing, and tax evasion, whether it was the Sports Lottery in 1982 or online gambling in 2005. Mino Carta wrote in the magazine Carta Capital, “It frightens me the tragic symbiosis between soccer and corruption. Soccer and crooked interests. Soccer and dirty exorbitant sums of money. Soccer and crime, to be more precise.” It’s the soccer of “The Cup of all Cups” where an estimated 150,000 residents, mostly from the most vulnerable segments of society, have been moved to make way for stadiums, where promised improvements in public transport haven’t come, sexual exploitation of minors is expected to rise, and construction projects hounded by the specter of corruption are behind and inexplicably cost several times more than predicted.

Then there is the soccer that represents the oppressive force of the status quo. It’s a soccer that both perverts and sanitizes Brazilian values for the sake of social cohesion and national unity. It’s a soccer where everybody is expected to represent theirs: their friends, their city, their country, their team. This is soccer of an unrequited love approaching stalkerish obsession, a sport for real men, where you can shout, cry, skip work, curse, pray, punch, kick, bleed, break, burn, as long as you do it for the team. It’s the object of affection for organized fan clubs, whose confrontations have caused 30 deaths inside stadiums in 2013 alone.

It’s the soccer of patriarchal traditionalists like the father in the movie Brainstorm, a passionate Santos FC fan who locks his son up in a mental institute after finding a joint in his jacket. In a scene near the beginning of the movie, the character, after noticing his son’s earring, grabs him by the ear and shouts, “This is what those queers use!” It’s a sport where fans of certain teams such as São Paulo FC are derided as fairies, where attempts to create fan clubs for gays are met with online death threats and a photo on Instagram of Corinthians player Emerson Sheik kissing a male friend on the lips created an uproar. It’s a sport where it’s common for newspapers and magazines to publish photos of “the muses of soccer” and a female referee, Fernanda Colombo, is photographed in “inopportune positions” during a game. In a press conference, the president of Cruzeiro, a team from Belo Horizonte, recently criticized her, saying that a pretty girl should be posing in Playboy not reffing a soccer game. It’s a Brazil that according to the Gay Group of Bahia saw 312 homicides motivated by homophobia in 2013 and according to the Secretary of Human Rights in Brazil saw 4851 victims of homophobia in general in 2012.

These are soccers that hold Brazil back, preventing it from reaching its true potential, and this is a Brazil that’s doomed to fail, cursed at birth for not being the United States or Europe. It’s a provincial nation incapable of becoming more than an embarrassment and a disappointment to its people, a Brazil that keeps its expectations well-hidden under layers of self-hate and cynicism.

Above all, soccer in Brazil is a place-holder, the preferred symbol of Brazilian nationalists everywhere. It’s all the nation’s virtues, all of its ills, all of its hopes for what the nation could be if only its people tried harder.

However, there are other Brazils in the land of the tupiniquim.

There is a Brazil of volleyball, Formula 1 racing and MMA, a Brazil of country, soul, indie rock and hip-hop, a country that exports designers and dentists, a country of Catholics, Protestants, practitioners of Spiritism and Candomblé and atheists, a Brazil of Amerindians, a Brazil of the descendants of African slaves, a Brazil of the descendants of Japanese immigrants, a Brazil of blonde blue-eyed descendants of Germans and Italians, who sometimes still speak the local dialect of the old country, a Brazil of tropical rainforests, a Brazil of sprawling plantations, and a Brazil of towering high-rises next to cramped shantytowns. There is a Brazil of geographic, political and cultural regions ever looking down on one another.

They’re Brazils that don’t always get along. They at times callously exploit one another and fiercely defend their definitions of what the nation is and ought to be. They’re Brazils that can’t and shouldn’t be haphazardly stitched together by some vague notion of a “national religion” or a “national opium”, at least if there is any desire for it to be known as more than just “the country of soccer”.

Sports are great fun, clichés even more so. Both are easy to understand, easy to explain and easy to shackle to questionable agendas and nationalistic world views. That is why humanity’s gentle citizens, independent of the plot of land that birthed them, should constantly strive to reimagine themselves with more creativity, more depth, more intelligence and more vigor, or our futures will be nothing more than painful clichés of the past. History isn’t kind to the unoriginal. So let the kids play in peace in the várzeas, let the cachaça-drinking old men at the bar argue uninterrupted about penalties and keep your annoying national metaphors to yourself. With any luck, I’ll even be inspired enough to watch the Brazilian side play and befriend a couple strangers when the World Cup starts.