It’s Just Like Watching Brazil

June 11, 2014   •   By Timothy Spangler

SUCCESS AND FAILURE on the football pitch has been a decisive element in Brazil's recent history. Perhaps no country's identity is as connected with the beautiful game. This uniquely deep and fraught relationship will come to a head once again starting tomorrow, with Brazil hosting its second World Cup. David Goldblatt, author of the new book Futebol Nation, sat down with me to discuss football’s significance to Brazil and Brazil’s significance to the game.


Timothy Spangler: What is your first memory of watching a Brazilian team play football?

David Goldblatt: I have very dim memories of the 1970 World Cup. I'm five years old. I'm sitting in the sitting room. We've just acquired a color television, probably four months beforehand. I can remember watching a Heinz Cream Tomato Soup advert — I'd never seen red like it before. It was like a color from another planet. My father had taken to watching the World Cup that year with two televisions on, because ITV and BBC, the duopoly of broadcasters in Britain at the time, would show games simultaneously. So, we would have one game going in black and white, and one in color. There are flashes of the yellow — of Brazil — on those screens. And again, seeing yellow was something really extraordinary in 1970, after growing up on black and white television. There's something about the yellow and the blue and the intensity of the Mexican sun in those transmissions that burned Brazil into the global consciousness.

A popular English football chant goes “It’s just like watching Brazil.” What does the rest of the world expect when they watch Brazil’s national team play?

David Goldblatt: In the popular consciousness, Brazil is still the gold standard of what football can be: victorious, but at the same time compelling, artistic, musical. The hope remains that Brazilian football will see a rebirth of its Golden Age — as it is collectively remembered, not necessarily as it was — which went from 1958 to 1970, when they won three great World Cups. They had one such rebirth in 1982, when, despite their defeat against Italy, the Brazilian team were pulsating. That’s what we expect. We haven’t actually seen their artful football for a very long time, but the expectation is burned very deeply into the popular football consciousness. 

Your book Futebol Nation is an ambitious one. It attempts to tell the story of Brazil through football. How important is football to Brazil as a country and to Brazilians as a people?

It has been fabulously important. Modern Brazil’s global brand, its sense of identity in the wider world, has been tied almost exclusively to football. There are different ways of measuring this. For instance, just Google the names of all Brazil post-Word War II presidents and you will find that you have quotation after quotation about football by each one; comments on World Cups, comments on the preparation for World Cups, who should be in the squad and who shouldn’t — under both authoritarian and democratic regimes. You can also look at the record in poetry. In England, the postwar cannon has probably never referenced football more than three or four times — the odd reference here or there, as part of the urban fabric — or a poem by Ted Hughes or Seamus Heaney, who recalls playing football as a kid. But in Brazil, all significant poets of the postwar era dealt with the topic almost obsessively, celebrating the leading players, the teams of the era, the narratives it generated. Carlos Drummond de Andrade, who is the poet laureate of mid-century Brazil, not only wrote football poetry but also had a daily column in the newspapers during the World Cup from 1958 to 1986. That’s like Robert Frost getting a World Cup column in The New York Times, writing for 30 days consecutively about football.

Each World Cup win seems to have a singular meaning for Brazilians’ conception of themselves and their future. Let’s go through each victory, one at a time. Give me your thoughts on the impact they had on the concept of Brazilianness. Let’s start with 1958.

In 1958, playwright Nelson Rodrigues says, “at last we can kick the mongrel dog complex.” By this, he means that 1958 delivered on the promise of the 1950 World Cup, which in turn delivered on the promise of previous efforts. Going back, the 1938 World Cup is the key moment: Brazil goes into the tournament with a mixed-race team for the first time. Their two stars are black and they dazzle the world with fantastic football. Gilberto Freyre, the sociologist, writer, and historian, condenses the meaning of this event for Brazil, when he says that Brazilians have sweetened and rounded the angular game invented and played by the Europeans. Everything that is good about Brazilian football can be traced to our mulatto quality, our mixed ethnic European and African heritage — our trickery, our bravado, our inspiration, our spontaneity. For the first time, Brazil — and certainly Brazilian elites — celebrated the country’s mixed ethnic ancestry, celebrated its African roots, the mix and the diversity that Brazil had become. All that was delivered on in 1950, when Brazil first hosted the World Cup.

Not a happy result.

No, they lose the final to Uruguay, 2-1, in front of a quarter of a million people. It’s a national shame and disaster. Indeed, the black players are scapegoated. Winning in Sweden in 1958, with a very mixed race team, with Garrincha, with Pelé, sets the seal on the idea that had been dented in 1950, that Brazil can be proud of its uniqueness, which produces this artistic, flamboyant, musical football.

And 1962?

1962 only drives the point home. The tournament is played in Chile. The great thing about 1962 is that it gives the spotlight to Garrincha — Pelé is injured in the tournament. The moment that I will treasure from 1962 is in the final against the Czechs. You can see Garrincha sometimes just standing on the ball, offering the Czechs to take it off him, only to spirit it away in a fantastic display of dribbling — the kind of which we probably won’t see again at a world cup. That seals the deal in 1962; it’s the highpoint of a period of great, great confidence in Brazil. Kubitschek has been in power, Brasilia has been built, and the country has undergone an incredible spurt of economic growth and urbanization under a democratic framework. 

We’ll skip over 1966, though I know that can be hard for an Englishman. Let’s go to 1970.

Brazil’s 1970 campaign, when they win for the third time, is pretty much universally acclaimed as the greatest display of artistic football the world has ever seen. They win the final against Italy 4–1, with a spectacular series of goals. That’s the gold standard. The irony and the tragedy of 1970 is that it occurs under the military’s watch. By then, the Brazilian junta has been in power for six years, and has taken a close interest in football, having rather disdained it when they took power in the early 1960s. By 1970, they understand that they need to back this horse, indeed that it’s one of the main legitimating tools available to them — their vision of Grande Brazil. The victorious team flies into Brasilia, where they are celebrated by the president and his cabinet. It’s the only day in the 20-year history of the military junta, that the presidential palace is open to the people. However, as a consequence of this, having discovered and tasted the extraordinary ideological power of footballing success, the military try to reshape football in their own image. And that’s the tragedy of 1970, that it should force the pace of that process. Over the next 10 to 15 years, Brazilian football is deformed and malformed, both in how it’s played and how it’s organized. It becomes a much more physical and much more aggressive game because military style training and an obsession with fitness become the expected norm. Furthermore, the military’s lawlessness and violence contributes to an awful lot of violence in and around football over the last 30 years. 1970 is bittersweet; it’s a truly amazing artistic occasion that ends up poisoning Brazilian football.

The Brazilian football fan, then, faced a 24-year drought, which brings us to 1994.

These 24 years covered the last 15 years of military dictatorship and then 10 years of civilian rule, in which the terrible military, economic, political, and social legacy of the junta comes home to roost. It’s worth remembering that the late 1980s and early 1990s were very tough in Brazil. Hyperinflation had ravaged the country for a decade, followed by uncompromising austerity — a complete IMF-style structural adjustment program that left 40 percent of the country’s northeast hungry. It seems to me that the defining thought about the 1994 world Cup victory came from Carlos Alberto Parreira, the coach of the team, who in a pre-tournament interview with The New York Times says, “Magic and dreams are dead in football.” He meant that they were not going to go out and play the game that everyone expected from themthe kind of game they played in 1982 and lost. They were going to play modern, technical, pragmatic football. That’s pretty much what you got from Brazil in 1994. They had the guile and the craft of someone like Romário, but this was an organized, not an interesting, team. And they won after a 120 goalless minutes against Italy. It was billed as the rematch of 1970’s beautiful game, and instead we got 120 grueling, goalless minutes. And then the game is won because Roberto Baggio sticks a penalty over the bar. That’s good for Italian despair, but not something out of which you’re going to revive the Golden Age of Brazilian football. Really, the most poignant moment of 1994 was the televised row over the loot acquired by the team, who went on a big shopping spree and then tried to get their purchases through Brazilian customs.

When we talk about pragmatic, cynical football, we tend to think of nations like Germany or Italy. We expect more from Brazil.

It’s amazing how the empirical evidence has not diminished the potency of that desire, that myth. That’s not how they play anymore. Clearly, there are players with exquisite individual skills, stupendous touches, but Brazil, particularly after Scolari, is not the stuff of fantasy. 

Now, let’s go to 2002, the last World Cup they won. 

Well, 2002, on the surface, is all about Ronaldo’s redemption. He played the 1998 World Cup final in a state of virtual catatonia and they were thrashed by the French 3–0, which triggered a whole series of investigations and postmortems back home. In the 2002 final against the Germans he scores two stupendous goals — two moments of concentrated brilliance and speed. That’s World Cup number five coming home. One of its main consequences, though, is that the congressional investigations into the corruption in Brazilian football are conveniently forgotten. Like in 1970, victory comes at a price. In 1970, it was political manipulation, the alignment of the game with the military, and in 2002, an awful lot of people get off scot-free, who should have gone on criminal trial.

Brazil has hosted the World Cup twice — 1950 and, again, this year. What can you tell us about the differences between Brazil today and Brazil 64 years ago?

The main difference is size. Brazil 1950 was a small tournament: 16 teams, over in less than two weeks, and no live television. Anybody who followed it outside of Brazil was either listening to games on the radio or watching it on cinema newsreels after the fact. This time around, of course, Brazil is locked into the global networks of communications and economics. You look at the scale: maybe four or five stadiums in 1950; the Maracanã is the big investment. This time, you’re looking at 12 new stadiums and a total bill of something around $9 billion. Nobody knows the exact numbers, but it’s certainly the most expensive World Cup so far. This reflects the giganticism of the new World Cups, but also the fact that Brazil is now the fifth or sixth biggest economy in the world, which can sustain that level of expenditure. It’s a very different beast from 1950. The biggest difference, it seems to me, is that in 1950 the World Cup was pretty unambiguously welcome — nearly everyone in Brazil was behind the World Cup. This time around, there are protests in different Brazilian cities; people burn piles of tires outside the Itaquerão in São Paulo, and the riot police occupy metro stations downtown. The other thing that I’m noting, and other commentators are observing in Brazil, is that normally by now you would expect many neighborhoods in Brazil to be putting up bunting and street art and painting — decorating their neighborhoods. Usually, it’s almost like the Christmas lights competition you get between neighborhoods in Los Angeles, but, so far, virtually nothing’s gone up. And that’s really sad. It speaks to a country that is feeling much more ambivalent about its relationship to football. There are those who are saying this will change when the tournament starts, and that people will start wearing the shirt. And maybe they will, but it’s a much more somber, complex, fractured society, in some ways, than it was in 1950.

In light of the protests, and in light of the huge amount of money that’s been spent on building the stadiums and the transport links, do you think this year’s World Cup will be a success?

If only all the transport links had been built! Less than half of the projects that were originally proposed have been started — let alone completed. Their record on infrastructure is really poor. Will it be a success? I think it’s gotten to the point where if there are 64 games, if they start on time, if there are no major incidents or conflicts that dominate the headlines, and certainly if nobody dies in the process, then I think the Brazilian government will probably consider it a success and so will FIFA. I think expectations are very low, in that regard.

Let’s move on to the domestic game in Brazil, at club level. Do you have a local Brazilian club that you follow?

I keep an eye on Santa Cruz. They have the most extraordinary, faithful supporters. Many Brazilian football fans are quite fickle, really only showing up when their team is doing well. But Santa Cruz, who are in the fourth division of Brazilian football, where things are really grim, are getting 40–45,000 people to a game.

That’s an amazing turnout.

It’s extraordinary. And they’re a truly working-class club, who built their own stadium back in the 1950s, pretty much brick by brick — donated and laid down by their fans. They’re a rarity in Brazilian football. 

We’ve seen the rise of the global mega clubs in recent years — Man United, Liverpool, Chelsea, Real Madrid, Barcelona — clubs with a truly global following. Why has no Brazilian club built up such a reputation internationally, especially when the national team is so well-known and beloved?

They have. Santos, when Pelé was playing for them in the 1960s and early 1970s, had a global brand and global reputation. The windfalls from foreign tours were so alluring that the team spent pretty much a decade and a half on the road; and Pele was pretty much the most famous person on the planet. So, Santos really did build a brand. Of course, the whole thing disintegrated when Pele left. Subsequently, the primary reason for the lack of international attention is that the best Brazilian players are not playing in Brazil. There are over a thousand professional Brazilian footballers playing in leagues elsewhere in the world.

How important is the domestic league to Brazilians?

Less and less, judging by the attendance rates. Average attendance is somewhere between 10 and 15,000 in the top league, which is less than your average second division [championship] game in England. At times, it’s pitifully small. The other thing to note is that football is scheduled at rather odd hours in Brazil. The telenovelas take pride of place in terms of advertising revenues and viewership. In the wider popular culture, you feel that the telenovela has the edge on football these days. Of course, football is still part of the warp and weft of everyday life. People play a lot of football; everyone has an opinion on it. Until 2014, it remained a pretty spontaneous carnival; one wonders if that has changed. Over 200 people have died in football-related incidents in Brazil in the last 20 years. Today, many people just don't want to go, they don't want to play. 

What do you think is the biggest challenge that football is currently facing in Brazil?

The question of violence in domestic football is absolutely central. You cannot sustain a healthy football culture when you have the level of disorder and violence that you have in Brazilian football. In addition, Brazilian football must break even, at some point. In the past, we didn’t quite know what was going on financially in Brazilian football clubs, but as part of the deal with the government that allows them to pay off their gigantic back-tax bill through a new national football lottery, Brazil clubs have to produce transparent public accounts. Only one club, São Paulo, regularly breaks even. Everybody else is losing money all the time and accumulating the most gigantic debts. I believe Flamenco is in debt to the tune of $150 million on a turnover of $20 to $25 million, with no prospect of improvement. But the most important thing that has to change, without which nothing will be sorted out in Brazil, is that there has to be a massive reform in the governance of Brazilian football, of who runs it. And those people who have run it into the ground need to be held accountable. It’s a herculean task.

Looking forward, do you think that in 10, 20, 30 years time, football will continue to play as significant a role in Brazilian culture as it has in the past?

I really hope so. My god, it would be incredibly sad, if it did not. With my optimist head on, I think, yes, Brazilian football will survive, as it has survived all the attempts to poison it and distort it from above. A rich popular culture of playing and thinking about the game will endure. The optimistic part of me says that the protests of the last year, and whatever happens at this World Cup, will help force the pace of change. More than anything, Brazil and Brazilian football has needed an opposition, because elites without opposition become corrupt and corpulent. Healthy democracies need opposition through protest. At last, Brazil has acquired it!

Final question: What’s your prediction? How will Brazil do at this year’s tournament?

On the field, they’re the favorites. If it weren’t for the background of protest, I would say unambiguously that they’re going to win. They held their nerves during the Confederations Cup last year, so this is a pretty battle-hardened squad. But, in the end, I think it may be determined by what’s going on off the pitch as well. Who knows? It’s a very febrile and unpredictable situation. So I am going with Brazil. But if things blow up — who knows?


Timothy Spangler is the section editor for business and finance at the Los Angeles Review of Books.