A dear friend of mine works in a moderately sleazy section of the moderately sleazy tourist industry in Rome, Italy. Her daily task is to lure young tourists from all over the world to take part in a ‘pub crawl’, an evening’s entertainment that sees customers pay a fee up front for a little food and potentially a whole lot of drink in a couple of undistinguished Roman venues.
My dear friend has developed an encyclopedic collection of national stereotypes to describe how different nationalities approach the prospect of drinking for several hours in the company of strangers. These stereotypes, from polite Belgians to crazily capacious Australians, are for entertainment purposes only, of course; but on the eve of the World Cup the ones that stand out relate to the behaviour of the globe-trotting bourgeoisie of those two great South American neighbours and rivals, Argentina and Brazil.
Or rather they relate to the males of those particular species: my dear friend being a young woman who gets paid on commission, she concentrates her persuasive charms on young men, generally groups of them. Brazilian guys, she says, just need to be persuaded that the night will be full of girls — a party for them means chances to charm the opposite sex, preferably on the dance-floor. Argentines, by contrast, want to know about the alcohol that will be available to them at the open bar: How much? Which whiskies? Which vodkas? It’s not that they are (necessarily) alcohol-obsessed, but since the unique-selling-point of the pub-crawl involves consumption of booze, they wish to quantify that — and indeed they will spend the evening carefully ensuring they enjoy the best, and most, of what’s on offer.
It is very, very tempting to apply these stereotypes to the way Brazil and Argentina approach soccer: love and science, respectively. Brazil produces the game’s most extravagantly, seductively beautiful players. Argentina produces its most calculating, occasionally cynical coaches. The stereotypes, once they’re instilled, invite you to add racial and soccer-positional dimensions, of lithe and lissome Afro-Brazilian attackers versus big, beef-fed white-Argentine defenders.
Like most stereotypes, they don’t survive any extended encounter with reality. You would struggle, for example, to name three Brazilians who could match the pelota- (ball-) loving skills of Argentines Alfredo Di Stefano, Diego Maradona and Lionel Messi. Brazilian national teams, including this year’s, are harder, and whiter, than the image suggests; and Argentina, for all its efforts to appear as a outpost of western-Europe in South America, can’t erase the reality of African slaves from its history, its bloodlines, and its football, quite so easily.
Nor can Argentine football be simply classified, despite the image of rough physicality married to flashes of genius. Indeed, as the country in the world with almost certainly the most advanced ‘academy’ of the game, it has two distinct and mutually rancorous tactico-political traditions. The left-wing tradition, associated with former national coach Cesar Luis Menotti and his disciples, values ball-possession and attractive play; its crowning achievement, and irony, is the World Cup victory of 1978, at home in front of the military junta. Carlos Bilardo’s ‘school’, by contrast, won the competition in 1986 with a tight shape, stout defending and counter-attacking through Diego Maradona.
The current coach, Alejandro Sabella, is seen as a Bilardista, and his team is packed with counter-attacking potential. But its best player, Messi, has reached his highest heights under the Menotti-inflected management of Pep Guardiola at Barcelona, his goals often coming at the climax of long, metronomic spells of possession orchestrated by the Catalan midfield genius, Xavi Hernandez. (Xavi of course can’t play for Argentina; and now that he’s 34 there is considerable doubt about what he can do for Spain this month.) Messi can play well for the national team, which handily topped the South American qualifying group — a group that did not, however, include the automatically qualified Brazil — but the assertion that he is the best player in the world relies on his performances for Barcelona. It would be fair to say that we still await conclusive evidence that Messi can lead Argentina to victory against the very best opponents: luckily for him, the group and the ‘bracket’ suggest it will be July before Argentina are likely to face the very best.
Messi’s increasingly sour visage on the field in recent years contrasts with the boyish enthusiasm of his young Barcelona teammate, Neymar. Messi may seem to carry the weight of enormous expectation on his shoulders, but the truth is, given the attacking talent in their respective teams, Neymar has a heavier burden. His capacity to carry it lightly may well be decisive to Brazil’s chances and the mood of his country: the fickle Brazilian fans may be notoriously intolerant of unbeautiful football, but they have much, much less tolerance for failure to win. Brazil have an extremely solid unit, and Neymar’s fellow-forwards are optimised to get him the ball in areas where he can hurt opponents. That feels dangerously like a complete summary of Brazil’s tactics, plans A through Z. I think it’ll win them the cup, but I thought that last time too: there lurks in the team’s limitations the capacity for ugly failure.
The tournament organisers have diced dangerously with ugly failure too. So far, the Copa do Mundo has kept its promises only to local and global kleptocrats. Brazil’s people are rightly bitter, and they may soon be joined by players angry to find games being played in Amazonian conditions in the heat of day (for European TV), rather than in the temperate southern areas where fans and facilities should more sensibly congregated. (Today’s temperature difference between Sao Paolo and Manaus, which has built a 40,000-seat stadium even though it lacks a top-flight soccer team, looks like at least 8C, roughly 13F.)
Off the pitch, the prospects for protest, and for the semblance of respect for democratic rights in Brazil, looks highly uncertain; I’m not convinced that those prospects depend much on the success or otherwise of the national team inside the corporate bubble of the World Cup stadia. For those of us who love football and also want to fight for social change, perhaps the best-case scenario is a successful Brazilian team whose players show the courage many showed during last year’s Confederations Cup and speak up on protesters’ behalf, despite the discouragement that is sure to rain down from FIFA and national officials. This may seem like a long shot, but Latin America has already given the global left so many morale-boosts over the last two decades that I think we can be legitimately hopeful.
On the field, Brazil and Argentina are the most likely finalists. Uruguay, squeezed between them on the Rio de la Plata, may have something to say about that, and there are two European countries with a really decent claim. (Some bookies’ odds against Portugal, who will at least be linguistically at home, are long enough to be tempting for a team with the world’s current deadliest marksman in Cristiano Ronaldo, but they are rightly outsiders compared to Spain and Germany.) The hopes of an African country getting even as far as the semi-finals have been dashed too often to be raised with any conviction today, though that would surely go down well with many Brazilians. Of all the Latin American countries in the tournament, only Ecuador and Mexico can be confident of going home in June.
For the vast majority of the world’s population who will start watching the World Cup tonight as neutrals, we can find our rooting-interest as we go along, by whatever combination of emotion, aesthetics and politics rises to the surface. Or we can simply follow the sage example of Eduardo Galeano, author of what remains the finestbookever about soccer, and wait in joyful hope for the coming of a beautiful move: “And when good football happens, I give thanks for the miracle and I don’t give a damn which team or country performs it.”
Harry Browne will be writing for Counterpunch throughout the World Cup. His previous article is here. He lectures in Dublin Institute of Technology and is the author of TheFrontman: Bono (IntheNameofPower). Email:email@example.com, Twitter@harrybrowne