Brazil, France and Politics of the World Cup

Rio de Janeiro–Brazil went into FIFA’s 1998 World Cup as the confident defending champions. Four years earlier in Los Angeles, the “Selection”, as the team is known at home, beat Italy in a scoreless epic, played in scorching heat, that ended with Italy’s Roberto Baggio missing a crucial overtime penalty shot. So Brazil became the first nation to win the World Cup on four different occasions. In Paris, graced with the world’s most lauded striker, Milan Inter’s Ronaldo, the team was poised to add a fifth series of caresses and kisses to the golden globe.

Yet this was not to be. After overcoming local skepticism, France used its home field advantage to surge toward an upset 3-0 victory against Brazil. This was their first appearance in the finals, and it just happened to coincide with victory. It was only the sixth time a national team had won the Cup at home. The team to have failed most spectacularly in that endeavor was Brazil. In 1950, the Selection was clobbered in the final 2-1 by underdog Uruguay in the newly built temple of football, the Maracana, in Rio de Janeiro.

Brazil’s thirst for a rematch has not subsided by a sliver in these last four, long years. But the country as a whole has even more to gain from a match up with France on the political field. If their respective leftwing coalitions take this year’s elections the countries’ rivalry may spin into a rapprochement.

Opinion polls for June’s legislative elections in France are all but tentative. We know by now how inaccurate they have been in the past. So it’s really wait and see time for the 86% of the electorate that actually voted against rightwing president Chirac when it actually had the choice. Little is known of what currently favored Brazilian presidential candidate Ignatio Lula da Silva, aka “Lula”, actually discussed with former French Prime Minister Lionel Jospin in Paris just days prior to the latter’s fall. Everything suggests that the two politicians saw a bright future of intertwined visions for orchestration of center-left policies– despite having to take the occasional corner kick from field right in a disturbed sharing of powers. The balance of all fields has decidedly not been created equally.

As for Brazil’s presidential elections, they’re only scheduled for October, but the stakes have already been set. Running in his fourth campaign, Lula, like Jospin, has had to edge over to the ‘center’ in the belief that the key to effective government lies in coalition. Witnessing Jospin’s defeat at the hands of his own voters in the first-round of the elections, he may be listening more closely to current President Fernando Henrique Cardoso. As if sensing the rush just days prior to the offensive in France, FH uttered words of a harbinger’s wisdom: “Is [the PT’s] position just to win an election or does it really signal a change in the way they see the world? If it is just the former, the electorate won’t believe it.” (The Financial Times, April 19, 2002). The clamor from the French supporters had yet to start resonating.

The French general (legislative) elections are set to take place during the preliminary rounds of the World Cup. But the Plural Left coalition has been training as if headed only into the semi-finals. Another team to be have been handicapped by excessive confidence, the left now has to bite its tongue following Jospin’s relentless criticism of the paralyzing process of “co-habitation”. Trying to maneuver a left government under a rightwing president “makes France ungovernable”, he recently confided to Le Monde.

Nonetheless, the socialists have reorganized and their new leader and former party chairman, Francois Hollande, hopes to halt the right’s advance for another five years. And who knows? The old coalition of Verts (Greens), Communists and independent Radicals might be in excellent position to score from the left, the center and even, all be damned, from the right. Meanwhile at the Elysee Palace, President Chirac keeps the heels warm of his sensationalized victory, largely thanks to leftwing voters. His window display government, which remains essentially powerless until an election victory, is again acting out his fantasy of socialist partnership as even its most conservative politicians grant that France has receded irrationally into immigration paranoia of their own device.

That such discomfort is making its way into the mainstream political class is largely due to its own opportunism and populism. The freak results of the French presidential elections, for remember that despite media exposure Le Pen barely increased his number of votes on May 5, has had another effect. By consulting the French population on its fears of street crime, the media have given voice to otherwise unspoken ethnic bashing: in simple terms, racism. In a recently published study, Le Monde revealed that during the political campaign television stations devoted 18 766 program slots to “crime, stone throwing, car theft, robberies, and intervention by the police and/or riot police”. That makes for 987 subjects per week all broadcast against a background of what the Ministry of the Interior has confirmed to be a slight decrease in crime. No explosion of “insecurite”, not even an “invasion” of desperate immigrants, but stabilization of crime. On the other hand, media-sponsored fear has stirred up an awful lot of ethnic tension. This is tension lying worlds away from the nationalized ethnic energy that has made France’s national football team shine as a global collective.

None of this success has stopped the right from finding itself mired in its old indecisiveness regarding the far-right Front National. Notwithstanding his arrogance, Alain Juppe, among Chirac’s intimates, is ironically a real Republican contemptuous of Le Pen. Yet not even his face could betray the utter distaste with which he contemplates a return to power of the Plural Left coalition in the Assemblee nationale with Chirac at the helm. Faced with the prospect of having to direct their votes to an opposing party in the event of finishing third in the first round, Chirac’s rightwing candidates are symptomatically stuttering about whether they’ll be sent to Le Pen’s camp.

The French right really does despise their socialist next-of-kin more than Le Pen’s racists. Which is more than can be said for LePen who holds Chirac especially in contempt. Hatred for the left, nowadays, may only be owing to the success with which it has implemented rightwing policies. And despite what Anthony Giddens believes, there are no “rightwing issues”, only rightwing policies. In that regard, France’s center-left politicians ought to be wary: when back to their senses, the majority of the population wants a responsible and activist government truly working for social change.

While the picture looks favorable for a match-up between France and Brazil after the final election results, there will be no rematch in the World Cup finals. If the teams do meet in upcoming weeks, a near certainty, it will happen at an earlier stage of the showdown. The chance dynamics used to organize the group divisions have landed three top-seeded teams in the same slice of eliminatory matches. Apart from Zidane and Ronaldo Gaucho’s mates, the favorites of the Group A-C-F-H slice are Argentina (second-seeded) and England (12th). Were both France and Brazil to finish first in their respective groups, they’ll be facing off in quarterfinal match-57. Should either finish second, and survive the quarterfinals, they’ll meet in semi-final match-62.

In 1998, the country of samba as a whole watched in disbelief as the Selection stumbled woodenly under the weight of a hundred thousand euphoric French fans in what was generally a midfield confrontation. Zidane performed an unimaginative carbon copy head butt from a corner kick to advance France’s lead to 2-0 by half-time. In the second, as Brazil fought through apathy to lurch into offensive territory, it was caught off-guard by Manuel Petit’s breakaway. He finalized the triumphant victory for “Les Bleus”. France became “le pays du foot”.

While the French recuperated from a nightlong revelry on the Camps Elysees, their second in a week with another one still planned for the victory parade, disheartening news started leaking from the Brazilian camp. As if in a hangover from the match, most concurred that Brazil simply could not have played as badly, nor could not it have lacked as much soul without there being some other reason behind the defeat. Suspicion would turn to reality.

On the eve of the championship match, the Selection’s refuge had been ransacked by panic as the Inter Milan start-striker Ronaldo apparently suffered a nervous seizure. Though he alone had convulsions, the entire team ended up being but a shadow of itself on the field the following afternoon. The incoming ambulance and intensive medical care Ronaldo was given seemed to underscore the seriousness of the incident. “We lost the World Cup but I won another cup – my life,” Ronaldo later avowed. The team’s sponsor, Nike, has repeatedly been criticized for allegedly pressuring the coaching staff into making Ronaldo play. Whether due to a sleepless night, or exaggerated reliance on a single star player, the team that had brilliantly beaten Holland just days before stiffened in midfield and lost.

In Bertolt Brecht’s “Galileo”, Andrea laments: “Unhappy the land that breeds no hero.” To which, Galileo rebuffs: “No, unhappy the land that needs a hero.” No matter how absurd and how unacceptable athletes’ salaries have become, there can be little debate as to the need for heroes among the world’s youth. Among royalty, Zidane is emperor with his $65 million contract for Real Madrid, whom he lifted to the 2002 European championship. A master sports artist, instead of the American pop scrub being spread about by media giant Viacom through MTV– and please don’t give me that line about being over-the-hill…–, is often the most intimate contact many get with a hero. Ronaldo may be old hat now, after his arduous two-year recovery from a battered knee. But I can still hear the innocent voice of a young French Beur, i.e. of Maghrebin origin, who years ago had to utter timidly how he thought Zidane was a greater player than Ronaldo. Although he may have been eclipsed by the magician from Kabylia, there’s poignancy in a hero’s fall from grace. And they all do fall.

The pressures and expectations of the biggest match open any field to risk. Politicians understand this as well as athletes. As Lula’s ratings have risen in opinion polls, Brazil has faced the destabilizing effect of declarations made by international bond ratings firms, when it isn’t from the American Congress itself. In hasty reports issued on the week of April 27, JP Morgan’s riskmetrics created a series of field days for speculators as it increased Brazil’s risk points, then readjusted them on a decrease, all to finally increase them again on May 23. The problem? Speculators are harping as they wait to flock in for the free-market catch of the day: inevitable instability prompted by election of a leftwing government.

Few analysts sensitive to such croaking noticed a number of fundamental points. Risk agencies establish their ratings based on projections of the reforms social movements are expected to implement, and the degree of resistance the local elite is to bring to them. Among the ‘sciences’, risk analysis profoundly lacks rigor, to say the very least. So while banks may not be glaringly optimistic on Brazil, given that Argentina and its collapsed economy are clamoring next door, they have been far more cautious regarding what are, after all, their own investments. Their mouthpiece, The Financial Times, was only too eager to unequivocally emphasize this on May 1st (no pun intended). Its editorial slammed: “it would be a mistake to exaggerate the risks [involved in Lula’s election].” Although Brazil’s banks are among the most prosperous worldwide (Bradesco, No. 1 in Latin American, is among the world’s top ten in profits), the message has only mildly been received. Then again, we know how faithful private banks are to the local economy. On the other hand, when JP Morgan revised its risk rating for Brazil a week-and-a-half later, it was the international press that seemed to be hard of hearing. So to tickle the tympanum, on May 23, JP Morgan scratched the noise up again by hoisting the country up to 972 on its Embi+ index– portraying the country’s economy as one of the world’s least stable.

So the suspense rises… As we move into Asia’s Cup, a leftwing tandem is working on their dribbles to eke out a well-needed diagonal Atlantic alliance. In the likelihood of winning the elections for which they are favored, the PT and Plural Left will still have to deal with strong national resistance, especially in France, from the stagnant and heavily subsidized agriculture sector. Brazil also has to fend off the German dominated steel position in France’s European commitment. Yet in the historic parts of downtown Rio de Janeiro, the French Flag flies over the Bank of Brazil’s Cultural Center, which is hosting an exhibit devoted to Paris 1900. It waves but a breadth away from the France-Brazil house now honoring the king of “futebol”, Pele. Faced with such sights, not only do I sometimes imagine France to have finally vanquished its dreams of an Antarctic presence. It often appears as Brazil’s own has settled on the shores of the Seine.

Doubtless France has brilliantly kempt its game ever since the fateful 1998 final. Les Bleus went on to win the European Cup, and remained unbeaten until last Saturday’s debacle against Belgium– during which, the faithful hasten to add, Zidane was skirting the kicks of another defender: his newborn. Like the Socialists in 1997 Les Bleus proved that their upset victory was an experiment that could be repeated outside of the laboratory– in spite of public skepticism. Surely the taste for revenge has been a dramatic device as much in sport as in art. Indeed, it very much justifies classifying sport as art: given the place, the player and the team, and, especially, the act of crowning a hero.

Whether Brazil goes on to beat France, time still remains for solid political solidarity and collaboration. In such moments, it’s the internationalist spirit that lifts sportsmanship to politics.

France kicks off against Senegal on Friday, May 31, to open FIFA’s 2002 World Cup of Football.

Brazil gets into gear against Turkey on June 3.

Norman Madarasz writes from Rio de Janeiro. He welcomes comments at