Rio de Janeiro. Brazilian defender Roberto Carlos’ brain-to-foot coordination is filtered by a scrolling flow of statistical figures. Lines of computation, combinatorial curves and permutating patterns, converge into a measuring sense to free-kicks famous for scalping a wall of defenders, shearing the fingers off a goalkeeper and still blasting into the net below the bar. With that type of body mathematics, when Mr Carlos begins to strike statistics at the strategy and energy Brazil needs to beat Turkey on June 3, one listens as if to a wizard.
What then is one to think when he inadvertently shifts his stats? On Wednesday, Carlos told Brazil’s O Globo newspaper the national “Selection” would need to deploy 60 to 70% of its potential to vanquish Turkey. He had had to lift the bar from the forecast made only a week earlier, when estimating that a mere 40% would do the job. The O Globo correspondent pondered with perplexity why Carlos had fallen short of explaining whether the change was a result of Turkey improving, or Brazil worsening.
Whether his graceful free-kicks will stump the noted talent of Turkey goalkeeper Rustu Recber, it has already opened Carlos’ computations to debate. What’s certain is that Turkish fans, whose team has qualified for the World Cup for the first time in the last 12 encounters, can hardly be expected to comply. Long-time admirers of Brazilian football, the Turkish team is now working for a bit of admiration of its own. After France’s surprising loss at the feet of Senegal, the pre kick-off tension for Monday’s Group C opener is proving as thrilling as the official one was– with or without marabouts.
If Roberto Carlos’ specs stand firmly for anything, though, it has to be for the Selection’s improving image. They underscore its progression in both the eyes of the world and, most importantly, in Brazil’s. After four long years of attempts and failures, and the seeming evaporation of Milan Inter striker Ronaldo, the Selection is back. As if in a foretaste, Latin America’s largest nation joined in the celebration of Senegal’s 1-0 shocker against France. It nearly seems as though the 1998 final is a depression now solidly put to rest. In what has been relatively slow adherence to World Cup festivities, Brazil now has only Monday’s starter to stop it from submitting its fullest passion to the event.
Despite the country’s spruced awakening, the international and mainly English-speaking media has taken time to don its cleats. Ever since its upset defeat last year in the Cup of the Americas, the international press has exalted in the “death of Brazil’s beautiful game”, then proclaimed by the London Times. Only a week ago, the New York Times correspondent in Rio de Janeiro shot away at the unraveling thread he would have as the last one holding the four-time yellow and green champions together. Putting it in falsely political terms, he saw the stoic distance as a “popular revolt” against the team, a result of frustration toward the institution of Brazilian football as a whole.
Corruption, faulty administration, local football clubs near bankruptcy, a Selection with too many players and too many coaches, and not enough decorating in the streets of Rio de Janeiro, these were all signs for the Times of its demise. To top things off, by not including Romario, for whom it would be one last Cup, the Times proclaimed the Selection to have been usurped from the people in the land of giants by coach Filipao, a.k.a. “Big Phil”. Yet as with so many American commentators on Latin America, he takes the symptoms as signs.
A nation does not reject its soul when battering the Church and Government. Devoid of class criticism, sports analyses based in populist categories most often mistake management as the inner drive to work and play. As any Brazilian is now saying, the Cup is only at its beginning. The soul needs time to liken the present to the past.
The first hurdle of that beginning is unequivocally Turkey. Brazilians know little about the republic of secular Islam. A member of NATO which has been excluded from Europe provides an interesting shift in perspectives. But how do they kick the ball and what type of defense are they mounting? The doubts turned into obvious curiosity when Gilson Nunes, designated “observer” for the Brazilian coaching staff, was caught red-handed taking notes on Turkey’s behind-closed-doors practice session on Thursday. Through the hostile attitude displayed and then corrected by head coach Senol Gunes, Brazilians believe that the old admiration has turned into animosity.
Brazil’s press has picked up on the fact that Mr Gunes is a no-nonsense kind of guy, a Filipao of the crescent and star. With an attacking front of the 3R’s (Rivaldo, Ronaldo and Ronaldinho Gaucho), it is little wonder than Gunes has shut the doors to the lab as he concocts his secret portion. Nonetheless, following the surprise opener, Felipe Scolari could only preach restraint. “For Brazil, [France’s defeat] sounds an alarm. Without attention and seriousness, nobody succeeds,” he told O Globo on Saturday June 1.
Scolari has underscored how all the favorite teams are not only well-matched amongst themselves, but will inevitably run into difficulties with the underdogs. Still, animosity is not the word to describe Brazil’s attitude toward Turkey. If Senol Gunes believes Brazil, Costa Rica and China are all alike as challengers, Brazilians at least recognize that how the Selection ends up faring against its opening rival will dictate their confidence in its potential until the round of 16.
Pele’s own comments tread similar ground. Interviewed by the BBC on SportsTalk, FIFA’s “greatest player of the century” spoke excitedly of how all contenders have similar levels. But if no single team stands out, it is no wonder that, through the glaringly wise smile that broke out on his face, he is hedging his bets on Brazil to take the Cup a fifth time.
The media in Brazil have had affairs to settle prior to focusing on the matches themselves. Brazilians had to see the Selection play and win in two important friendlies in which the physical condition of both Ronaldo and Rivaldo would be closely watched. Against Cataluna and Malaysia, the Selection dominated and won well, even though half of each of match was bogged by sluggish playing that lacked brilliance.
While the streets of Rio slowly started adorning the yellow and green, Globo TV, Brazil’s media giant, reached the Far East. Globo naturally has stakes on the country’s soul and rhythm as it broadcasts two to three matches per day. Awakening to the world through its lenses, Brazilians have realized that, as the Jornal do Brasil put it on Friday, “nobody is frightened of the Selection”.
In terms of defiance by underdogs, that may be going a tad too far. Even the English-language press has come round, bowing to Ronaldo’s full recovery and return. On May 31, London’s The Independent waxed admiration on the rare advantage of trading “the main seat in the presidential cavalcade for the shady nook of an assassin”. This is a role in which Brazilians have taken to delight.
Both underdog and giant, then, Brazil hovers close to usurping the spectacle once again. But Scolari will have nothing of it, at least if it means for the spectacle to spill from the set. No sex during the Cup, he announced, as if to back up why it was imperative for him to keep Romario away from the land of the rising sun. Respect for others and for the objectives of Brazil’s team, with a special eye on center-forward Hakan Sukur, is the realism that checks his fantasies.
This only backs up his own position regarding the pre-game cant. Speaking too much, too confidently before a match has players thinking that Turkey is smirking with superstition. Even Roberto Carlos has been cooling the polemics by shifting his stats to describing the workings of the muscles on his tree-trunk-like legs. Whether a sign of confidence or sportsmanship, Scolari told the Jornal do Brasil that: “Even Turkey has to be respected. Contrary to what people think, it’s a strong team and will become more complicated in the opening match, which is naturally a hard enough game to play.”
So Brazil turns its ears from Mr Gunes to look on toward El-Hadji Diouf’s cohorts from Senegal. As it does it wonders which disguise it will itself be donning: Underdog or Giant of the 2002 World Cup?
Norman Madarasz writes from Rio de Janeiro. He welcomes comments at email@example.com
This article appeared in Everensel Daily, published in Istanbul, Turkey.