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“… football was being tropicalized in Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo by the poor who enriched it while they appropriated it. No longer the possession of the few comfortable youths who played it by copying, this foreign sport became Brazilian, fertilized by the creative energies of the people discovering it. And thus was born the most beautiful football in the world, made of hip feints, undulations of the torso and legs in flight, all of which came from capoeira, the warrior dance of black slaves, and from the joyful dances of the big-city slums.”
The quote, about the magical tropical transformation of soccer when it reached Brazil in the early 20th century, is from Eduardo Galeano’s beautiful Football in Sun and Shadow, currently my favourite book about anything, since a friendly CounterPunch reader recommended it to me a few weeks ago. The Uruguayan writer’s prose-poem is a reminder that when you talk about Braziilian football, even when you’re trying to talk about politics, you end up talking about aesthetics. The habit is not confined to romantic outsiders: in Brazil, they measure their historic World Cups not by whether they won it — they’ve done that five times since 1958, not quite routine but an unmatched record — but by how beautifully they played. By this measure, among the triumphs 1958 and 1970 are the twin peaks of achievement, and 1994 the nadir. The team of 1982, which didn’t even reach the final after losing one of the greatest games ever to Italy, is recalled with more fondness than the 1994 team, which won its final in a penalty shoot-out after a drab scoreless draw with the Italians.
What worries many Brazilians, as well as the legions of Brazil-lovers throughout the world, including people who tune in to soccer only to see the men in yellow and blue play in the World Cup, is that the 2010 team is coached by the man who captained that grimly determined 1994 side, who won the trophy after 24 barren years but did so without style. Dunga, a hard man rather than an artist, is now choosing the players and tactics, and the world worries that the team is made in his image. Some of the choices he has made already in the pre-selection of his squad have sparked angry debate and denunciation.
Football aesthetics are more than usually in focus this summer, because of what has occurred over the last month in the world’s most prestigious club competition, the European Champions League. Italian club Inter Milan, with its ‘charismatic’ (i.e. handsome with good English) coach Jose Mourinho, won the trophy, despite averaging a mere 25 per cent of possession of the ball in the last two games of its run to the title. Mourinho himself boasted that his team had done more than proverbially ‘park the bus’ in front of its own goal to protect a lead in the semi-final against Barcelona: they had parked an airplane. They routinely returned the ball to their opponents, he said, because keeping the ball themselves would have broken the concentration they required to defend. The very notion seems anathema to the Brazilian way of playing. Yet three excellent players in that Inter Milan team — goalkeeper Julio Cesar, central defender Lucio and fullback Maicon — are likely to be in Dunga’s team too when Brazil kicks off against the North on June 15. It might be a disappointment, but it would be no surprise, to see Brazil, and indeed many other teams in South Africa, adopt a similar defensive posture, usually euphemized as ‘counter-attacking football’. (We’ll see whether the extraordinary team ethos and self-belief that Mourinho engenders can be translated along with the tactics.)
Although Dunga is white, it would be too simple to suggest that his team’s tight, rigorous, athletic football is somehow racially counterposed to the artistry of great black Brazilians such as Pele. (Some basketball fans may recognise the stereotype.) In reality, the history of Brazilian soccer is a complex interplay of styles and politics, and many of its greatest artists have been white. It is possible, some say, to relate a previous Brazilian turn toward tighter, harder, less expressive football to the encouragement of the country’s military rulers in the 1970s. However, it is difficult to carry such as analysis forward to the era of Lula’s nominally socialist government. Today’s Brazil plays the way it does not because of authoritarian government at home, but more likely because of the dominance of technocratic European football over Brazil’s players, hundreds of whom ply their trade in European leagues, including tiny weak leagues like the Finnish or Cypriot ones as well as the big ones. (Part of the mad attraction of Argentina manager Diego Maradona, by the way, is his resistance to such European hegemony: two of the four fine Argentines who play for that unbeatable Inter Milan team have not even been selected by Maradona to travel to South Africa, with home-based players chosen in their place. His team and Spain are perhaps the only ones at the World Cup who can be counted upon not to ‘park the bus’.)
Brazilian poverty continues to breed great footballers in the favelas, but it breeds them for export. Given the millions of dollars that routinely change hands in transfer fees, often involving mere teenagers, it is no exaggeration to regard this as a significant Brazilian industry — a corrupt one in which the best hope for financial gain at the grassroots is from players’ own direct remittances of their European salaries to their families and home-places. The domestic game in Brazil, always a rather chaotic and politicized sphere, has been hollowed out over the last three decades, as fans’ best hopes of seeing their own great players come when European matches are beamed west and south by the TV networks that govern so much Latin American life. Attempts by Pele himself to reform the structure of Brazilian clubs in the 1990s, introducing corporate ‘good governance’ in place of messy club structures, seem only to have made things worse.
Such is the dominance of Europe over Brazilian football that it was regarded as rather freakish when striker Robinho, having fallen out with his manager at Manchester City — who wouldn’t sell him to another European club — actually returned home this year to play at Santos on loan for a few months to keep fit for the World Cup. His international teammates, including Kaka, whose middling season at Real Madrid has seem him slip down the press’s unofficial ‘best player in the world’ rankings, will otherwise be Europe-based, with a couple of possible exceptions who have taken ‘early retirement’ back home in Brazil. If Kaka comes good, Brazil clearly have enough flair to marry with pragmatism to win the World Cup, despite a murderous group draw that will see either Brazil, Portugal or Ivory Coast (you can make a case for all of these as potential winners) eliminated at the first hurdle.
The neoliberal mess that is global football, where the undisputed world leader in the game can sustain only poorly supported leagues, and cash sloshes around with wild abandon but always seems to land the world’s very best players at the same few clubs in Spain, Italy and England, can make one yearn for the the socialist paradise of American sport. In the US, highly centralised sports bureaucracies ensure the distribution of top players and thus some changing of the guard at the top of baseball, basketball and (American) football. When US soccer authorities launched Major League Soccer (MLS) in the 1990s, they did it in the American way, with the league as the body that actually contracts players and individual teams acting as mere ‘franchises’. By and large, America’s response has been a resounding ‘meh’.
As I write this I’m not at home in Ireland, but in the US for my 25th college reunion at Harvard. Reading the doorstopping book that circulated before the event and that goes by the name of of ‘class report’ (the word ‘class’ rarely more apposite) gives an interesting insight into the position of soccer in America, and its failure to reach a mass audience. There, in the little potted autobiographies written by many of my classmates, alongside the ubiquitous phrases “wow, 25 years”, “senior partner” and “working with nonprofits”, are little whimsical asides about their children’s soccer careers, and even their own coaching efforts.
Soccer cannot be taken seriously by the majority of Americans, nor is the US likely to create world-class players, while such people consider it their sporting preserve. (There is also a small historical irony, since Harvard was instrumental in turning US colleges away from soccer and towards the evolving gridiron game in the 1870s.) Upper-middle-class youths will usually get a better offer for their careers than chasing the almost-impossible dream of sporting stardom.
Of course many working-class people in America play and watch and love soccer, and are far from dilettantes about it. In my New Jersey hometown, it’s a largely Latino affair. One of my most vivid sporting memories remains the night 30 years ago when my high school, a Catholic one in a poor corner of New Jersey, found itself contesting the state parochial championship against a team of white lads from a prosperous suburb. (Perhaps some of these lads’ parents were Harvard graduates. No one from my school had ever gone to Harvard.) My own soccer skills would never had got me near the team, and my lack of Spanish would have meant I could not have communicated with the coach or teammates during the game anyway. But I loved to watch them. That night, those white lads were not only taught a lesson in the silky passing and movement of South-American style soccer, they learned that, contrary to their parents’ hopes, soccer is indeed a contact sport. It finished 5-0. Our striker, Peruvian-born Andres Iglesias, went on to be a star of indoor soccer, the odd five-a-side game that flourished for a decade while the proper, outdoor version floundered in the US.
But despite the creation of a Mexican-oriented MLS team in Los Angeles, Chivas USA, soccer at a national level in the United States has not found a consistent way to tap that rich seam of talent. Without a minor-league structure of the sort that sustains baseball, and that characterizes soccer elsewhere in the world, the professional game in the US relies on colleges as an important ‘farm’ system. This works for American football and basketball because of the enormous investment colleges are willing to make in those sports, for the commercial and alumni income they attract. If the players don’t actually manage to earn degrees, well that’s tough, but it’s not relevant to the business model. The tens of thousands of talented Latino soccer players in the US are more unlikely to earn sports scholarships on similar terms; so the system that passes players through to elite level favors whites. Thus the best soccer in the United States America is probably being played in urban parks, in local league structures that don’t have a clear organic connection to the organization of the game at national level. It may be too that US soccer authorities have been loath to select heavily-Latino teams to play for the USA for image reasons as they continue to build the sport among the white middle-classes. But I suspect this sort of prejudice is subordinate to the basic structural problems of the game’s organization.
All that said, the USA has had a very competent men’s team for the last decade, going as far as the World Cup quarter-finals in 2002 before collapsing under the weight of the nation’s indifference and their own limitations against eventual finalists, Germany. They are certainly capable of going that far again this year, especially given the group they’ve drawn. But the real passion for the World Cup in the US will again be in ethnic enclaves, for teams other than the US, rather than in the national media. When I had dinner this week in Brooklyn with my sports-mad and soccer-friendly brother and brother-in-law, both could tell me how they and their children are looking forward to the World Cup, but neither could name more than two or three US players, and they knew nothing of the team’s likely tactics.
The peculiar class structure of American soccer — and it is genuinely peculiar, with nowhere in the world quite like it — has had one unambiguous benefit. The commitment of those Harvard parents, and others of their class, to gender equality has seen the women’s game grow to unprecedented proportions: it is, per capita, several times bigger than women’s soccer even in its most liberal north-European strongholds. The US wins World Cups in women’s soccer, and the media attention generated by the American women has been good for girls all over the world. It is not even out of the question that, some day, the gender bar will be broken in mainstream professional soccer, and, if so, the odds are good it will be an American woman who does it.
Unfortunately, the tactics that have dominated 2010 so far, the Mourinho approach, put a high premium on physical strength, height and speed over skill, balance and artistry. If the trend continues, the glorious day of women’s genuine equality in the Beautiful Game may be postponed indefinitely.