Wednesday, 11 June 2014

The Politics of Sport - Ghosts of Brazil

By Shane Thomas

Let's play a game of word association (a la this scene in Skyfall[1]). I say to you, "Brazil". Your response?

It might not be your first, nor your second, but I'm sure in your top 5 replies would be the word "football"[2]. It's been part of the cultural make-up of Brazil for generations. One could argue that football is the country's greatest export.

Memories abound of the sport played by men in yellow shirts, displaying a verve and elan that would leave those who witnessed it open-mouthed in awe. Taking what is ostensibly an athletic contest, and evolving it into ballet. It might be hyperbolic to proclaim it as Brazil's purest art form, but there's a reason that the phrase joga bonito is one familiar to football fans worldwide. Brazil may not have invented football, but without them, there is no "beautiful game". Just a game.

And as the national team - nicknamed the Selecao - head into their first World Cup on home soil since 1950 (more on that later), the atmosphere around the country is febrile. For two reasons; the pressure on the home team to win the World Cup is immense, while the unrest around the governance of the country rages on.

Brazil's opening match against Croatia is something of a dichotomous event. At the moment it appears that the football will run parallel with the protests, with FIFA and Brazilian President, Dilma Rousseff determined for the twain never to meet.

So when previewing the World Cup, should one focus on the football, or the politics? Well, it's irresponsible not to highlight both. Brian Phillips opined, "The 2014 World Cup team and the street protests are two electrons orbiting within the same atom." This could be the most epoch-making World Cup of them all, and to understand why, we have to go back to 1950. We have to go back to the Maracanazo.

The last time Brazil hosted the tournament, they went into the last match only needing a draw against Uruguay to secure their first World Cup. They had played marvellously, with the final game set to be a mere formality. Celebrations were prepared, the Brazilians had already been proclaimed as World Champions by both their national press, and by the mayor of Rio just before the contest. An estimated 210,000 packed inside the Maracana Stadium to watch their countrymen.

All went to plan when Brazil took an early lead, but a Uruguayan equaliser just after the hour mark set nerves jangling. The Brazilian players and fans were forced to countenance the unthinkable. Sure enough, Alcides Ghiggia scored a second for Uruguay, sealing the trophy for Los Charruas.

The loss left a psychological scar on the Brazilian sporting psyche that seems to have never healed. Tales (likely apocryphal) abounded of two fans committing suicide. Playwright Nelson Rodrigues went so far to absurdly dub it as "Our Hiroshima". The team had always worn white, but never did again. In a rum way, the iconic yellow shirts adorned by the Selecao would never have occurred were it not for this defeat.

And one of the first clear examples of politics mixing with Brazilian football was made manifest. The black players in the team were singled out for criticism, including the goalkeeper Moacir Barbosa. Race is an issue that is yet to be reconciled in Brazil[3]. With the exception of Nigeria, Brazil (as a result of the slave trade) houses more people of African descent than any other nation.

Football is a rare avenue for poor Brazilians (who are disproportionately black) to prosper, and one shouldn't overlook the erasure of people who are both black and Latino/a. Also, the pleasing aesthetic of their game is said to be linked to the martial art of capoeira, which was incepted by black slaves.

For generations, the Brazilian team has been a beacon of black achievement, and not just to its own nation. Comedian, Lenny Henry has spoken of looking up to the great 1970 side as a child, stating how black households throughout Britain marvelled at the skills of the team led by Pele. This is not an anomalous experience to those who are part of the African diaspora.

During Brazil's military dictatorship, President Medici leveraged the success of the national side as a tool to increase "the people's self-esteem". Throughout the historical turmoil in the country, football was one of the few things that would unite the majority of Brazilian citizens.

Now with a democratically elected government[4], Brazil are looking to use the World Cup - and the 2016 Olympics - as a form of "soft power". No longer does President Rousseff want Brazil to just be known for its sun, samba and soccer, but to be seen as an influential force on the global stage. The plan is for these sports events to be Brazil's coming-out party.

But the cost may already be too great. Protests have been a feature of the nation for over a year. While public money has been spent, public services remain largely untouched by the governmental purse. Many Brazilians range somewhere between unhappy and conflicted about hosting the World Cup.

Despite what journalist, Grant Wahl (a journalist I highly respect) has written in this piece, there are not "two Brazils". There is one; a multitudinous mass who may love football, but they love the overall well-being of their country more.

Personally, while I think Brazil has every right to own the narrative of how they are perceived, to do so at the expense of its own citizens is extremely disconcerting. Is public unrest worth getting a seat at the table with nations such as America, France, China, Russia and Japan? In a geopolitical context, Brazil appear to be a country that has spent years being pushed around, but rather than trying to take down the school-bully, they're trying to become them.

So, how does the football tie-in to all this? Well, despite the discord, there's no denying Brazil's passion for the game, and for the World Cup in particular. The team ripped up its initial blueprint under head coach, Mano Manezes, firing him after poor results, and re-hiring Luiz Felipe Scolari.

Despite not coaching a "traditionally Brazilian" style, Scolari coached the Selecao to their most recent World Cup triumph in 2002. Their desperation to regain the trophy after 12 years is a borderline obsession. Brazilian football defines itself by World Cup successes, and the effects of the Maracanazo loom large over everything.

Despite being World Champions on five occasions, that defeat to Uruguay remains the most indelible match in the history of the country's football. While the political ramifications take precedence, one shouldn't ignore the sporting relevance.

The Maracanazo is the equivalent of  Luke Skywalker getting his hand cut off and finding out Darth Vader was his father[5]. This summer is intended to be Luke returning to the scene of the crime, and laying the ghost to rest.

If all goes according to plan, Brazil won't be winning their sixth World Cup. They will be performing a footballing exorcism.

And President Rousseff is potentially banking her political future on the Selecao. In a way not too dissimilar to Britain after the 2012 Olympics, success on the sporting field could buy her a great deal of latitude with the Brazilian people. But only if they triumph[6].

Brazil are simultaneously in a must-win, and no-win situation. Fail in this World Cup, and the ghost of the Maracanazo will continue to haunt the sporting psyche of the country for generations. But if they succeed, the policies of the current government may continue apace.

Through no fault of their own, the Selecao lifting The World Cup could lead to a multitude of transgressions away from the football pitch, and leave a new set of ghosts that could harm Brazil for years to come.

[1] - Which, by the way, has surely got to be in a top 10 of "Most Overrated Films Ever Made".

[2] - Or "soccer", if you're of a North American/Antipodean persuasion.

[3] - Though Brazil is hardly alone in that.

[4] - Although one has to be pretty loose with that definition.

[5] - Shouldn't we be past the moratorium of spoilers regarding the original Star Wars trilogy at this point?

[6] - It's a serious possibility that Brazil could reach the final on July 13th, only to lose to bitter rivals Argentina.

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