Brazilian mirages

While exotic othering is often referred to in terms of the systemically prejudicial discussion of Middle Eastern, African or Asian cultures, in British popular culture and particularly football the principle exoticisation is of Brazil. My dad’s generation got hooked on the ’58, ’62 and ’70 World Cup winning sides as the bossa nova wafted into their ears (ignore the coup, think of Ipanema!), then my own fell for Zico, Socrates (the iconic wafer-thin, underworked, chain smoking, socialist doctor), Eder and Falcao in Espana ’82. It didn’t matter that they didn’t win as our exposure to their glorious strikes and celebrations – in the first tournament to be given comprehensive coverage in a UK-friendly timezone – had done its job.
These Brazilians – if they’re any good they assume a one-word mnemonic, their real names left to the pub quiz master. They seem to play without restrictions, with a ‘smile on their faces’ etc. Well, any savvy member of the Brazil national team knows that the Seleção plays a unique role in the projection of the country’s uniquely ‘mulattoist’ self-image (the days of racial separation and exclusion long gone, officially at any rate), and has a complicated relationship with that projection. The Seleção and their continued adherence to the jogo bonito are vital in Brasília’s projection of soft power.
The myopic exoticisation has many knock-on effects, such as Pele still being seen as the world’s best rather than the stocky but wayward Argentine who was clearly better than him, the yellow jersey bearing the Ordem e Progresso legend being the most popular football top on our streets after the usual domestic and continental suspects, and a general willingness to ignore the reality of some recently stiff sides compared with the halcyon days of ’70 and ’82. It also extends to conveniently ignoring the parlous state of the Brazilian league system (with players still treated as import opportunities and mystification when a player returns to Brazil still in his prime or fails to leave early enough in his career), and the rampant hooliganism of the big clubs’ torcidas organizadas.
What is it about Brazil that gives it this primacy in our exoticising of Latin America? With the ethnic mix not as recognisably ‘European’ as Argentina, Chile and Uruguay, maybe the westerner still thinks about Brazil with a colonist’s mind, able to take what he wants from the country while rarely putting anything back. Think Barry Manilow ripping off Jorge Ben’s Taj Mahal for Copacabana. And it’s in music where we find the other major lazy stereotyping towards Brazil. If one part of the dream of Latin self-liberation is to play football on the Copacabana, the other is to follow it up with Carnival! Here the ‘wild’ percussion and melodies act as cheap hedonistic shorthand for ‘PAAARRRTTAY’, as is evident in Norwich’s playing of the Heartists’ Belo Horizonti (with extra clappers at Carrow Road these days).
So: we generally love Brazilian music but know little of its specifics beyond Mas Que Nada and a few others. We love to lose ourselves in the generic brew but leave the specialists to ask for details. Such reluctance feeds the industry urge to throw the highly diverse Brazilian music world in with the even more generic ‘Latin’ category. And now, with the tournament upon us, advertising agencies are steaming in with outrageously trite ‘samba party’ clichés, as is evident in the Pot Noodle advert below and this one for M&Ms.

Now that the world cup is returning to Brazil, ironically the leagues of British exoticists will have a chance to place the deluge of samba stylings on TV shows and the interchanges of Neymar and co in the clear context of the problems confronting the nation: Rio’s programme of favela pacification (brutal, with many seeing it as a prelude to gentrification), a downturn after the consumer-led boom, and a quite unjustified overspend on infrastructure for this and the 2016 Olympics are driving regular protests at what many see as the country’s misplaced priorities. The pricing out of poorer groups from the shiny new stadia also tells its own story. [As an aside, the sporting bodies’ choice of Brazil follows some punitive bastard logic – two huge rounds of infrastructure investment – there is less overlap than might be imagined between football stadia and sporting facilities.] Among some highly conditioned Brits we know that the ongoing and social fissures are not likely to make much of an impression, yet it would still be one of Brasilia’s greatest soft power plays if it manages to damp much of the disquiet so we just ‘concentrate on the football’.
And if you are hosting a match and want to prolong the night with a potted history of Brazilian music from Elza Soares and Jorge Ben via northeastern Manguebeat to more modern baile and drum & bass stylings, then hit the playlist below. 
(props to for help in the compilation)
Posted by Murray W

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2 thoughts on “Brazilian mirages

  1. […] W wrote an excellent article here detailing this exoticisation, the fetishistic following of Brazilian football and its reduction to […]

  2. […] the European consciousness, resonating with memories of previous sides to create the collective Brazilian mirage – one that in my view belittles their spectacular footballing achievements […]

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