Ahhh Brazil. Brazil, Brazil, Brazil. Samba football! Caipirinhas! The girl from Ipanema!
Magic aren’t they? Look at them pinging it about, expressing themselves. All that natural rhythm – it comes from the streets you know. Like Pele. Like Ronaldinho! The elastico! That buck toothed grin – like the real Ronaldo, another buck-toothed genius, genius, lightning quick. Like Garrincha, twinkle toed – he had gammy legs! Played from the heart though, played with joy – expressed himself he did. Played with a smile on his face, like Pele! That shot from the half way line. The audacity! You can’t teach that. That’s Samba football no?
That’s the product of one of the most highly professional and ruthless footballing machines ever created. As it is in Brazilian politics, so it isn’t in their football. The audacity, the spontaneity, the expression – it’s trained. Trained by the most consistently cutting-edge and innovative football nation in the history of the game. Take a look at your team. Whoever it is. Flat back four? Full backs pushing forward? Wingers tucking in? It’s just like watching Brazil, and it is so because they either invented or pioneered so many of the features we so associate with modern football.
That samba style? Nowadays they indoctrinate it with futsal but Brazilians have been deliberately training with the ball at their feet since before the English (that’s English, not Scottish) understood the concept of proper passing. Shankly’s revolution in domestic club tactics was how Brazil, organized pressing aside, had been playing since the fifties. Someone like Ronaldinho may well be an archetypal Brazilian footballer, but what we tend to forget is that Lucas Leiva is too. Here’s Brendan Rodgers’ take on him:
We’ll use him to go and look at some games for me, because he’s tactically very good, he’s someone that I’ll get to go with my analyst and look at some games…[he is a player who] understands totally what I’m trying to implement [tactically]…He’s one of the disciples I would say, he understands totally what we’re doing.
Tactical, intelligent and highly professional. These are the qualities which we like to ascribe to ‘continental’ football, but how else to describe the Brazil of 1990? They were somewhat dour, functional, and highly efficient. Gerard Houllier would later win a cup treble with a team that was almost a carbon copy of the 1990’s Brazil, with Michal Owen as Chester’s own non-lothario Romario. Dunga himself updated the template last time around, creating one of the fiercest Brazilian teams I’ve seen, a terrifying mix of excellence in possession, physical imposition and speed on the break. They played a little like Jupp Heynkes’ Bayern Munich and have arguably formed something of a blueprint for the club sides currently exciting football’s chattering classes – City, Liverpool and the Madrids.
Now look at Big Phil’s Seleção. Coutinho? On holiday. Ramires? On the plane.
Brazil don’t play to entertain, they play to win. Anything less is abject failure and Big Phil’s big balls will be stamped upon with gusto from Rio to Iguaçu if he fails to make it number 6 from their unblemished qualifying record, but if they do win you suspect that Brazil won’t be mourning the lack of a Coutinho, just like they don’t moan about the 1994 team’s more prosaic style.
Yet who do we revere? The beloved losers from ’82 who played the best football ever, and a bloke called Socrates who smoked 250 fags a minute, had a fucking massive beard and could pass it through the eye of a cliché blindfolded. The team in ’70 who played in the best final ever, were the best team ever, the high watermark of football history before the game became shite and back when we all just played to attack and for the glory of the game – though of course should you ever sit through the previous 80 minutes of the best final ever you’ll find that a combination of high altitude, sweltering heat and negative tactics created a match that was actually pretty dull until the final 10 minutes, topped ultimately by that admittedly glorious goal by Carlos and that reverse pass by Pele.
That pass. Pele, Pele! Look at him not looking! Not even looking at the pass, a smile on his face. Magical. Telepathic. The audacity! That finish! From a full back! Like wingers they are. Their wingers are strikers, their full backs are wingers and their strikers are Pele, Neymar, the real Ronaldo, Ronaldinho. Smiles on their faces, all of them. Impish. Audacious. Like Garrincha! Magical! He had a disability don’t you know? The wingeriest winger ever and his legs were all bendy. Polio or something, tragic except oh, oh, oh could he play – and he COULD play. Twinkle toes, Samba football is what it is.
Murray W wrote an excellent article here detailing this exoticisation, the fetishistic following of Brazilian football and its reduction to a smiling Benetton cliché while ignoring the brutal reality behind this World Cup’s façade – a subject we will return to at length – particularly as regards Samba music. A Brazilian student of mine agreed wholeheartedly with Murray’s frustration here, as there is a rich and varied musical culture in Brazil, of which samba is just one tiny part. The general attitude to Brazilian music is like reducing all music from the USA to jazz. This patronising stereotyping is typical of our relationship with any country we see as less developed, but as Murray points out, it gets a little deeper when it comes to Brazil and football.
For me we ignore their systematic devotion to football improvement partly because it doesn’t fit in with our image of what they are, but also because it doesn’t fit in with our image of what we want them to teach us. Unlike Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz, we don’t want to see behind the curtain. We don’t want to know that such football comes from graft as much as from the gods. We want to see in them qualities of the noble savage that we simultaneously feel above and sense ourselves bereft of.
George Monbiot articulates some of this in talking about our evolutionary heritage, hunter-gatherer instincts that are ill adapted towards ‘modern’ living but which still drive us and make us delight in the primality of risking our own lives. In a footballing sense this isn’t about wanting to risk our lives, but a desire to return to some mythologised notion of ‘pure’ football, jumpers for goalposts, if you will. It’s Brazil we’ve chosen, more than any other nation, to be our simultaneously wiser but nevertheless inferior neighbour, invested with qualities that stem directly from primitivising them – and that’s the mechanism by which we can patronise while seeming to praise. Poor us, who have lost our spiritual intelligence thanks to our comfortable lives, our money, our cars, our luxuries, our stronger economies, our technology and grasp of the sciences and, *sigh* the ultimate burden of our ‘tough job but someone’s got to do it’ sense of world dominance. If only we could be like them – or, actually, no, if only we could have them as a sort of handy zippedy doo dah friend.
That’s Brazil. The less developed nation who consistently show us the errors of our ways. Brazil, who help show us what the game could be if only we could open our hearts and accept the pure love of football. Brazil, whose second most iconic team is the one that didn’t win but, deary me, didn’t they play so beautifully? Brazil, whose ‘natural’ talents can’t be taught, can’t be bought, but which infuse the whole nation via a samba-driven vibrational osmosis.
Brazil, who we patronise as the magical negroes of football but who, once again, will defy our orientalism and instead play like they always do – with their eyes on the prize.
Posted by Seb Crankshaw