Category Archives: brazil

The ends and the means

On the first day of this year’s Tour de France, cycling pundits expected Manx sprinter Mark Cavendish to win. For the first time in seven years the opening stages were to be held in England, and the first stage would loop through Yorkshire from Leeds to the finishing line in Harrogate. The latter town was where Cavendish’s mother was from, said excited ITV commentators, then, as the pack of riders jostled for position in the last few kilometres, the same commentators feverishly imagined him receiving the yellow jersey from William and Kate having won the stage. Boxed in, Cavendish attempted to elbow himself some room for the final sprint and fell to the tarmac, injuring himself and ending his participation in the competition.

While Cavendish has in the past shown himself more than capable of crashing in the last few metres without any larger narrative affecting his judgement, I couldn’t help feeling that the ‘Cavendish must win’ bandwagon had contributed to the rider’s fate.

A few days later, last year’s Tour winner, Chris Froome – who had been selected as Australian media mogul-owned Brit-pride provocateurs Team Sky’s lead rider at the expense of banter-friendly winner of the 2012 Tour Bradley Wiggins – crashed for the third time in two days and abandoned the race. Sky, by now experts in establishing bulletproof narratives at the drop of a rider, assured gathered journalists that things were fine.

The night before Froome dropped out, Brazil, who many believed favourites for the World Cup despite their relentlessly poor performances, were beaten 7-1 by Germany in the semi-finals. The cutaways to crying women and children in the crowd were a real-time record of the human effects of the collapse of an implausible narrative – and brought to mind those true-life success story connoisseurs who sued Captain America-emulating dope monster Lance Armstrong for lying in his autobiography.

Why do people tie themselves in knots about narrative in sport? Sometimes I think about what sport might be like without these overarching stories of achievement and struggle. Perhaps they’re a necessary part of making professional sport – which often consists of well-matched, well-paid precision engineered athletes enthusiastically swapping shirts at half-time – more exciting. Occasionally football spills into pantomime – with your Ronaldos and your van Bommels – but generally the dullness requires a lick of paint.

Arguably the joys of this World Cup have come from the unexpected successes: the well-drilled Costa Rica, the flair of Columbia, the excellence of Algeria – even the advancement of the usually crackpot France and Holland teams. The lack of expectation surrounding all of these teams has, arguably, allowed them the freedom to flourish.

It seems typical of this World Cup that the final will be contested by Germany and Argentina, two teams whose generally unremarkable performances in the group and knockout stages – although big winners against Brazil and ten-man Portugal, Germany were heavily criticised for their cautious performances in other games – left English commentators grasping for motivation, before settling on this one: Argentina haven’t won the World Cup since ’86 while Germany haven’t since ’90. This time the big story is there is no story.

Posted by Karl Whitney

You can follow Straight off the Beach on Twitter @S_ot_B and on Facebook.

Advertisements
Tagged , , ,

The Tears of Brazil

If this is the greatest World Cup, it is, for a certain type of fan at least, also the cruellest.

Football is awash with sentiment, yet it simultaneously admires those who can discard it. In fact there are a collection of sayings, phrases and unspoken rules that refer to and govern football’s supposed disdain for it. Commentators will praise a team selection for an important game because the manager has left out the half-fit fan’s favourite: “It’s no time for sentiment,” they say. But while the increasing professionalism and athleticism of football means that matches are no longer just sporting contests and occasions for local pride but also events upon which millions and millions of cold hard cash rests, football also repeatedly, pleadingly, imploringly calls out for sentiment. If Roy of the Rovers was a childhood comic full of wish fulfilment and fantasy, those dreams are not lost with age. We still want our hometown boy to lead our team to the championship – witness the commendations flying Steven Gerrard’s way for staying at Liverpool all these years, and the nationwide push for the club at the end of last season, the #winitforstevie hashtag. We still want the underdog to win, and we want the ‘right’ narrative to triumph. There are those set in advance that we want subverted by a Costa Rica, a Colombia, a Chile, a Nigeria, a Mexico, an Algeria; and there are those whose establishment before the tournament only seems to give them extra persuasiveness – Brazil should win on home soil (more on this topic later).

Seeing James Rodriguez’s tears the other night against Brazil, I was prompted to think about the role of sentiment in football. I relied quite a lot on Twitter for that game, as my ITV feed repeatedly crashed, and at the end of the game it was packed with tweets and Vines of Rodriguez crying, and David Luiz first hugging him and then pointing to him and leading a standing ovation for him. The accompanying comments centred on his youthfulness, his openness of emotion, his perceived victimisation by brutish Brazilian midfielders, and the ‘what-if?’ possibility now snuffed out: this boy, this innocent, this wonderful player, ‘should have’ been allowed to go onward in the competition. He somehow deserved it. The professionals in the audience would’ve dryly remarked (as Barney Ronay did, actually, on Twitter) that Rodriguez had only been fouled six times in the match, or that teams tailor their approach to nullify the opposition, or that the pressure is so great on Brazil that it doesn’t matter how they win, just that they do. And they would be right. At least in a sense. They would have looked at the game and accurately reported certain things about it. What they would have neglected though, was the emotional and narrative element of our experience of the game. Outside of Brazil, support seemed pretty unanimously behind Colombia, and this wasn’t just because they were the underdog but because they had arrived at the quarterfinals playing wonderful, exquisite football. A narrative thus built up, one very much reliant on sentiment, on a feeling for the game in which fantasy is real, is possible. In a recent review of Eduardo Sacheri’s novel Papers in the Wind, Tim Benjamin recalled an interview in which “Sacheri related that, ‘Football is one of the few places where the poor can win — or at least that’s our illusion.’ Spectacle, prayer, illusion, faith: these are all synonyms.” While they might not be synonyms exactly, they are certainly interwoven; in football, it is hard to have one without the others. I think we can add sentiment to that list.

That Brazil v Colombia game looks slightly different now, in light of the hosts’ semi-final against Germany. Sentiment, though, is ever-present. Around the Brazil v Germany game also swirled stereotypes, ones we are familiar with to do with Brazil’s history of “flair” and Germany’s of “efficiency.” How far those narratives are or were ‘true’ is not really the point. What is is that they have been operative in various forms. It’s fairly clear to everyone now that they are no longer so. Brazil played awfully against Colombia and were viewed as playing a cynical game, physically targeting Rodriguez. Germany played wonderfully against Brazil and were somewhere between nasty and sublime. The game itself, viewed as a whole, provided the perfect example of football’s conflicted attitude to sentiment. Midway through the first half, television pictures showed us images of Brazilians crying (a young boy followed by a woman; that should be a topic of discussion on its own) at the sight of their team being destroyed. It’s no good saying, like those who don’t like or understand football, that they’re crying over nothing; no-one cries over nothing. While they were crying because their narrative had been upset, they were also crying because that is the only possible response to a spectacle of humiliation and defeat, which is what the game was. In so excessively showing us one group beating another – with all the connotations of violence that word comes with – the game displayed the complete disregard for human frailty that comes inbuilt to competition of this kind. Sentiment forgives human failure. The German team’s performance effected a total destruction of sentiment, of the possibility for sentiment, which football requires as much as the verve and skill they showed. When sentiment is destroyed, we are left with awe and admiration. We shouldn’t have been surprised, though. If the group stages were bacchanals of sentiment, the knock-out rounds have given us cool displays of professionalism. But you can’t view them separately. We love this game, and the power of that love means that the stakes become higher and higher, and because the stakes are so high professionalism is prized because it gets results, and because professionalism is prized, emotions become suspicious because they are unpredictable and risky. But they always rise to the surface: the Guardian‘s front page after Brazil’s defeat featured a picture of David Luiz, eyes red with tears. David Luiz, who spent the aftermath of Brazil’s victory over Colombia comforting a crying James Rodriguez.

Posted by Mark West

You can follow Straight off the Beach on Twitter @S_ot_B and on Facebook.

Tagged ,

A Referee-less World

Why do we hate referees? It’s an obvious question to ask after the cruelty of Fred’s fall in the Croatia match and Spain’s ultimately Dutch-antagonising head start in their opener. I’m hoping this won’t become a theme of the tournament because griping about referees is tedious unless it’s done directly, pantomime style, at the match itself. Nonetheless it’s necessary because refereeing is crucial. Badly refereed games and tournaments leave a sour taste in the mouth, with even the victor being left strangely unsatisfied, like that feeling about half an hour after a McDonald’s meal where you get hungry again because, although your stomach is physically full, your body is completely devoid of any actual nutrition.

But in order to explore the original question we have to look beyond the physical figures of the referees themselves. What does a referee actually do? The referees are there to police the game. They are there to enforce the arbitrary set of binding rules agreed upon by all the contestants, the inherently limiting parameters by which any game defines itself, and makes itself meaningful as a contest, be it between teams, individuals or even a single individual against the system itself. From Starcraft to Solitaire, a game is nothing but a simplified system defined by rules.

Why do we play games? Why do we feel the need to parcel activities within these deliberately limiting systems? We do so for the same reason that scientists use controlled experiments. We limit variables in order to create a model which allows us to explore certain ideas or behaviours in relative isolation, allowing us to answer, or at least speculate upon, questions that real life obscures within its messy complexity. While life itself is undoubtedly just an incomprehensibly gigantic game – according to the definition of game set out above – there are so many interlinking rules and systems that the rules become incomprehensible. Any observer of any game or sport would, given time and inclination, be able to decipher the rules from the game as played. Of course in the sciences and social sciences we have indeed been doing this with the game of life itself, but while I was able to learn essentially all of the key rules within football after a match or two, in the grand search for knowledge we are, for all our progress, still only scratching at the surface of our functionally infinite ignorance.

In games, then, we create a kind of life garden. We territorialise, embody and/or abstract aspects of life that, for whatever reason, we want to explore further. We remove almost all the variables and create a system that, while it can produce incredible complexity, is nonetheless comprehensible in its entirety. I may not be able to win much at chess, or fully understand how the interacting rules influence good strategy, but nonetheless my terms of engagement with chess are utterly transparent. I know that my territory is an 8 by 8 grid, I know exactly how my pieces move and my opponent’s move, that nothing is hidden and that nothing within the game is decided arbitrarily – by rolling a die, for example.  Chess thus becomes a model for rationalism, or rationalistic debate. It seeks to create a contest defined by purely logical reasoning, the system needing to be sufficiently complex enough only to give a strategic depth to that logical reasoning, as opposed to noughts and crosses which could be seen almost as an easy introduction to the concept of logic, one ultimately lacking as a contest because there is not enough complexity to produce doubt – the correct move set for the opening player will win the contest every time.

So the system stands or falls only by the quality of its rules. If the rules are not seen to function, to be consistent or to be fair* within the terms of the game, the game ceases to be a game. It becomes worse than the absence of a game – which would be life – it becomes instead the nightmarish opposite of that controlled garden we sought to create, it becomes a representation of the worst aspects arbitrary, unknowing and randomly cruel nature of the universe, operating without transparency and dispensing rewards and punishments according to pure whim. The difference between a functional set of rules and a broken set is very much like that between the New Testament and Old Testament God, respectively. The New Testament God loves us and sent Jesus to make his rules very clear to us, to provide us with an accessible and understandable route to heaven. The Old Testament God is a vengeful creature of whim, punishing us for disobeying rules we either couldn’t have known or which God himself decided to change without our knowing.

The referee, then, is God. The twenty two footballers are merely playing the game. The referee is the game. Whatever it is we seek to discover or escape from within football’s glorious abstraction exists only at the whim of the referee. The Brazil Vs Croatia match defines this as clearly as any other. A fascinating contest shot through with rich veins of Golithian Narrativium destroyed by the utterly preposterous awarding of a penalty for, at worst, a mere slip. One that did not at any point resemble even the long lost memory of a genuine foul. Thus has the entire world’s faith in football, and thus their faith in games, and thus their faith in our ability to carve meaning and fairness out of life’s harsh rock face, have been undermanned by one man very possibly thinking about a long stay in Sao Paulo and just how much he’d like to see his wife and kids again. To be God is one thing when blessed with omnipotence, another thing entirely when fragilely embodied and surrounded by a hundred thousand baying enemies.

Ultimately, we hate the referees because when they fail, they instantiate that which we sought to avoid in creating the game in the first place. The referee reminds us of the fallibility not so much of the systems we create but rather the fallibility of ourselves and the universe we live in to live up to the elegant beauty of our own abstractions of it. A bad refereeing decision is a cosmic child’s tantrum, upturning the board, scattering pieces everywhere and irreparably destroying the world we were inhabiting within the game.

This hatred is hugely problematic when, as we currently organise football, there can be no game without the referee. However, the nature of the game makes it impossible for us to expect the consistency referees would need to apply to uphold our faith in that game. Referees are the paradox at the heart of football, without them there is no game but the game cannot allow them to exist within it. The best we can do with the current paradigm is to train referees extensively and allow them to rule as consistently as possible by giving them clearest possible parameters to work within, removing ambiguity and providing suitable examples wherever possible and backing this up with a certain amount of collective decision making – subjective judgements are likely to be (but only likely to be, history is littered with examples of the contrary) better when made by a committee of the informed than a single informed individual. But all this presupposes that the modelling effect of games only works in one direction. That we are only removing aspects of life to create a game, when in fact the model then produced has the power to profoundly change the way we look at and behave within the world, and thus change the world itself. In that sense while life is evidently a giant game it’s worth remembering that within that game each and every human being represents a set of rules that, unlike the rules in other games, are able to change themselves and therefore the parameters of the game itself as the game is being played.

Take chess as our example once again. How many idioms relating to contest or conquest to we derive from this board game? How many notions of sound military strategy? Perceptions of hierarchy? Taken to its logical conclusion we could imagine a game so complex and compelling that we use it to test ourselves, that we use it as the central ordering point for society itself, a concept thrillingly explored in Iain M Bank’s ‘The Player of Games’ – a game as a culture, a culture as a game, and the two shaping each other with absolute reflexivity.

How, then, can we imagine a different football? The game only has value when the rules are held to be fair. Who holds these rules to be fair? When I play football every Thursday we don’t have a referee. Fouls are called by the committee of everyone who happens to be there on the day, and the longer term consistency is adjusted and enforced in the weekly post-match conference centre known as the pub. Serious transgressions will be met with stern conversation, peer pressure dictates the norms and polices them very effectively, because the match only exists by virtue of us all turning up to it, and the rules only exist because of our continual consent to be governed by them. Religions are an excellent example of this model of social organisation, for good or ill. The choice to join the group – the ‘faith’ you have – is your affirmation of the agreed upon rules. These rules are policed by ‘referees’ but ultimately their power doesn’t rest in their ability to apply direct sanctions (the religious equivalent of yellows, reds and suspensions) but in the peer pressure applied by the group. This tends to be applied more explicitly and even violently the more cultish a religious group becomes, with questioners of the orthodoxy greeted with banishment and life-long ostracisation.

What would happen if, though, like in our Thursday football we removed this model of fear? The fear of retribution from some higher power? A match that only exists because people turn up, played to rules agreed upon by those who go regularly, and policed by their continual discussion and subsequent consent to those conditions and those changes?

Imagine a football without the referee. Imagine an understanding between footballers and fans that we really are in this together, that this contest before us only has meaning via rules that themselves can only truly be consistent and fair if they are defined and refined via the constant communication and consent of the group buying into them. The only consequence to breaking the rules is ostracisation, but when that ostracisation is from a group you want to be part of it can often be, as Banks points out, consequence enough.

Imagine, then, the model this would provide to society. A refereeless game, each team a canton and each fan and player a voter, changes agreed upon by referenda and implementable with enough of a groundswell. Among Dulwich Hamlet fans the chant of ‘Communism Is Inevitable’ has become a firm favourite ever since this moment of glory from Ian Daly and Robert Molloy Vaughan’s phenomenal celebration of it. This may well be true, but we will know when fully consensual world communism has truly arrived when we see football, at all levels, being played without a referee.

Posted by Seb Crankshaw

You can follow Straight off the Beach on Twitter @S_ot_B and on Facebook.

The Booing of Dilma Rousseff

As the opening ceremony of the World Cup took place yesterday, riot police outside the Árena de Corinthians were administering heavy-handed treatment to protesters, drawing criticism from Amnesty International.  Inside the stadium, as kick-off approached, President Dilma Rousseff was booed, something that continued throughout the match. The same thing happened in Brasilía last year at the opening match of the Confederations Cup but this time it was nastier –– a recurrent chant was ‘Ei, Dilma, vai tomar no cu!’ (‘Hey, Dilma, fuck you!’ or, more literally, ‘Hey, Dilma, go take it up the arse’) and it has been replicated with a hashtag on social networks. There has been a lot of vitriol directed her way of late, much of it unabashedly misogynistic –– she has been called ‘mal comida’ (sour bitch), ‘sapatão’ (dyke), ‘vagabundo’ (tramp). Even many of her critics have baulked at the language used against her.

 

 

Those inside the stadium though are not quite the same people protesting on the streets –– they would need to be seriously hypocritical leftists if they were. As veteran football journalist Juca Kfouri said on ESPN’s Linha de Passe after the game, they were São Paulo’s white elite, who never felt any need to boo or insult successive right-wing leaders who rocked up to sporting events –– he named, in particular, former São Paulo governor Paulo Maluf, a man dripping with corruption allegations but who has never even faced charges in Brazil, but is wanted in the US for conspiracy and criminal possession. Kfouri said that the stadium volunteers he spoke to were visibly upset at the abuse directed at the president –– a hint that many of those were, unlike those able to afford to pay their way in, were not white. Looking at footage of the chanting, it is safe to say that those in the stadium were not very representative of Brazil’s social and racial make-up.

Kfouri was also damning of the referee and said Croatia were robbed –– of Fred, who went down under Dejan Lovren’s slightest touch,  he gave him “5 out of 10 as a centre-forward [surely charitable], 8 as an actor, so 6.5 overall”. There was plenty of support for Kfouri from Brazilians on Twitter, many of whom called the booing a disgrace. Others pointed out he was part of the very same white Paulista elite and that ESPN had nobody but whites on their panel that evening too. Another criticism of him was of being ‘caviar left’, though that is more in line with the shriller criticism of Rousseff’s government, from right-wingers who call it ‘totalitarian’ and ‘communist.’

Rousseff is certainly not blameless. Her government has not handled the protests very well and has been a little too eager to please FIFA (though not near as much as the ANC in South Africa four years ago). The protests against her on the streets though have little to do with the well-heeled Paulistas who booed her yesterday though. It is more from the middle classes who are feeling the pinch of heavy inflation brought about by rapid economic growth and by a high cost of living. Lower down the social scale, her government remains solidly popular, as more and more people are pulled out of poverty and the middle class is expanded. She faces re-election in October later this year and, the protests notwithstanding, she stands to be returned comfortably. People on lower incomes are happy with low unemployment and the tangible anti-poverty measures the successive Workers’ Party governments have implemented. The Brazilian bourgeoisie is beginning to bridle a bit but it is unlikely to rise up in a manner similar to Venezuela, Bolivia or Ecuador. For the moment, boos and insults at expensive sporting events is the only weapon they have.

Posted by Oliver Farry

You can follow Straight off the Beach on Twitter @S_ot_B and on Facebook.

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 https://twitter.com/ctzncorinthian for help in the compilation)
Posted by Murray W

You can follow Straight off the Beach on Twitter @S_ot_B and on Facebook.