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Brazil is not for beginners

Brazilian football supporters playing music and waving flags
action images

There is a wonderful Brazilian expression which holds that “a lie has short legs.” It won’t get you far.


Honesty is usually the best policy, especially at the start of a relationship. So while I’m delighted to start a series of weekly articles for sambafoot.com, there is one protest I have to register - the name.


Let me explain. There is a TV programme on which I often appear in Brazil, a round table debate on Globo’s cable channel, SporTV. I presume they invite me to provide a foreign perspective. The other journalists are Brazilian.


On one programme a few weeks back the local journalists were moaning about the coverage given by the international press to the Brazil national team, and in particular to the fact that hardly three words go by without the use of the word ‘samba.’ I was asked if I was part of this process, and could happily reply that no, these days I make a conscious not to go down this road. Because I can understand their frustration. I groan in the same way reading the headlines in the Brazilian press after a defeat for England - ‘The Queen will not be amused,’ and other such nonsense.


Of course, the movement and rhythm of music have an influence on the approach to football of different cultures and nationalities. “Show me the way a man dances,” said one prominent South American coach, “and I will tell you how he plays football.” The pounding of the drums and the sway of the hips are vital to the tradition of Brazilian football, where not all the steps are to be believed - some are feints designed to fool the opponent.


But all the samba stuff can be exaggerated. First, Brazil is huge, and samba is not the rhythm of preference in much of the country. The last man to lead Brazil to World Cup glory was Luiz Felipe Scolari, who like many of today’s top Brazilian coaches comes from the south, a region much more influenced by mass European immigration. It is not easy to imagine Scolari dancing the samba.


Secondly, even in its heartland of Rio, samba is not particularly successful with the current generation - though they do love a rather dull derivative called pagode.
And third and most importantly, simple sloganeering about samba can lead to profound misunderstandings about the nature of Brazilian football.


A country of immigrants, Brazil has been mytholigized out of all recognition, a process in which Rio’s Carnaval has played a fundamental role. The annual celebration was used to create and divulge the concept of a national identity, of a fun-loving, happy people in a permanent state of dancing celebration. Back in the 1930s, promoting this image was of great interest to Getulio Vargas, a relatively benign and paternalistic tropical version of Mussolini. He sponsored the show, giving subsidies to the samba schools who put on the parade - in return, the theme had to be Brazil, which had to be addressed in positive terms. It was a propaganda coup.
The reality, of course, was that life was not Carnaval. Indeed, the very essence of the Carnaval was that for a few days reality was turned on hits head. The poor dressed up as the rich, in an attempt to cast off the limitations of their daily lot in the country that the eminent historian Eric Hobsbawm once described as “the world champion of economic inequality.”


Similar myths have stuck to the national sport. Brazilian football has often been portrayed as a Carnaval in boots, the players taking the field more interested in self expression and enjoyment than in winning the game, happy to concede five goals as long as they can score six, and happy even if they don’t.


It is over 14 years ago now, but I still wince when I think of the first article I ever wrote for ‘World Soccer’ magazine. It was a player profile of Carlos Germano, the Vasco da Gama goalkeeper who ended up going to France 98 as reserve to Taffarel.
As his name suggests, Carlos Germano is of German descent, and grew up in a small town predominantly made up of immigrants from the old country. His inclusion I the national team, I argued in lamentable ignorance, was the perfect blend - some German defensive steel to underpin the Brazilian flair.


The facts, however, point in the opposite direction. Brazil’s World Cup defensive record is far superior to Germany’s and always has been.


Brazil. after all, invented the back four, with its key concept of extra defensive cover. They won the World Cup with it in 1958, with the most stereotypically ‘Brazilian’ of all their sides, containing both Pele and Garrincha. For all their attacking brilliance, a mean spirited defence was vital to the cause - Brazil did not concede a single goal until the semi final against the free -scoring French. Twelve years later, the legendary 1970 team were also ahead of the game in terms of their defensive awareness. When they lost possession the key idea was to bring everyone bar centre forward Tostao behind the line of the ball. Coach of that side Mario Zagallo told me that he was happy to see his team as a prototype of the 4-5-1 formation.
The idea that Brazilians would rather have fun than win is totally false - tell it to a local TV executive and he will laugh in your face. Victory is everything. Formula One has great viewing figures - when a Brazilian is in with a chance of winning. Minority sports such as tennis and even gymnastics become high profile when Brazilians are successful. A couple of local journalists have recently told me exactly the same phrase - in their view their compatriots don’t really like sport - they like victory.
Perhaps this is one explanation for the disappointing crowd figures in Brazilian football, since only one club can be champion. How can we explain that in supposedly football crazy Brazil, the average crowd in the first division is lower than that in the United States’ Major League Soccer? Indeed, the first FIFA inspection report mentioned that one of the objectives of the 2014 World Cup was to increase the number of people watching domestic games.


None of this meets the prevailing stereotype of football in Brazil. But then again, as the bossa nova star Tom Jobim liked to say, ‘Brazil is not for beginners.’ After nearly 17 years in the country, my view is that reality is nowhere near as enticing as the myth - and it contains much less samba. But the real story is much more interesting.


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