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Tim Vickery Column: Farce of 2014 may take longer to recover from than tragedy of 1950

Aldo Rebelo, Brazil's sports minister
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One of the highlights of my not very impressive career as an interviewer.

A couple of years ago I interviewed Aldo Rebelo, Brazil’s Sports Minister.  We were talking, of course, about the World Cup, and he referred to what happened to Brazil on the Maracana pitch in 1950 as ‘a tragedy.’

Suddenly, a flash of my college studies from so long ago came back to my mind.  Rebelo, of course, is a member of the Communist Party, which made the memory all the more relevant.

“Does that mean,” I asked, “that if 1950 was a tragedy, then 2014 will be a farce?”  The source is one of the most famous quotes of Karl Marx (in a reflection on the nineteenth century French decline between Napoleon and his nephew, the German political philosopher reflected that history repeats itself, “first as tragedy, than as farce.”)

Rebelo smiled.  He recognised the reference, but decided it had no application to the situation at hand.  “Not a chance,” he said.

But in the event he was wrong.    For what could be more farcical than the extraordinary collapse of Luiz Felipe Scolari’s Brazil in that fateful semi final against Germany?  Well, perhaps the bizarre fact that David Luiz, the biggest villain of the massacre of Belo Horizonte, is still seen by many as the hero of the national team.  Or that, with next to no time for debate and reflection, Dunga was hurriedly re-appointed to coach the national team – sending out a message that there is nothing fundamentally wrong that a tweak of mentality cannot solve.

What else could be more farcical?  Maybe the fact that, despite paying salaries many times higher than the rest of the continent, Brazilian clubs have proved unable to qualify one team for the semi finals of the Copa Libertadores.  Or that for all the money coming in, the debts of Brazilian clubs keep getting bigger.  Or that the clubs hope that the government will allow them to refinance their debts without asking for fundamental changes in return.  Or that average crowds in the United States’ Major League Soccer are higher than those in the Brazilian first division.  Or that Brazil’s big clubs continue to go along with a calendar which is so obviously harmful to their interests.  There could probably be no bigger farce than the continued existence, in the form currently used, of the thoroughly obsolete State Championships.

1950 was a tragedy in the sense that losing the final game to Uruguay appeared to many at the time as a symbol of the inherent weakness of the Brazilian people.  In an era when eugenic theories were still widely believed, the idea of a multi-racial society still seemed to many inherently flawed and dangerous.  Yet this mode of thinking could already be exposed at the time as retarded.  Victors Uruguay, symbols of fibre and moral strength, were as multi-racial as the Brazilians.  And anyway, eight years later, with ‘the Ethiopian Prince’ Didi the brains of the side, and Garrincha and the young Pele wreaking havoc on opposing defences, any such ideas of inherent inferiority were shown up as arrant nonsense.  The tragedy of the Maracana left its mark on those who were there – I knew a man who attended that game and found the sadness so overwhelming that he never returned to the stadium.  But by 1958 there was no reason for others to keep lamenting.

The farce of 2014 in large part is a defeat for Brazilian football rather than for Brazilian society (though this point needs qualification.  The continued existence of the State Championships is a direct consequence of the semi-feudal organisation of Brazilian football, and the grip of conservative power structures that continue to hold great sway in society).   What happened in 2014 will not bury itself as deep in the Brazilian soul as the tragedy of 1950.  But wading through all the farce, this time the fear is that it might take the Brazilian game a bit longer to recover.


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