Stealing back the game

As the World Cup begins in earnest, Harley Filben examines the tense political background

Football has been a very political sport in Brazil: at times, it has been a focal point for nation-building and state prestige; at others, for democratic resistance to military rule. The appointment of managers to the national team has been loaded with political significance. And the 2014 World Cup is probably even more political for Brazil than it usually is for the host country.

By the time Brazil gained independence from Portugal in 1825, the latter was already almost defunct as a first-rank world power. It had been reduced to a dependency of the British empire, a sort of imperial sub-contractor and, as Spanish and Portuguese colonies in Latin America separated themselves off from their Iberian masters, they immediately found themselves falling under British influence - a pattern of semi-colonial dependence that has, since World War II, become very familiar to us.

British influence manifested itself, naturally, not only through global political alignment, but also through far more important matters - British expatriates brought with them their football. The Brazilian elite identified itself as white and European, unlike the masses. Football, at that time, was still heavily associated with the English public school system: an interregnum between its origins as a peasant sport and later existence as a mass, popular phenomenon.

Apocryphally, the Duke of Wellington is supposed to have said that the battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton; English sport in this form was admired by those with an attachment to aristocratic elitism, including also Pierre de Coubertin, founder of the modern Olympics. As an ex-colony with aspirations to greatness, Brazil’s metropolitan elites took to football very rapidly.

Rapidly, as well, it spread out to wider society. The first football clubs in Brazil had been founded in the 1890s; by 1910, São Paulo railway workers founded Corinthians FC, named after a London club touring the country. By the end of the 1930s, Brazil was fielding a national team, and its players became famous for a then-unique style of play, characterised by great individual showmanship. The ‘European’ elite lost its monopoly for good; Brazilian football was described by the sociologist, Gilberto Freyre, as a febrile mix of the European, African and South American cultures - a perfect expression of the “mulatto nation”. And football’s symbolic importance has translated into the most World Cup trophies - five - won by any country.


Today, things are looking less rosy for Brazilian football. Its authorities have been hit repeatedly since the turn of the new millennium by corruption scandals, and have been blighted by cronyism. The successful bid to host the World Cup was supposed, again, to be a grand exercise in nation-building - just as the post-war era saw football incorporated into Brazilian civic republicanism, with the hosting of the 1950 World Cup and the construction of the grand Estádio do Maracanã in Rio de Janeiro; and the era of military dictatorship saw junior army officers dispatched to manage teams; so this year’s tournament was supposed to tell the Brazilians a story about their new strength. This tournament was to put the B in Brics - and burnish the legacy of Luís Inácio Lula da Silva, two-term president for the socialist turned social-liberal Workers Party.

Up to now, however, the gambit has certainly backfired on Lula’s successor, Dilma Rousseff. Last year, Brazil’s cities erupted into mass protests; what started as a minor dispute over bus fare hikes ended in protestors being tear-gassed, while the simmering resentment resulting from Brazil’s infrastructural decay boiled over. Football, once again, got sucked into the vortex - Brazil has spent a staggering $11 billion on the World Cup, more than any host in history. To pay for that, the popular classes have inevitably suffered. Protestors gave Freyre’s “mulatto nation” an ironic twist: they complained of paying European taxes for African public services.

Like most spontaneous outbursts of public anger, the protests met with a lot of repression and a few concessions, but fizzled out quickly. Yet anger has not gone away completely. As I write, São Paulo metro workers are threatening a strike in the opening days of the tournament, and protests numbering 10,000 or so - obviously, smaller than last year, but hardly insubstantial - are taking place (and, naturally, being met with tear gas).

How far into the tournament this will last is doubtful - we remember the London Olympics, which saw plenty of grumbling at the lavish expense swept away by £25 million worth of opening ceremony. (Readers have the better of me on this score - by the time this paper appears, the opening game of the tournament, pitting the hosts against Croatia, will likely be in progress.) Underperformance of the national team, however, has frequently been the subject of national soul-searching rather more intense than the bitter griping beloved of the English sporting press. With underlying social tensions clearly still present - and disturbances in the vast shanty towns - it is not hard to imagine things getting ugly.


And the Brazilian definition of underperformance is exacting, to say the least - even victory in 1994 was tainted by the boring, defensive style of play that won it, on penalties at the end of an excruciating 0-0 draw. Sad to say, that tournament was something of a taster of things to come. The flamboyant genius of classic Brazilian football has been supplanted, in the current era, with the Spanish tiki-taka approach - chain up short passes in midfield, tiring out the opposition defence, until they can be drawn out of formation long enough to strike. Lesser teams typically play very defensively, putting 10 men behind the ball and hoping for a lucky break on the counterattack.

From the spectator’s point of view, this is - at best - a mixed bag. Some teams playing the Spanish style can, in their own way, be great to watch; albeit it is a kind of admiration of the rigorous discipline and organisation necessary to make it work rather than the ecstasy of a grand spectacle - something like the odd beauty of Oscar Niemeyer’s Brasília. Often, however, a great team like reigning champions Spain face the stodgy conservatism of an international minnow without significant success; such games approach the teasing caricature presented in The Simpsons, where the sight of three midfielders aimlessly passing the ball around bores the crowd to the point of rioting. National football teams consider themselves too big to fail; thus international tournaments are becoming more boring.

The World Cup protests are a sharp expression, most of all, of the highly unequal nature of Brazilian society, and the unevenness of its development. They are also an index, however, of some of the shine coming off the beautiful game. In England, the top flight has come to be an ugly reminder of the position of this country in the global order: the perfect place to launder your ill-gotten gains, provided those gains are sufficiently spectacular. As people gripe about the obvious inadequacy of the national team, in the subtext is the complaint that the Premier League in particular is now a toy box for capricious oligarchs; that gate prices have put game attendance largely in the hands of Roy Keane’s prawn sandwich brigade.

Likewise, consistent efforts to get more money into Brazilian football have come at a cost. Having been seized from the elites in the first half of the last century, the game has come not exactly full circle, but has landed in the laps of the new middle class that arose from the country’s recent ascendancy as a major ‘emerging market’.


The flood of vast quantities of cash into the game - very unevenly, like everything else in capitalist society - has the effect of deforming the game from top to bottom. As Fifa, the sport’s ruling body, brings the circus to Brazil, so inevitably is it hit with a fresh round of corruption scandals, this time against Mohamed bin Hammam, Fifa’s Qatari representative. It is alleged by The Sunday Times (June 7) that Hammam spent millions of dollars in bribes to ensure the success of the tiny Gulf state’s bid to host the tournament in 2022 - he even offered a lucrative natural gas pipeline to Thailand as a quid pro quo.

The imbroglio has drawn concerned press releases from major sponsors of the Qatar tournament, like Sony and Visa, and a bizarre broadside from the oafish Fifa president, Sepp Blatter, calling the investigations “racist” (we fear he is even looser in his usage of the term than the Socialist Workers Party). Fifa corruption is one of those things that ‘everyone knows’ about, of course, but is rarely pursued with any energy. The wounded national pride of the English probably spurs on The Sunday Times - after all, Qatar got 2022 the same year that the two Davids, Cameron and Beckham, were spurned in the bid for the 2018 World Cup, which in the end went to Russia.

Fifa remains somehow untouchable, however: it behaves like a kind of jealous god, demanding tribute ($11 billion!) in return for bestowing gifts of dubious value. In Brazil, that is all too clear. The necessary sacrifices include much of the basic requirements for life in a modern country, so that sufficiently glittering stadia might be constructed. Close to a billion dollars has been spent, moreover, on security; if you have chosen to serve Fifa rather than the masses, the latter can only be met with repression when they get uppity.

Behind the glamour and drama of the World Cup (not to mention the Olympics), there lurks the need to control everything - to turn Brazil, for a moment and within striking distance of the games, into a small police state. If you want a picture of contemporary football, you might be tempted to pick a portrait of Lionel Messi at his best. But perhaps a better image would be the armoured body and blank visor of a Brazilian riot cop.