Equality Might Not Serve Brazil on Field
‘All in One Rhythm’ - How the recent protests could transform Brazil's national style of soccer
An entire year before the 2014 World Cup begins, the tournament already has its main story line: the people of Brazil, the world's most soccer-friendly nation and spiritual home of the game, have essentially rejected the World Cup. Yet beyond debunking the myth that hosting the competition is both a sacrosanct global privilege and an economic boost, the protests have ramifications for Brazilian soccer that extend well beyond next summer. They are part of a process that could well transform the country's signature national soccer style – and end Brazil's soccer dominance for good.
Historically, soccer has been integral to Brazil's identity. After all, it's the most populous nation on the planet in which soccer is the favorite sport. Winner of a record five World Cups, it's also made soccer a national governmental priority in a way that other countries haven't, spending millions of public funds to promote the game. Although this has been one of the grievances raised by the recent protests, developing soccer a particular way became the cultural expression of what it means to be Brazilian. England has Shakespeare and everyone who followed; Brazil has Pele and his successors. The comparison may seem odd, but it is real.
The identity is rooted in a very distinct soccer style. The national team is known for playing a kind of individualistic, free-wheeling, flashy football that's supposedly as entertaining as it is deadly; a kind of Harlem Globetrotters of world soccer. The image of 'joga bonito' - joyful, carefree play - is ubiquitous: one need only turn on a television screen to see the players dancing in a locker room or juggling their way through airport security.
"Ours is not a collective game," Aldo Rebelo, Brazil's minister of sport, recently said. "In Brazil, what is important is to be an individual. Brazil has always been a specialist at playing with great technical skill and improvisational ability." Often, coaches who don't conform are crucified: When former Brazil coach Dunga tried to make his team play more pragmatically and collectively at the 2010 World Cup, Socrates, one of Brazil’s most respected former players, labeled his tactics "an affront to our culture."
Although successful on the field, Brazil’s style also has an often-ignored dark history. In a country that Eric Hobsawm once termed "the world champion of economic inequality," Brazil's signature soccer was actually the result of extreme societal stratification.
As several writers have noted, Brazil's style is actually rooted in a traumatic history of colonialism. When soccer first took hold, teams were racially segregated and, if a black player ever made contact with a white player - no matter the circumstances - he would be immediately penalized. And so Afro-Brazilian players developed techniques where through feints, shimmies, and extreme control, it was possible to fluidly move past a white opponent without ever making physical contact.
The style was also tied to inequality. Simon Kuper has not been the only journalist to write that in general, less collective and organized societies tend to play more individualistic soccer. Brazil is no exception.
What’s more, it could be that Brazil's emphasis on individual tricks actually embodies a fantasy of social equality in a society which has traditionally been anything but: "[I]n a semi-feudal setting, football is a powerful mechanism for subverting traditional hierarchies," Tim Vickery writes, "And when [a player] does a little shimmy and an opponent clumsily falls to the ground, the roar from the crowd can be almost as loud as a goal. Even if the opponent is quickly back on his feet and doggedly performing his marking duties, he has been publicly humiliated for that split second — a hugely significant moment."
But driven by a rising middle class with visions of equality, Brazil is changing – not fast enough for those demonstrators to be sure – but still changing. And as it changes, the style of the national team could well change too – hardly the first time a country's national soccer has been transformed by cultural changes within the nation itself. As the Netherlands entered a period of increased equality in the late ‘60s and ‘70s, Dutch soccer, once known for its staid, boring style, morphed into 'Total Football' -- a system where players moved seamlessly between positions as traditional hierarchies and power dynamics fell away. Similarly, shifting attitudes about immigration and national identity in France led to a new, racially diverse team and a cosmopolitan tactical approach in the late 1990s, winning the country the World Cup in 1998 and the European championship two years later.
For those two nations not previously known for their soccer prowess, the change in style proved a vast improvement on the field. For Brazil – winner of five World Cups – it may not be. And so we see the paradox of Brazilian soccer: a more egalitarian Brazil will be, without question, a far better country in which to live. But on the pitch, it's possible that formerly the world's best will become just another team.