In his book Futebol Nation, British journalist David Goldblatt explores the history of Brazilian football and how it links to the social, economical, cultural and, especially, political life of the country. As Goldblatt argues, despite its size and except for the recent surge in its economy, in the almost two centuries of its existence as an independent nation, Brazil has not managed to make a meaningful impact in the world stage. Yet, that statement would be completely false in the world of football, where Brazilian teams, players and style have dominated the imagination of international fans for decades. So football is the perfect excuse to go about analysing what it means to be Brazilian.
Futebol Nation tells the story of how football came to be not only Brazil’s favorite sport, but also how it turned into a way of building national identity in a vast disconnected country, a means of political control in an unequal, fragmented and federalist polity, and an endless resource for art, culture, hope and violence for its largely poor and disenfranchised population.
Goldblatt starts his tale chronologically, with the return, in 1894, of Charles Miller, a Brazilian son of a Scotsman, from his education in England. At his arrival at the port of Santos, in São Paulo, he carried a pair of boots, a rule book and a football. A decade later, football was already a craze in Brazil, with Miller’s passion expanding in São Paulo and other Brazilian-Europeans arriving shortly afterwards with a contagious love of the sport to Rio de Janeiro and other major Brazilian cities.
From here on, although he still works in a mostly chronological order, Goldblatt divides his book in themes which he aligns with what he considers to be distinct eras of Brazilian football: first as an amateur sport for the upper class communities of European expats and its descendants; then, as professionalization became widespread (even if not legal yet), as a sport where the poor, or non-white could become, even so briefly, part of the elite; and so on. Goldblatt’s insistence on dealing with themes, rather than describing a mere sequence of events, does a wonderful job of explaining how football is interconnected with every aspect of Brazilian life. But, for those not initiated with Brazilian history and politics, like me, it can get confusing at certain moments, with his jumps back and forward between years, governments and tournaments.
But, as a whole, the book is a well-written, thoroughly-researched and easily-explained version of Brazilian issues–its racism, its classism, its corruption, its violence, but also its drive, its ever-booming cultural production, and its never-fading obstination with its own defeats–all looked at through the glass of the national obsession that is football.
Goldblatt goes deep into the Brazilian press’s archives to show the ambivalence the country has felt towards the sport since its early days, with some commentators arguing that it could highlight and uplift the nation’s spirits, while others treating it as a mere brute endeavor, and yet others dismissing it as an out-of-place foreign fabrication. He also looks constantly at the works of art (music, films, songs, novels) being produced about football at a specific time, thus creating an image of what the sport meant for intellectuals, artists and consumers of mainstream media. Indeed, media is essential to the history of Brazilian football, from the crônicas that filled newspaper pages, to the ritual of hearing matches in the radio, to the rise of TV rights and the conversion of the sport into the globalized phenomenon which it is today.
The book is largely a tension between those in power (politicians, presidents of clubs and the heads of the Confederação Brasileira de Futebol) trying to seize football from above for their own greedy purposes, and those below (the players, the casual fans, the organized torcidas and all the hopeful prospects) trying to make sense of their position inside in a corrupt industry.
These tensions are best exemplified in the stories of Pelé and Garrincha presented in the book. Teammates in the World Cup champions squads from 1958 and 1962 and widely regarded as the best Brazilian players ever, both had very similar backgrounds, but very different fates. Garrincha was born to a working class family in the state of Rio de Janeiro, while Pelé was born in a remote, poor town of Minas Gerais. Garrincha was ostracized because of the various birth defects which flawed his body, while Pelé’s black race was a constant source of discrimination.
Yet, Garrincha would become known as “Alegria do Povo”, “The Joy of the People”: though fantastic in his gameplay, both with Brazil and Botafogo, he always remained a regular, working-class man, a man of the people, never looking for fame, or fortune, squandering what little he had earned to fund his alcoholism. Pele, in contrast, was “O Rei”, “The King”, the quintessential example of using football to “get ahead.” Years after his retirement, he still takes advantage of his image to advertise and create lucrative business opportunities, and he has not been shy in looking for political power, even becoming a cabinet minister under president Fernando Cardoso’s tenure.
Pelé knew how to work his talent for his advantage. As Goldblatt tells us about him: “After scoring [his 1000th career goal in 1969] he ran to pick the ball out of the net and in seconds he was surrounded, then engulfed, by a horde of photographers and reporters. When he finally emerged from the scrum, it was a schmaltzfest. Pelé dedicated the goal to the children of Brazil and took and endless lap of honour in a especially prepared 1,000 shirt. A senator in Congress wrote a poem to Pelé and read it out loud on the floor of the house. Everywhere else in the world the newspapers led with the Moon-landing of the Apollo 12 space mission. In Brazil, they split the front page.”
But Garrincha was clueless and disinterested in becoming a hero, which is why Brazilian media, constantly looking to create and destroy idols, promptly forgot about him, after retirement and until his death: “After another day of drinking cachaça Garrincha was taken to a sanatorium in Botafogo where he had already a number of episodes in rehab. This time he died in an alcoholic coma. Within hours hundreds were gathering at the hospital. The press, who had not written a word about him for a decade, began to publish a torrent of remembrance. a municipal fire engine, like the one that had carried him through the streets of the city with the 1958 World Cup winners, took his body to the Maracanã.”
The book also tells the story of other Brazilian greats, and their investment, or lack thereof with politics, such as Sócrates commitment to the Democracia Corinthiana, and, at the end, succeeds at explaining how football moves Brazil. Such is the case the success of the Partido dos Trabalhadores (Dilma Rousseff’s and “Lula” da Silva’s party), which is partly linked to football and the 2014 World Cup, and such was the case with the 2013 protests around Brazil which coincided with and were amplified by the Confederations Cup held in the country.
Goldblatt asks himself in a coda added in February of 2014, if the movement that sparked those protests can, in a country still plagued by corruption, polarization and inequality, bring forth positive change. But after a successful staging of a World Cup and a new victory by the PT, this yet remains an open question.
* On Wednesday, November 19th, David Goldblatt will give a free talk (open to the public) on the globalization of English football at the Theresa Lang Center (55W 13th Street, second floor) at The New School in New York City. Sign up here for the event. Or see more information here.