Brazilian football is dead for the sixth time (disclaimer: this contains irony)

(Warning: this is a football post, but there is some culture embedded in it. I promise.)

Brazilians are so arrogant about their football that any defeat of their Seleção is immediately considered an embarrassment. Victories without style are almost as worthless. Coming second is a disaster. That is understandable in a nation that lifted every trophy and inspired footballers and fans across generations. Truth be said, in no other walk of life Brazilians allow themselves to be so self-confident. But in the last few years things have changed; fewer talents, short-sighted coaches, even more corrupted officials and one unforgettable World Cup hammering at home have made Brazilians turn again into football maniac depressives. Now, as some times before, they say their jogo bonito has passed on. They probably think that is a very original premise, but it is actually quite an old one.

That sentiment also shows a curious cultural characteristic of my countrymen, one that often spreads to foreigners and to other walks of life: Brazilians don’t cope well with the destruction of often unreasonable expectations. Here, it is do or die. Or, as we say it, 8 or 80. The Seleção is a great symbol of that sentiment.  The arguments that many consider to bring victory are often result of poor judgement (“It is our turn,” “Our adversaries will shake when they play us,” and “We are on the top of football’s hierarchy” are some.) When they sink to expect disaster, they overlook the reasons that, in the end, make their team succeed against their bets. Since the Seleção is a much less personal experience than supporting a club here, the masses are often very aloof and wrong about their team.

That became evident once again when Brazil were knocked out of Copa America, a tournament they never cared too much about. Although they will deny it in public, most Brazilians for the first time expected a win so they could forget the 7-1 defeat about one year ago in the World Cup semifinals. They surely made an effort not to look interested enough in the group stage, but against Paraguay, as ratings suggest, there were more people watching it. Losing on penalties, just like four years ago, made most of them go hard against coach Dunga’s old ideas and ignore that now Brazil has more potential than they did last year. Unless the Seleção cruises through World Cup qualifiers, local fans will see it as an underdog in Russia 2018. Just like they saw all their World Cup winning sides…

When expectation is very high, Brazil fails miserably and their fans rarely see it coming. That was the case in the 1966, 1978, 1982, 1998, 2006, 2010 and 2014 World Cups. When they are not supposed to win, pressure is down and they have a better chance to thrive. Out of their five World Cup winning teams, only the 1962 squad was actually held as favorites before the tournament began in Chile. In 1958, Brazil was still overcoming the racist criticism pointing their finger at mixed-raced teams like theirs. In 1970, coach João Saldanha was fired just months before the World Cup and the team wasn’t impressive in friendlies. The 1994 winners were the first Brazilians to ever lose to Bolivia in qualifiers. The 2002 side was so dreadful one year before that they had lost to Honduras at Copa America.

Although many excited fans and journalists love to pronounce the death of Brazilian football (I have to say I took part in a series of that kind for FourFourTwo magazine in 2012), that is far from actually happening. Since Brazil became a football powerhouse, that assertion came over and over and over. Death one was in the 1966 World Cup in England, after Pelé was kicked out of the tournament by the Portuguese and Brazil had their worst campaign to this day, dropping out in group stage. Brazil considered dozens of players for the squad because they thought they had too much talent to waste. In the end, they fell to pieces. Striker Eusebio and Portugal were supposed to be their successors, because of the organization, talent and fitness that an aged Brazil side had lost. England won.

Death two a couple of years before the 1970 World Cup. Brazil was seen as an unimpressive and slow paced team. A 30-year-old Pelé, disappointed with their performance four years before, didn’t even know whether he was going to play in Mexico or not — and many critics said the Seleção was finished without him. Some of the acid comments were also political; the team was transformed into a propaganda tool for the military dictatorship (1964-1985), despite having a communist coach. João Saldanha was brought in basically to calm his colleagues in journalism down. After a rift between the coach and dictator Emilio Medici, Mario Zagallo was brought in months before the tournament. The result was the one of the most magnificent teams of football history, if not the most magnificent.

Death three was in Germany 1974. With no Pelé on the pitch, it was all down to new number 10 Roberto Rivellino. Brazil was dull. They lost to Holland in the semis and fans were sure that the days of talented players were about to be over. German power and Dutch flair were much beyond our players. But in that very year a young kid called Zico started taking over. Other brilliant players followed; Socrates, Falcão, Eder, Cerezo, Roberto Dinamite, Careca… It was just a matter of time. Even in World Cup defeats in 1978 and 1982, everyone agreed Brazil had come back from the dead again. With power and talent of a generation that didn’t win, but still dazzled the world.

Death four was a long one. It started with the disappearance of that brilliant generation, in 1986. Brazil lost to France on penalties in World Cup quarter-finals, with less power and talent than the public expected. Their replacements were still too young and fans couldn’t see it. Romario, Bebeto and even Dunga showed a lot of potential in their clubs and in Brazil’s academy. When they took over in 1990, they failed miserably against Argentina in the round of 16. They were labelled as Dunga age players, the ones that had killed Brazilian football forever. It didn’t matter they had faced Maradona in Italu 1990 and Argentina were the defending World Cup champions.

The corpse smelt worse in 1991, when Brazil lost to Colombia for the first time. Now that seems to be normal, but back then it was a massive shame. It was as if no one in Colombia knew how to kick a ball. Two years later, that same Colombian generation would destroy Argentina 5-0 in Buenos Aires. When the Seleção was beaten by Bolivia in La Paz in 1993, Brazilians felt they were out of the World Cup for the first time. After all, they thought it would be almost impossible to beat an almost disqualified Uruguay side at the Maracanã stadium in the final round… They were wrong again and Brazil won 2-0. Although the World Cup title didn’t come in great fashion, one can hardly say that a champion’s football is still dead.

That victory led to some peace for a few years. The defeat in the 1998 World Cup final wasn’t seen as another death of Brazilian football at first, but it certainly wasn’t seen as if the French deserved it. It was all our fault. We even had a congressional inquiry on the Nike sponsorship deal under the suspicion that Brazilian legends like Ronaldo, Roberto Carlos and Cafu could actually have played with less intensity so France could win 3-0. That set the scene for a short-lived but intense fifth death. In 2001, after two coaches were fired because of bad results in qualifiers, the Seleção was eliminated of Copa America by tiny Honduras. The World Cup was only months away. Stars Ronaldo and Rivaldo weren’t supposed to play. But they did and Brazil won their fifth and last crown in Japan.

In the last decade, Brazil has played magical football, unlike some say, mainly in 2004 and 2005 with a few glimpses every now and then. For most of it it was surely boring, obsessed with winning and uninspiring. In style, now it lags behind recent efforts by Spain and Germany. In South America, Argentina clearly has a better generation overall and one genius in Leo Messi. A few big names still made the difference for Brazil until a few years ago, but after 2010 there is a clear talent drought. Although the 2014 World Cup team was one of the worst in the last few decades, Brazilians in denial expected it to win. After Germany frustrated them in glorious fashion, Brazilian football was pronounced dead again. The recent Copa America elimination is supposed to be the nail on the coffin. Is it?

No, it isn’t. But most Brazilian fans (and that includes many journalists) can’t see it now. Now Brazil has a more experienced Neymar, the one out of this world player they have. They can have a talented number two in Oscar (Chelsea), who didn’t play at Copa America due to injury (just like two other key players of the starting lineup). They now have other young players who are in leading roles in Europe — Philipe Coutinho (Liverpool), Roberto Firmino (Hoffenheim, soon Liverpool), Douglas Costa (Shaktar Donetsk, soon Bayern Munich) and Danilo (Benfica, soon Real Madrid). Those surely have more potential than their 2014 World Cup predecessors. Maybe that won’t be enough for a title in Russia 2018, but they seem to be promising for 2022.

But that is to wait for too long, Brazilian fans will say. Our culture is of immediate results or else don’t even think about it. When they have their expectations frustrated, in football or in anything else, Brazilians want to let it all out as much as they can, even when they don’t think that the situation is that complicated. That stops many of them from knowing where they failed. That is why our criticism is often void. We talk about enthusiasm, believing in yourself, good ideas and working hard, as if others weren’t capable of doing exactly the same. To address the issues in Brazilian football or in any other area, one needs to know that changes here come slowly. When you hear Brazil’s economy is doomed, politics here were never this mean and football was never so boring…

Take a seat and relax before you do something: we have surely been there before.

 

World Cup one year on: missing those great days despite missed opportunities

Brazilians went mad when a FIFA executive admitted Russia and Qatar could lose rights to host the next World Cups if there is proof they corrupted the process. No, it wasn’t because of a potential vote buying scandal. “Send it back to us,” “We are ready to do it again,” and “Give it back so we can lose to Germany once more” were some of the most common reactions in social media. Who would have thought of hearing that one year ago, in the middle of the global wave of defeatism and the blame-Brazil-for-the-worst-World-Cup-ever discourse?

(To be honest, I did think everyone would love it. It is in many posts in the archives.)

The only Brazil World Cup disaster deserving of that name

As it is now clear, most people here keep their criticism about the immediate costs of the tournament. Many of the projects that were delayed now seem to be forever delayed, which shows a disgraceful lack of commitment from authorities to their countrymen. Still, Brazilians have little doubt about the success of the World Cup organization. Not only none of the pre-World Cup horror stories were confirmed, but also foreigners enjoyed being here. As a German colleague told me after the final, “Brazil is great, it feels more normal than the expected.”

It is only fair that one year on most of the stories about World Cup legacy will involve overpriced stadia that are still empty, like Brasilia’s and Manaus’. Those two, among others, came about because of political reasons. Their cost is highly suspicious and I have a hunch they will somehow appear in the ongoing FIFA scandal snowball. The FIFA standard arenas that make sense, including those in big capitals like Rio and Belo Horizonte, are now so mismanaged that they are often as unoccupied as the ones where professional football is a fantasy.

But one year ago the problems that the media cared about were in the organization. There were stories of arenas collapsing during the tournament, dengue fever outbreaks, fans and teams being stranded in unfinished airports, a security crisis with unpredictable results, protests that would disrupt roads, subways and every possible means of transportation, riots after Brazil was hammered by Germany… The list could go on and on. All the catastrophic predictions were wrong. They were wrong because they were based on a provincial mindset.

One of those provincial traits that persist is the bashing of the World Cup for the fact it hasn’t brought immediate economic development to Brazil. Whoever buys that argument fails to understand that big sporting events are not meant for that — they are a marketing opportunity for the country and a good means to speed up construction that would have taken so much longer to build. In Brazil’s case, for the sake of argument, it would have taken even longer than it did. A very clear example of that are the improvements for São Paulo’s arena, which sits in a degraded region. Or in Salvador’s subway system.

Another mistake is to believe that Brazil spent so much in the World Cup that it made investments in healthcare and education impossible. The price tag I consider inexcusable is the US$ 5 billion on stadia. That should never have been spent. But Brazil spends US$ 50 billion every year on healthcare. Every year. The country invests US$ 30 billion on education. Is that enough? Maybe it isn’t. But it surely isn’t the construction or renovation of stadia for once in decades that stopped presidents Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva and Dilma Rousseff from investing elsewhere.

By the way, Lula and Rousseff are also partly responsible for the tone of the pre-World Cup debate in Brazil. After Brazilians took to the streets in June 2013, the tournament wasn’t even a big issue. But in the months that followed the criticism mounted, and it sounded if only federal government were investing in the tournament. With an election coming in 2014, a big chunk of the opposition and the media decided to turn against the event, as if it was bound for failure. That is also why some collegues said I was pushing for the pro-government simply because I insisted the World Cup wouldn’t be a disaster. It was as if being critical meant being excessively negative.

Well, they were wrong in that too.

World Cups are a difficult event to manage, and it sure wasn’t simple for Brazil. What was indeed simple was to expect disaster without considering how much there is behind these big sporting events. Brazil made a lot of mistakes, but none of them were decisive for the success of the organization of the tournament. That is just a fact. And it is a fact that many will now take into consideration when they think of Rio Olympics preparations. For Brazil to be seen as a country that can be a bigger touristic destination, the World Cup was a great test. Not all is about price tags.

One year on, Brazilians still hear friends from abroad say “I wish I was there.” Others say “it was one of the finest experiences I ever had.” The best of hearing those words is to know that they are true. By the way FIFA, let us know if you open the slots for 2018 and 2022. We’d love to have them both if you will (no bribes, though).

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