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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 legacy: Brazil is now a more mature nation

brasilalemanha922545-torcedores20_mineirc3a3o-1014_1_1At the Mineirão stadium, minutes after Germany hammered Brazil  7-1, I scroll my Twitter timeline and see people expecting riots, protests, defeat for president Dilma Rousseff in elections and even locals stopping the World Cup final from being played days later at the Maracanã stadium. Some of those comments are somewhat racist, as if Brazilians are shallow and would make big decisions based on a football match. But I didn’t even have time to get upset. Looking down my row in the press tribunes, a Brazilian couple takes pictures with a German fan as they show the tickets that put them in the Seleção disaster. Some laughter is heard. Of course not happy laughs, but laughs of people who had just seen their uncle do something bizarre at their wedding.

Perhaps Brazilians didn’t understand “the tragedy,” I thought. So I went back to Twitter. Jokes and jokes and more jokes about the national team. I get a text message from a friend in São Paulo that reads: “Just entered a bar with four Germans and they are embarrassed because we are making jokes with the Seleção, they are not.” Hours later I go to the Belo Horizonte bus terminal and the few Argentinians there are teasing Brazilians. Their only response, well humored, was to say Diego Maradona was a cocaine sniffer and that Pelé scored more than one thousand goals.

On the following day, at Arena Corinthians, Argentina and Holland play for a place in the final. Our neighbors go back to the provocations. Most Brazilians take it silently or fight back with the chant mocking Maradona. Fights erupt here and there, of course, but they are rare. At Vila Madalena, a bohemian district, Argentinians celebrate their first World Cup final in 24 years and Brazilians tease them saying they will go for Germany, the same team that had beat them 7-1 the day before. At the Maracanã, few Brazilians tease crying Argentinians. Although they cheered for Germany from the beginning to the end, a respectful silence is the most common reaction. “Brazilians have no pride,” an Argentinian football paper says about locals supporting the Germans.

Brazilians certainly do have pride, I argue. But they are mature enough to tell the difference between football and the rest. And that, my friends, is World Cup legacy on our faces. The maturity that the Brazilian national team lacked on the pitch was abundant everywhere else. If the 1950 Maracanazo was a tragedy for a country in the making, the 2014 Mineirazo was more of a sad comedy for a people that don’t depend on a sport to define itself.

Price tags don’t explain everything that surrounds a gigantic sporting event. When legacy talks restart in the campaign trail for the general elections, loads will be said about stadiums, broken promises and what has actually worked well for the World Cup. But much of what happened between June 12 and July 13 cannot be estimated in reais, dollars or euros. Much more than pride for organizing such a great tournament despite the doomsday predictions, Brazilians could leave their shell and be accepted as worthy members of the global community. They also learned how to cope with a big number of foreigners that were key in the beginning of the tournament to bring the excitement that was needed.

Despite minor incidents in the stadia, including Brazil’s tiny elite insulting president Dilma Rousseff even when German captain Phillip Lahm was lifting the trophy, Brazilians realized they can not only co-exist well with other fans, but also help their favorites. Ask any African, Asian or South American fan (exception to Argentinians) if they felt warmth in the local crowd. That is probably why about 69% of foreigners said they would like to live here, according to a Datafolha poll. Although some people in denial will say only joie de vivre made this an unforgettable World Cup, infrastructure was actually good: 83% of foreigners said they were positively surprised with he organization. Criticism was on self-evident affairs: prices, hotels and communication systems.

Where are the riots?

Maturity was here not only in co-existence, but also in understanding that if preparations had been smoother, a good chunk of the bashing and would be unfounded (fair criticism is always founded). Surely enough what matters is the main event, but the bumpy run-up has shown average Brazilians that the road to the Rio Olympics will have to be different — less excessive expectations, more planning and better communication are now in the agenda, much more than in the World Cup preparations. That maturity might take longer in Rio, since it is going to be the centre of the sporting universe for the next two years. But other World Cup host-cities will be able to be more demanding by comparing what was promised and what was delivered. Cities like tiny Cuiabá or Natal would never get that maturity and national attention if it weren’t for the World Cup.

The clearest exceptions to the nationwide mood were our police, which has again attacked protesters and journalists as if they were paying back after all the criticism they have earned in the last decades and the demonstrators themselves, who failed to point their finger at the police last year and embraced a naive anti-World Cup platform as if most people on the streets in June 2013 were actually against the football extravaganza played here. But these are topics for the next few weeks. Most of this World Cup moments were actually expected by this blogger, as you can see here.

For now I will leave you with a line I will use for the next few years, probably until Rio-2016: told you so!