Wednesday, 9 July 2014

The Disambiguation of Belo Horizonte

Last night's demolition of Brazil by Germany in Belo Horizonte was predictable, even if the scoreline was not. For all the wailing and gnashing of teeth, I doubt this will be as traumatic as the famous Maracanazo of 1950, when Brazil narrowly lost the final to an unfancied Uruguay in Rio de Janeiro. There will be plenty of media fuss over the coming days, including predictions of social disorder just short of civil war, but the simple truth is that Brazil looked no better than a last-eight team and were fortunate to have got that far, owing not a little to QPR's second-choice goalkeeper. Germany were excellent, and are now deservedly favourites for the title, but the comprehensive nature of their victory owed much to Brazil's psychological collapse midway through the first half.

The warning signs were obvious earlier in the tournament, from the over-reliance on Neymar The Redeemer through the limitations of Fred (who played like Karl Power), but perhaps the biggest pointer to impending disaster was the sheer weight of emotional anxiety that marked the narrow victories over Chile and Colombia. This went beyond the desire to do well on home turf to a desperation to maintain the ideal of Brazil as the ultimate in footballing art, which translated on the night into suicidal play by the likes of Marcelo and David Luiz. The crowd's booing of Fred was less personal antipathy (he's actually a local boy who played for both Belo Horizonte's main teams) than frustration with the domestic game. It's not producing a lot of talent, and the best players disappear to Europe by the time they're 20.

The great era of Brazilian football, inaugurated by Garrincha and Pele in Sweden in 1958, ended with the team of Socrates, Zico and Falcao, who adorned the 1982 and 1986 tournaments but came away empty-handed. The teams of the last twenty years managed to marry the functional and the (occasionally) elegant, winning in 1994 and 2002, but there was a sense that they were trading on past glories, literally so as the Brazilian FA avoided playing at home to indulge in lucrative overseas friendlies and "Jogo Bonito" became just another piece of royalty-earning IP.

Though the contrast of a freewheeling past and a pragmatic present was a simplification, it did hint at the underlying tensions around class and politics. Jogo Bonito was organic and nativist, but also strongly egalitarian and anti-establishment (during the period of military rule), linked to the 60s Tropicalia movement in culture and exemplified by Socrates' twin roles as imperious midfielder and pro-social doctor. The era bookended by Dunga, as player in 1990 and coach in 2010, saw the adoption of a supposedly more European style in terms of organisation and tactics, however the emphasis on preparation and "risk management" was part of a much wider neoliberal turn towards the technocratic and commercialised.

The class stratification of sport, embodied in the prawn sandwich meme, has effected both developed and developing nations simultaneously. Globalisation means that positional goods, like iPhones or FIFA match tickets, can be made available to the "new middle class" everywhere. TV reports in the build-up to the current tournament gave the impression that ordinary folk had been priced out of attendance only recently, but this has been going on for years. Brazilian football has become an increasingly middle-class preserve, much as cricket has in India and both sports have in the UK.

This, rather than a sudden discovery of the joys of goalless draws, is why football is growing in popularity in the USA. Twenty years after Brazil won the World Cup in Pasadena, and after twenty years of Soccer Moms, the sport may now be sufficiently middle-class to avoid the charge of being foreign and socialist. The sporting and social gap between the semi-pros and immigrants who made up the USA team in their shock victory over England at Belo Horizonte in 1950 and the Brazil team of 1982 is tiny in comparison to the gap between the latter and any tournament team today. One silver lining for England is that the 1950 "disaster" has now been superseded. If only they could get over 1966 as well.

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