01 July 2010

More on eurocentricity (aka Altitude sickness)

Got to say, this is pretty rich. So the best that commentators caught off guard by Latin American success can do is claim altitude? Argentina and Brazil are "high elevation countries"? That's why they complain about playing qualifiers in Bolivia, right?


Forget about the fact that different teams dealt with acclimatization differently. The US team, for example, spent two weeks prior to the tournament in South Africa acclimatizing. England trained for two weeks in the Austrian Alps. France, according to the Washington Post, trained in the "alpine resort of Tignes," while Italy spent a couple of weeks in Sestriere, in the Italian Alps. Spain and Holland also trained at altitude. Wait, Europe has high elevation?

Let's look at this a little deeper. Here are the elevations of the national team headquarters for the teams that made the final 16 (I've even included Brazil's training center at Teresopolis):

Asunción: ~150-300 ft.
Buenos Aires: ~67 ft.
Montevideo: ~ 150 ft.
Rio:avg. alt ~35 ft. ; Terespolis, ~2800 ft.
Santiago: ~ 1,700 ft.

Mexico City: ~7,300 ft.
Washington: ~200 ft.; Carson, CA 28 ft.

Amsterdam: 7 ft.
Berlin: ~350 ft.
Bratislava: ~ 440 ft.
Lisbon: ~404 ft.
London: ~ 79 ft.
Madrid: ~2100 ft.

Accra: ~220 ft.

Seoul: ~300 ft.
Tokyo: ~26 ft.

Well that settles it. Genius analysis from Yahoo! sports.  Latin American teams definitely have the altitude advantage.

More on Brazil....

More on Brazil:

Opening his nuanced report from the Chile-Brazil match on Monday, Jeré Longman of the NYT “Let others complain about lack of beauty. Dunga, Brazil’s coach, is concerned only about winning.”  This is true of course, Dunga is only concerned with winning.  But it has other implications: that other Brazilian teams were actually more concerned with beauty, that you can’t play with both structure and style, and that there is no creativity on Dunga’s team. 

All of these assumptions, I’m afraid, are wrong.  I’ll leave it to others to debate the creativity of Kaká, Robinho, Elano, Luis Fabiano, Michel Bastos, Maicon, etc.  I’ll let others quibble that Lucio doesn’t look graceful as he dribbles 2/3 of the field through opponent’s holding midfielders.  Have at it.  To me this team has toughness and talent in equal measure—not, as Rob Hughes writes—toughness over talent.

What I want to talk about is the ideas that underpin the theory of the jogo bonito. For many of those who follow soccer—and even likely many who don’t—Brazil is the inventor of the beautiful game or, if you like, the samba style: a free-flowing, open, creative, improvisational play.  It is a style embodied by Pelé, Garrincha, Didi, Sócrates, Rivelino, Ronaldo….To watch the highlight reels from 1958, 1962, or 1970 is to see grace in motion, transcendent in some cases.  But it is a myth. 

I don’t mean that the highlights are false, or that Brazil didn’t play the game in a different way than European teams, or that it wasn’t a beautiful, rhythmic, entrancing game.  But it rests on a myth. That the Brazilians only cared about the samba, the game; that they played with the joy of children.  That from the 1950s on, Brazil’s improvisation and raw skill was pitted against European organization, strategy, practice, and drilling.  The impression one gets is that Brazilian players never practiced. That they didn’t have to.  They just stepped on the field and…magic.

That story could not be farther from the truth. And it rests on some unsettling stereotypes that date from the late-nineteenth century, as modern soccer was invented and dispersed from England.  At bottom, the notion of Latin American soccer as improvisational and passionate rests on racialized positivist ideas.  These ideas suggested that northern Europe was the most modern, most civilized part of the globe; that science and technology were the path to civilization; and that non-whites (and non-Europeans, since many Argentines were white)—by virtue of being non-white—neither modern nor civilized.  They were, in the eyes of Europeans, psychically and emotionally, children.

In soccer terms, the assumption of Europeans—particularly the English, who thought it unnecessary to show their superiority by playing in the World Cup until after WWII—was that they would be better than Latin Americans at soccer because they were more civilized and more advanced.  Needless to say, they were shocked in the late teens and early twenties when touring teams faced Uruguayan and Argentine teams.  And then they saw the game on display: Uruguay won Olympic gold in 1924 and 1928, considered to be the first world championships of the sport.  By then there was a Rioplatense style—played by Argentina and Uruguay—and a European style. 

The hallmarks of the style were the same as the jogo bonito: short, crisp passing; a fast pace; improvisation and trickery.  And Latin Americans played a hand in creating the myth of different ‘national’ styles.  The popular and influential sports magazine El Gráfico devoted pages and pages to describing the pibe—the poor, uneducated boy— who learns to play on an uneven, dirt field pocked with holes and bumps—and thus learns to how to maintain possession, how to feint and trick, all of the gambetas that he would need to excel.  And this was all counterpoised against the training and regimentation, the brusque physicality, the machine-like industry, of the European game. Romance vs. reason; science vs. nature.

Eventually—and I am oversimplifying here, likely to the horror of both Brazilians and Argentines—Brazil would take up the mantle of the Rioplatense style, though its name changed.  Brazil was now the freeflowing, improvisational, joyous team, celebrating its mixed-race identity through the national sport. And this continued to fit into the stereotypes that Europeans had of Latin Americans—and that Latin Americans had of themselves.  In fact, the sportswriter Mario Filho noted that the Brazilian style came from subconscious movements. It was good to celebrate a difference.  But. But. But.

But it wasn’t all true. Brazilian teams, by the time 1958 rolled around, were scientific, rational, and calculating.  Why? Because Brazil wanted to win.  The Maracanzo stung.  Some might suggest that the 1950 World Cup in Brazil was organized in a way so that Brazil could not lose.  There was no knockout round. There was no official championship game. The final four teams played a round robin to crown the winner. In the final game, Brazil only had to tie Uruguay to win the cup.  And it lost.  Brazilians were shocked.  And then it was embarrassed in 1954 losing in the quarterfinals.

In 1958, underneath the supposed freestyle, non-scientific, anti-modern soccer was shrewd strategizing, intense coaching, scientific control of diets, psychological testing of players, meticulous studying of opponents’ styles, and rigorous fitness regimen.  In other words, the samba style was not—as soccer mythology would say—nature over science or romance over reason (or talent over toughness). It was a studied, selective, and conscious blend.  Brazil was not better because it had more innately skilled players.  It was better because it had players who had worked diligently to develop skills—skills that European players did not work on developing until later.  Didi was not born with the folha seca—the dry-leaf—kick.  Garrincha was born with malformed legs, but that didn’t mean he was born knowing how to dribble. And it was better because it created a system that allowed these skilled players the space to play. Brazilian soccer was not unstructured: it was just unstructured to the European eye.  

In other words, the classic Brazil teams were just like the Brazil team of today: they placed winning over everything.  Yes, they won playing a beautiful game, but not because it was innately Brazilian. It was an innovative style that was consciously designed to beat European defenses.  Had times dictated a more defensive, closed style, they would have played it.  Dunga is just following type: Brazilian teams have (almost) always been talented and tough in equal measure.   


Welcome to the blog opio del pueblo? (name subject to change), where we'll be discussing all things soccer and Latin America.  I've been thinking a lot about this of late, so what comes below will be a series of thoughts about soccer/fútbol/futebol in Latin America, particularly as it relates to national selections, and the meanings thereof.

Without further ado, comments on World Cup 2010...

30 June 2010

Surprise Surprise?

So far, this is the World Cup of Latin American soccer.  It's pretty impressive: collectively Latin American teams have a record of 15-6-6; four of the Latin American losses have come to other Latin American teams (Mexico lost to Uruguay and Argentina, Chile to Brazil, and Honduras to Chile); the only non-Latin American team to beat a regional team is Spain.

If we look just at South America, it's even more impressive: all five South American teams qualified for the round of 16, losing one game in the group phases and going a collective 11-4-1 (the lone loss: Chile 1-2 Spain); Chile, the only CONMEBOL team eliminated in the round of 16, lost to a regional foe. 

I've been listening to a lot of talking heads here in the United States express surprise at the strength of Latin American--primarily South American--teams in the 2010 FIFA World Cup. I don't think that too many thought that six of the seven Latin American teams would make it out of the group stage (I did make that prediction on my facebook page, see screenshot, below), but there are a lot of people who aren't that surprised.

I don't mean to disparage U.S. soccer commentators: they know about the European leagues, and the MLS, as well as the national teams from Europe, North America, and the big two in South America--Argentina and Brazil (though there they begin to get a little fuzzy as well).  For the 2010 World Cup, the typical pundit has--or had, prior to the group phases--an opinion something like this: traditional European teams will dominate, even if they had lackluster qualifying campaigns and warm-up matches; the U.S. is stronger than normal and has a real chance to make waves; Brazil is strong but not 'Brazil'; Argentina is dysfunctional with a maniacal coach; African teams have a chance because the cup is in Africa. (Let's not even get started on the way this cup has been marketed as the 'African cup'.  Imagine suggesting that, in 2006, English fans would all back Germany in a show of continental unity. I guess some people still think of Africa as one country, or Africans as one nation).

Leaving aside the analysis of Maradona and Argentina, which many Latin American fútbol commentators shared, it seems as though U.S. soccer writers did one of two things (or both): 1) glanced at the qualification tables and made assumptions based on those.  For those of you who don't know, the South American qualifiers looked like this: Brazil, Chile, Paraguay, Argentina, Uruguay (through a playoff).  So the assumption was that Brazil and Argentina, and maybe one other South American team--Paraguay perhaps--would make it to the knockout round. 2) relied on a typical belief in European superiority.

But a closer look at any of the Latin American teams would have suggested much greater strength south of the Rio Grande.  Honduras excepted, these teams were solid.  Each South American team--including Chile, which is out of the tournament at the hands of Brazil--has potent, proven goal scorers who play against the best in Europe. Each has keepers who play in Europe.  In fact, the majority of each South American team plays overseas.  Mexico had a young, dynamic team that showed flashes of brilliance in qualifying.  Latin America and Africa have become the developing grounds for the European leagues, which, according to some, is at least partly responsible for the decline of European national teams.

Let's take a closer look at Uruguay.  Mark Starr of the GlobalPost expressed shock at it's ongoing run on NPR, saying something like: "I don't think anyone thought that Uruguay would progress this far." Admittedly, Uruguay are a vexing team; they have the ability to play either a positive, confident game or very negative one.  In qualifying they showed poise at times and fell apart at others.  I won't say that I was sure that they would be in the quarterfinals, but I surely did see them making it past the group phase.  Why? Three reasons actually.  In Diego Forlán, they have a talismanic player.  Forlán is a two-time winner of both the Spanish La Liga's Pichichi and the European Golden Boot awards.  Luis Suárez, a 23 year-old phenom, scored the most goals in the Dutch League while playing for Ajax, scoring 35 goals in 34 games last season. And then there is the tenacity of the team.  The team rarely quits. It has grifting midfielders--Diego 'el Ruso' Pérez and Alvaro "Palito" Pereira--and gritty defenders like Jorge Fucile and Diego Lugano.

Or let's take Brazil.  All over the world--Brazil included--people bemoan the death of the beautiful game at the hands of Dunga.  Brazil is perhaps not as beautiful as it used to be, but let's be honest: it can still play an exciting brand of futebol--not Spanish, but exciting.  In qualifying, Brazil mixed flashes of open play with rock solid defense.  It allowed the fewest goals of any team--signs for some of the brusque style of the 1994 champions--but it also scored the most.  And at the World Cup, Brazil has scored 8 goals in 4 games.  Rob Hughes, in the New York Times noted that, after Brazil's first goal in its 3-0 rout of Chile in the round of 16,  it fell back into a defensive posture.  But this was not the defensive posture of, say, Greece or Italy (in 2010), praying for the ability to counterattack.  It is the defensive posture of the LA Lakers, waiting to start one of the most potent fast breaks in the world.  Outside of Kaká and keeper Julio Cesar, the rest of the core of this Brazilian team may not be household names now, but Maicon, Michel Bastos, Dani Alves,  and Elano may yet be. (More on Brazil later).

My second point, that there is a belief in European superiority in football, is goes a little deeper.  Sure, 2006 looked like the Eurocup, with an all-UEFA semifinal.   But I am surprised at the continued belief in European superiority.  As I mentioned above, much of the strength of the European leagues, and many of their best players, are not European. Leagues are thriving, but the development of European players is lagging.  But there is more.  There's the assumption that soccer is a European game.  Even if it is called the global game, it was invented there, it is where the heart of the game beats.  Everyone else is a neophyte.  This belief contains some truth: modern soccer was born in England.  That's it.  After the development of the association rules in 1863, soccer spread rapidly throughout the globe, not just within Europe. Within ten years, the game was in Latin America. In other words, it's development was almost contemporaneous with Europe...

And there is just the general Eurocentric bias of the press, which looks paternalistically down on other regions of the world, if it deigns to look at all.

I'll leave it here for now.  Of course, soccer being a game, every South American team could lose in the quarterfinals.  I wouldn't bet on it.  

screenshot of facebook page, published June 10, 2010: