01 July 2010

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.   

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