Perfect pitch: Rio de Janeiro, 2011. Photograph: David Alan Harvey/Magnum
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Golazo! by Andreas Campomar and Futebol Nation by David Goldblatt: the football myth behind Brazil's World Cup

The Brazilians have won five World Cups, more than anybody else. So why was there rioting last summer when teams arrived for a warm-up? Brazil's relationship with football has never been an easy romance.

On 12 June, the World Cup will kick off in São Paulo. Until recently, there’s been an assumption that, certainly by comparison with the two World Cups to follow, in Russia and Qatar, this would be a fun tournament, a month-long carnival in the home of Pelé and “the beautiful game”. What, after all, is Brazil other than football, and who has ever played the game better? Then came the Confederations Cup, the eight-team warm-up event for the tournament, last summer. Matches came to be preceded by a familiar ritual of street protest – sparked by a proposed increase in bus fares in São Paulo, but soon encompassing a range of issues, from corruption to fury that so much has been spent on the World Cup when so many public services are in disrepair. With a sense of shock, the world realised that Brazil is not universally supportive of the tournament and there is a very real prospect of chaos. As these two books demonstrate, though, Brazil’s relationship with football has never been the easy romance of stereotype.

That is not to deny the importance of football to Brazil, especially in terms of generating the nation’s self-image and self-esteem. Brazil is the fifth-largest nation on earth, both by land area and population, statistics which signal, as David Goldblatt points out, that, in terms of an influence on the global culture, it punches significantly below its weight. Its cuisine has raised barely a ripple alongside Indian, Chinese or Thai and, for all the coffee Brazil produces, we drink cappuccino rather than cafezinho. Samba has some global reach, but nothing compared to its Caribbean or African equivalents. In cinema, literature, architecture and visual arts, Brazil’s impact bears no relation to its size. No Brazilian has ever won a Nobel prize. Only in football has it really excelled.

The Brazilians have won five World Cups, more than anybody else, while the country is by some margin the world’s greatest exporter of players – a snapshot of which is given by a glance at the quarter-finals of the Champions League. Of the eight sides involved, only Borussia Dortmund do not have a Brazilian player in their squad, while the others total 19 between them (or 20, if you count Atlético Madrid’s Diego Costa, who was born in Brazil and played for Brazil before becoming a naturalised Spaniard this year). The sums that Nike pays to produce and market the yellow national shirt show what a powerful global brand Brazilian football has become.

The very existence of these two books says much for the increasing recognition of football’s significance. It’s remarkable how little attention was once paid to what is, in terms of participation, attendance at events and general discussion, the world’s pre-eminent cultural activity. For years, most of those academics who considered the sport were sociologists researching fan behaviour, while the few football books that were published were overwhelmingly stultifying player autobiographies.

That began to change between 1990 and 1994 as Pete Davies’s All Played Out, Nick Hornby’s Fever Pitch and Simon Kuper’s Football Against the Enemy proved that the sport was a rich subject for literature, and that the examination of a nation’s football culture said much about its culture as a whole. Since then, the Uruguayan journalist Eduardo Galeano’s line “Tell me how you play and I’ll tell you who you are” has become a mantra for a host of football writers – so much so that Goldblatt took it as one of the epigraphs for his 2006 global history of football, The Ball Is Round, while Andreas Campomar uses it as an epigraph for Golazo!.

In the case of many South American nations, Brazil included, the idea that footballing style is representative of national character has a direct significance because of the part football played in nation-building. That’s why the playwright Nelson Rodriguez described Brazil’s defeat to Uruguay in the final game of the 1950 World Cup as “our Hiroshima”. The comparison is tasteless, but his point was that this weighed on the Brazilian psyche like a national tragedy. The World Cup was supposed to be the consecration of Getúlio Vargas’s Estado Novo (the “new state”), the victory achieved in the Maracanã, the biggest stadium in the world and a modernist monument echoing the work of Oscar Niemeyer in Brasília – Goldblatt is particularly good on the symbolic properties of stadiums.

Brazil only needed to draw against Uruguay and such was the assumption of victory that newspapers on the morning of the game hailed them as world champions. They even took the lead, but lost 2-1. Scapegoats needed to be found, and they were, in the three black players on the team: after Moacyr Barbosa, blamed for letting in the winner at his near post, it would be almost half a century before Brazil selected another black goalkeeper in Dida.

As Campomar points out, given that Uruguay’s captain and inspiration, Obdu­lio Varela, was himself of mixed race, the illo­gical nature of the racism was obvious: “in the moment of truth, a racist stain, a baleful legacy of slavery had revealed itself.”

Football had always reflected the changing social and political environment. In the early years of the 20th century, clubs were often organised on ethnic grounds – Grêmio of Porto Alegre, for instance, were proudly German, while the São Paulo club Palmeiras was founded by Italians and, until 1942, was known as Palestra Italia. Much of the appreciation of the sport had an uncomfortably racist tone, inspired by the eugenic strand of Comtean positivism that underlay the old republic: poets, as Goldblatt put it, were intent on “casting players as the new Hellenic gods of the south”. By the 1920s, though, the poet Antonio Machado was describing incidents in games in terms of an “engine” or “a water tank”: metaphors of the industrial city. Modernisation undermined the amateur ideals – playing not just to win, but to represent your community – of Brazilian football just as surely as it undermined the patrician orthodoxy of the old state.

After Vargas, who had seized power in a coup in 1930, retained it with a pre-emptive coup in 1937, he needed to legitimise his power. A skilled negotiator rather than a demagogue, he lacked the charisma needed to establish a cult of personality, and so sought expressions of Brasilidade, looking, Goldblatt said, “to mobilise and shape the nation’s popular cultures for nationalistic ends”. Football played a key part in that: pretty much the only thing Brazil’s extra­ordinary mix of people had in common was that they all supported the national football team. Portuguese was imposed as the national language which, together with a general antipathy towards Germans and Italians after the war, eroded the ethnic identities of many clubs. The 1950 World Cup was the centrepiece of Vargas’s policy of national unification and of projecting an image of modernity.

By 1958, Vargas was gone, having committed suicide, and Juscelino Kubitschek had been elected to replaced him. He was just as aware of the propaganda potential of football, though, and the state invested heavily in the 1958 World Cup campaign, doing everything it could to give Brazil a chance of winning: the squad underwent extensive medicals, for instance, while 25 venues were scouted as potential training bases in Sweden before one was chosen – and even then all female staff were replaced for the duration of the tournament. With the emergence of Pelé came the birth of the popular conception of the Brazilian game, all fluid passing and individual flair. They won that World Cup, and the next one and, after being physically bullied in 1966, returned to win again in Mexico in 1970, producing three weeks of football that enraptured the world. The Jornal do Brasil compared Brazil’s 4-1 victory over Italy in the final to the moon landing the previous year and, as Goldblatt points out, in the sense that this was a triumph for all humanity, a glorious fusion of art and science, watched – thanks to satellite television – all around the world, the comparison wasn’t entirely fanciful.

For the military government that had taken over following a coup in 1964, the victory was an enormous stroke of luck and one that the junta was quick to seize on. Campomar cites various slogans that sought to link footballing success with economic prosperity, and quotes the efforts of the president, General Médici, to make the victory his own: “I identify the success . . . with intelligence and bravery, perseverance and serenity in our technical ability, in physical preparation and moral being. Above all our players won because they knew how to . . . play for the common good.”

Once football had fallen into the hands of the generals, it would never fully escape. The military appointed technocrats to oversee the economy and to run sport. Although the world continued to imagine that Brazilian football represented the same values as it had in 1970, from the 1970s onwards it became far more pragmatic, concerned more with physicality and the elements that can be measured – pass completion rates, tackles made, kilometres run – than with the artistry of Tostão, Rivellino and Jairzinho. There was a brief return of the old style in 1982 and 1986, when Sócrates, who insisted his club, Corinthians, be run on democratic lines, was captain, but o jogo bonito, the beautiful game, has essentially been a marketing myth for 40 years.

Goldblatt makes clear that the idea of Brazil as a nation wholly in love with football is also a myth, something not helped by often dire organisation. The government introduced a national championship in 1971 to promote a sense of unity, but for years it was a bloated farce, beset by mystifying regulations and a habit of fiddling promotion and relegation for political ends. By the 1990s, hooliganism was rife and attendances had dropped to shocking levels. Even now, the average attendance for a top-flight game is under 15,000: around 50 per cent lower than in Argentina, lower even than the English second flight.

Brazil’s relationship with football has always been more complicated than outsiders have perhaps realised. What’s striking about Golazo!, which attempts the extra­ordinarily ambitious task of summarising the whole of Latin American football history, is the sense that Brazil is far from unique: that across South America, new nations without common bonds of ancestry ended up defining themselves by football, and that successive governments, recognising this fact, sought legitimacy through the sport.

Futebol Nation is focused purely on Brazil and specifically on the socio-economic history. There’s little dwelling on games or personalities. Heleno de Freitas, for instance, the brilliant but tragic striker of the late 1930s and 1940s who died aged 39 in an asylum – a player who with his womanising, his drinking and his addiction to ether seemed to symbolise the excesses of Rio – doesn’t get a mention in Goldblatt’s book, while Campomar gives him a page. But that in a sense is the strength of Futebol Nation. Goldblatt acknowledges that his book is “an introductory essay” but that seems to downplay the immense discipline he must have exercised not to be sidetracked from the central thrust. The result is a breezy, readable and nuanced primer to the centrality of football to Brazilian life.

It ends with the protests and riots that surrounded the Confederations Cup last summer, which Goldblatt witnessed first-hand. The government’s response was to announce a security budget for the World Cup of more than $1bn. “There might still be victories to be won on the field,” Goldblatt writes, “but it is hard to imagine they could unite the futebol nation the way they have done in the past, for they have been bought at the cost of making Brazil’s divisions and its injustices starker than ever.”

Jonathan Wilson edits the football magazine The Blizzard. His most recent book is “The Outsider: a History of the Goalkeeper” (Orion, £8.99)

This article first appeared in the 14 May 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Why empires fall

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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle