Portugal is often eclipsed by Brazil, its former colony. Photo: Getty Images.
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Why I’ll be cheering for Portugal, not Brazil, in the World Cup

Brazil tends to eclipse the very land whose colonial undertakings shaped it and gave birth to it – Portugal.

When the World Cup kicks off in São Paulo on 11 June, there will be a clear sense that, with all due respect to Skinner and Baddiel, football is coming home. Brazil, hosting the sport’s biggest tournament for the second time after 1950, has become not merely synonymous but aligned with football. In the popular imagination worldwide, Brazil is the ultimate avatar, the nonpareil, of the game. Though Brazil’s international dominance only really began in the late 1950s, the Seleçao or Auriverde, as the team is variously known, has almost eclipsed the country itself in the minds of many people. It is the most powerful metonym for Latin America’s most populous country. People talk of samba soccer, even though they’d be hard pushed to identify the music it’s named after; jogo bonito is idiomatic in languages far beyond Portuguese.

Of course, Brazil is about much more than just football, even if its culture, from Caetano Veloso to Clarice Lispector to Glauber Rocha, remains sadly unknown to many outside South America. But even to the foreigner unaware of these, Brazil has an unfailingly sexy, partying, cutting-edge image, though pre-World Cup protests against corruption and spiralling costs of living combined with a heavy-handed attempt at taming Rio’s favelas are showing a more disconcerting picture. The country shambles on – a bloated yet vibrantly novelistic, technicolor beast, not so much larger than life as larger than living. Even the country’s flag, with ordem e progresso printed across the starry blue globe at its centre, is a brazenly gregarious attempt at convincing you that, for all the chaos within, Brazil gets there in the end.

Brazil the country in turn eclipses the very land whose colonial undertakings shaped it and gave birth to it – Portugal. The latter is the only former imperial power to have been conclusively put in the shade by one of its former holdings (the UK might not have the stature of the United States but it has not quite taken a back seat in the same way as Portugal has). The Portuguese, to Brazilians, are a joke, in much the same way the Belgians or the Quebecois are to the French – they are gauche country cousins, laden with thick, almost Slavic-sounding accents. Even if saddled with a seemingly endless recession as they are, Portuguese people have a better time of it economically than Brazilians, with the country’s GDP distributed far more evenly among a much smaller population. Still, the Brazilians slight the Portuguese as ungainly and unsophisticated. It may be because of the respective tones that predominate in each country’s culture – Brazil’s is breezy, tropical, sun-kissed and, on the whole, optimistic. Portugal’s, on the other hand, has a mournful tenor, prevalent in fado music, the plaintive orchestrations of Rodrigo Leão, the protest songs of Zeca Afonso and the sombre literature of Fernando Pessoa, José Saramago, António Lobo Antunes, among others. Portugal’s cultural mien is forever looking offstage, for a something missing, a vanishing point of existential longing.

Whatever this putative difference in outlook, each country experienced long dictatorships in the past century – the military ruled the roost in Brazil from 1964 to 1985, while Portugal’s army intervened to rescue the people from the Salazarist Estado Novo that ran from 1928 to 1974. (Not surprisingly, Portuguese prime minister Marcelo Caetano and his fellow deposed cronies sought refuge in military-controlled Brazil.) There has been plenty in both Portugal and Brazil’s history to be gloomy about but it is significant that Brazil had the freedom of the decades prior to 1964 and was spared the official puritanical Catholicism that subdued Portugal in those years.

One of the losses the Portuguese might reasonably look to is the distant glory of their imperial past. Portugal’s superior navigational technology allowed it to be the first European power into Asia, sub-Saharan Africa and South America. In the 16th century, Lisbon was the world’s richest imperial capital. It began to fall apart soon after, partly because of the sixty-year domination by Spain that followed King Sebastião I’s disastrous attempt at conquering Morocco in 1578 and partly because Portugal did not have the population base to sustain expansion of the empire. Even so, despite losing Brazil in 1822, it maintained its imperial territories in Africa and Asia longer than other European colonial powers – until it finally relinquished Macao to China in 1999.

In the early 15th century, a ransom paid to the Portuguese in West Africa by Tuareg traders in the form of African slaves set in motion the trans-Atlantic slave trade and nobody ever outdid the Portuguese in their zeal for transporting humans as chattel. An estimated 38 per cent of slaves were transported across the Atlantic by the Portuguese over three centuries – well in excess of any other slaving nation. It is for this reason that Brazil has the world’s largest black population outside Nigeria. Portugal too had one of Europe’s earliest black populations, consisting of freed slaves in Lisbon as well as rice farmers of African descent in the Alentejo. Portugal abolished the slave trade shortly after Britain but Brazil held on until 1888, engendering a socio-racial fracture that continues to exert a grip on the country. Portugal, though it might be less riven with racism than other European countries, is far from innocent on this count too.

Brazil’s very size and greater economic riches (albeit poorly distributed) mean that it outweighs its former colony. When I began taking Portuguese classes a couple of years back in Paris, it was almost impossible to find a Portuguese native to teach you, even in a city that has one of the world’s highest concentration of Portuguese emigrants. Brazilians are far more ubiquitous. Not that most people care – Brazilian Portuguese, more musical and mellifluous, Portuguese with sugar, as the novelist Éça de Queiroz called it, is more loved internationally, and much easier to understand. The European variety is harsher, replete with vanishing vowels and clipped consonants and to the uninitiated sounds something akin to Russian. Brazil’s influx of peoples from all over the world has no doubt taken its variety off in a different direction – Gregory Rabassa, a renowned translator from the literatures of both countries as well as Spanish, hypothesizes that “the Portuguese contract their sounds to make them fit into their small country while the Brazilians expand theirs to make them fit into their huge land.”

I suspect I am in a minority when I say I prefer the more roughly-hewn Iberian Portuguese. When uttered in the plays of Almeida Garrett, Gil Vicente or, in this day and age, in the films of Manoel de Oliveira or Miguel Gomes, you get the sense you are listening to something ancient and courtly, seemingly unchanged from the initial language that sprang from the historic accident of Galician Celts and Visigoths speaking Latin. Sure, Brazilian Portuguese might be sexier and easier on the ear, but listening to Portuguese from the old country is like happening on a secret passage in an old mansion.

Given their imperial past, the Portuguese are endearingly modest about their country’s achievements, which are numerous. The Portuguese introduced the chilli plant (and, effectively, curry) to India, and tempura to Japan, they invented the mosquito net and developed the first earthquake-proof structures following the Lisbon disaster of 1755. It was even the first European country to abolish the death penalty, in 1852, something that even Salazar chose to only roll back for military crimes. They are also modest about their footballing culture, which includes the club with the greatest number of members worldwide (Benfica) and a national team that consistently punches above its weight. Though the Seleçao das quinas is also less glamorous than its Brazilian counterpart, it does lay claim to one of the world’s biggest stars, Cristiano Ronaldo, and will be, as ever, an outside bet in Brazil. Many neutrals will, not surprisingly, throw their weight behind the hosts in their famous yellow shirts, but I’ll be letting my heart sway me and in the absence of an Irish team to support, I’ll be cheering for Portugal.

Oliver Farry is an Irish writer, journalist and translator living in Paris.

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Commons Confidential: Dave's picnic with Dacre

Revenge is a dish best served cold from a wicker hamper.

Sulking David Cameron can’t forgive the Daily Mail editor, Paul Dacre, for his role in his downfall. The unrelenting hostility of the self-appointed voice of Middle England to the Remain cause felt pivotal to the defeat. So, what a glorious coincidence it was that they found themselves picnicking a couple of motors apart before England beat Scotland at Twickenham. My snout recalled Cameron studiously peering in the opposite direction. On Dacre’s face was the smile of an assassin. Revenge is a dish best served cold from a wicker hamper.

The good news is that since Jeremy Corbyn let Theresa May off the Budget hook at Prime Minister’s Questions, most of his MPs no longer hate him. The bad news is that many now openly express their pity. It is whispered that Corbyn’s office made it clear that he didn’t wish to sit next to Tony Blair at the unveiling of the Iraq and Afghanistan war memorial in London. His desire for distance was probably reciprocated, as Comrade Corbyn wanted Brigadier Blair to be charged with war crimes. Fighting old battles is easier than beating the Tories.

Brexit is a ticket to travel. The Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority is lifting its three-trip cap on funded journeys to Europe for MPs. The idea of paying for as many cross-Channel visits as a politician can enjoy reminds me of Denis MacShane. Under the old limits, he ended up in the clink for fiddling accounts to fund his Continental missionary work. If the new rule was applied retrospectively, perhaps the former Labour minister should be entitled to get his seat back and compensation?

The word in Ukip is that Paul Nuttall, OBE VC KG – the ridiculed former Premier League professional footballer and England 1966 World Cup winner – has cold feet after his Stoke mauling about standing in a by-election in Leigh (assuming that Andy Burnham is elected mayor of Greater Manchester in May). The electorate already knows his Walter Mitty act too well.

A senior Labour MP, who demanded anonymity, revealed that she had received a letter after Leicester’s Keith Vaz paid men to entertain him. Vaz had posed as Jim the washing machine man. Why, asked the complainant, wasn’t this second job listed in the register of members’ interests? She’s avoiding writing a reply.

Years ago, this column unearthed and ridiculed the early journalism of George Osborne, who must be the least qualified newspaper editor in history. The cabinet lackey Ben “Selwyn” Gummer’s feeble intervention in the Osborne debate has put him on our radar. We are now watching him and will be reporting back. My snouts are already unearthing interesting information.

Kevin Maguire is the associate editor (politics) of the Daily Mirror

Kevin Maguire is Associate Editor (Politics) on the Daily Mirror and author of our Commons Confidential column on the high politics and low life in Westminster. An award-winning journalist, he is in frequent demand on television and radio and co-authored a book on great parliamentary scandals. He was formerly Chief Reporter on the Guardian and Labour Correspondent on the Daily Telegraph.

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution