Lingua franca

Japanese Rules: why the Japanese needed football and how they got it

Sebastian Moffett <em>Yellow

With an audience of 400 billion, the soccer World Cup in Korea and Japan represents the acme of globalisation, and offers a perfect platform for parading national identities and aspirations. When the Japanese decided that promoting soccer would encourage the people to be more open, creative and spontaneous, they returned to the trusted methods of their great period of modernisation: they imported foreign knowledge and teachers and married them to Japanese know-how. Once a league structure was in place, financed by national corporations, they began importing coaches, first at the basic level, and then world-renowned footballers at the end of their careers to act as role models and coaches, such as Gary Lineker, Zico, Dunga and the great Yugoslav Dragan Stojkovic.

The coaches of the game in Japan found no shortage of skilled players at home, but had to battle continually against the near-impenetrable wall of Japanese culture: fixed hierarchies, a non-confrontational ethos, and the expectation of "you do what your superiors tell you to do". This had its amusing side: a full-back told to stand at the near post for a corner kick was still there long after play had moved elsewhere; players refused to ask for a pass if their colleague was older, and even apologised for fouls. All this left foreign coaches deeply frustrated.

Admirers of Arsene Wenger, the French manager of Arsenal, may be surprised to discover that he was in a state of constant frustration in his early days as coach of Grampus Eight. When players asked him for guidance in training, he would shout back: "Decide for yourself. Why don't you think it out?" In the end, Wenger took his team to France for 14 days, which helped to increase their mental strength and confidence to the extent that, on their return, they won their next ten home games as well as the Emperor's Cup for the first time in the club's history.

Fan behaviour was also evolving. At first, the fans sang songs only in foreign languages, including, improbably, "Land of Hope and Glory". They ended up singing in Japanese, but only once they had made sure their foreign players would not be offended. Today, with many key players returning home, having sharpened their skills at foreign clubs, and with an abrasive French coach, Philippe Troussier, Japan is approaching the World Cup finals with confidence, thanks to an experiment in social engineering so well recounted in Sebastian Moffett's entertaining book.

The great merit of Alex Bellos's wonderfully researched Futebol is that it does what it sets out to do: relate the Brazilian way of life to football, the lingua franca of a nation of 170 million people with huge disparities in social and economic opportunity. The staples of the Brazilian character - a sense of fun, improvisation, individuality and communal sympathy - are conveyed vividly. We have football with ball-bearings, "auto-football", rodeo football (which includes a bull), society football and keepie-uppie football, with its own glamorous champion, Milene Domingues, the wife of Ronaldo, who established a record of keeping the ball up in the air 55,187 times.

Then there is the "Big Kickabout" tournament in Amazonas, involving 13,000 footballers and 254 matches. The rules are minimal, with no offsides; throw-ins can be taken with the feet, pitches have no markings and there is a disciplinary code of 204 items. Oh, yes, another thing: it is actually two tournaments in one - a football competition and a beauty contest. Each of the 522 teams selects a beauty queen and the events run concurrently, but not independently. The winner of the beauty competition can get her team into the soccer quarter-finals, even if they have previously been eliminated. The Big Kickabout is, in fact, an almost perfect illustration of the Brazilian talent for improvisation and anarchic subversion.

But life in Brazil isn't all fun. Bellos's narrative takes a darker hue in his moving retelling of the life and death of Garrincha, a free spirit who played football for the sheer joy of it. The coaches eventually gave up trying to stop him reading Donald Duck comics during team talks and merely told him: "Do whatever you want." He did - and became one of the most influential players in Brazil's World Cup wins of 1958 and 1962. A tempestuous life off the field left the "angel with bent legs" dead at 49 in alcoholic penury, and a nation in tears.

Another cause for national mourning was the defeat of Brazil by France in the 1998 World Cup final. A parliamentary commission was set up to investigate the reason for the team's poor performance, and the mystery of Ronaldo's illness on the day of the final that appeared to so restrict his performance. The mystery remains, but the inquiry has since been widened to investigate the escalating crisis of Brazilian football: low attendance, crumbling stadiums, the emigration of players, and corruption at every level of the game. The author guides us expertly through a Byzantine tango of wheeling and dealing, at the end of which indictments are issued against some of the leading figures in the game. A new dawn for Brazilian football? Well, perhaps, but a better bet is that the vulnerable Brazil team of today may yet upset the Argentinian favourites if they meet in the current World Cup.

This hugely entertaining book should be required reading for anyone who intends to visit Brazil. If you are going to be glued to your TV over the next month, these two studies of national psyches and football will enable you to convert what you see on the screen to a DVD inside your head.

Ernest Hecht is the founder and managing director of Souvenir Press. He has attended nine of the last 11 World Cups. He will be there for the final in Tokyo