Brazil and football: a love story?


Brazilian soccer legend Pele kicks the ball over his head during a game in Sept. 1968 (File Photo/Associated Press)


"Everywhere has its irrevocable national catastrophe, something like a Hiroshima. Our catastrophe, our Hiroshima, was the defeat by Uruguay in 1950."

The playwright Nelson Rodrigues wrote this, encapsulating (albeit with some hyperbole) what soccer means to his home country of Brazil. And with the World Cup happening right now in Brazil, hundreds of millions of people tuning in will witness the passion for the game that so many Brazilians have.

David Goldblatt has written a book about how soccer became lodged in the national consciousness, how the country built its identity on winning with style and how the beautiful game has gone from national unifier to something of a sore spot in recent years. It's called Futebol Nation: The Story of Brazil Through Soccer and he stopped by CBC Radio's Q recently to talk about it:

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The relationship between Brazil and soccer solidified in 1938 at the World Cup in France. During the 1930s, the popular image of Brazil in the international consciousness was one of white male explorers in the jungle. In actuality, it was a country that was increasingly becoming diverse and urban. The country was at a crossroads and was searching for "an identity that makes sense in the modern world." The team they sent to the World Cup was the first multi-ethnic team the country had ever sent "and they dazzled the world." They placed third - the best showing for Brazil in any sporting event up to this point. "It was a national triumph."

And with that, an international identity was born - and a playing style with a unique mulatto quality, mixing European and African ingredients.

"They take the angular game played by the Europeans and they sweeten it and give it a roundness and a sensuousness," Goldblatt said. This association dominated for the next 70 years. When it comes to almost every other aspect of culture, music, food and literature,  "Brazil is kind of off the map," in the international consciousness. For such a big place, such an important place, Brazil is incredibly insular and we know so little of it."

According to Goldblatt, that's part of the problem. The other issue is that Goldblatt believes, in this day and age, with all the advancements in equipment, coaching and the sport itself, the notion that a truly Brazilian style of soccer exists "is a bit of a myth," he said.

Soccer has changed and so has Brazilian society. Thanks to the increasing financial, political and cultural costs of staging such events as the World Cup, as well as corruption in both governance and the sport itself, scores of Brazilians have become disillusioned. Goldblatt says that soccer has lost its ability to unite citizens in the way it once did. "I think we're beyond the age of innocence. Nothing can ever be the same again in Brazil about futebol, about the futebol establishment," he said. "The romantic in me wants it to be a fabulous party ... but Brazil has killed the romantic in me, as I think it has many Brazilians."