Captain Carlos Alberto, on the front fire truck and followed by the rest of the Brazilian team, parades the World Cup in Brasília in 1970
Captain Carlos Alberto, on the front fire truck and followed by the rest of the Brazilian team, parades the World Cup in Brasília in 1970 © Popperfoto/Getty

¡Golazo!: A History of Latin American Football, by Andreas Campomar, Quercus, RRP£20/Riverhead, RRP$16, 512 pages

Futebol Nation: A Footballing History of Brazil, by David Goldblatt, Penguin/Nation Books, RRP£9.99/$16.99, 320 pages

Shocking Brazil: Six Games that Shook the World Cup, by Fernando Duarte, Arena Sport, RRP£12.99, 240 pages

In 1958 a Brazilian team starring the black teenager Pelé and several other dark-skinned players won the country’s first World Cup. After the victory, wrote the playwright Nelson Rodrigues, “I saw a small black woman. She was the typical slum dweller. But the Brazilian triumph transformed her. She walked down the sidewalk with the charm of Joan of Arc. The same was true for black men, who – attractive, brilliant, luxurious – seemed like fabulous Ethiopian princes.” Brazil, said Rodrigues, “was no longer a mongrel among nations”.

Football has helped Brazil construct its national identity. The game also functions as a lens on to this poorly understood country. Football helps us see Brazil’s beauty, its ugliness and the usually ignored lives of the Brazilian poor. Admittedly, most accounts of Brazilian football omit women but so, for much of history, did Brazil’s public sphere. So what does football reveal about Brazil?

We’ve never been better placed to answer this question. Though Brazil has won an unmatched five World Cups, very little of note has previously been written about its football in English beyond Janet Lever’s groundbreaking sociological study Soccer Madness (1983) and Alex Bellos’s excellent, journalistic Futebol: The Brazilian Way of Life (initially published in 2002 and updated this year). Now, with Brazil about to host the World Cup, we suddenly have a flood of books.

¡Golazo!, Andreas Campomar’s effort, is the most comprehensive – too comprehensive, in fact. A Uruguayan who works in London publishing, Campomar has put in his hours at the library. His thick history of Latin American football offers flashes of insight. But most of it reads like a boys’ almanac from the pre-internet era, full of blow-by-blow accounts of long-forgotten matches, seasons and tournaments. No fact is left behind. A truth of football literature: there is nothing deader, for a writer, than a dead football match.

Still, Campomar provides the Brazilian story with useful continental context. The British, dominant figures in 19th-century South American economies, were slower to spread football in Brazil than in more urban Argentina and Uruguay. Only in the late 1920s did Brazil start catching up. Even then, in a country built on genocide and slavery, the white elite was reluctant to let black people play. The Seleção (the national team), in particular, had to stay mostly white, to impress foreigners with Brazil’s racial purity. (As late as 1989, the Chilean admiral José Merino, an instigator of General Augusto Pinochet’s 1973 coup, ranted during a footballing contretemps: “The Brazilians have only recently come down from the tree.”) In 1950, after Brazil traumatically lost to Uruguay in the de facto World Cup final in Rio de Janeiro’s Maracanã stadium, the black goalkeeper Barbosa was anointed scapegoat.

The “Maracanazo”, as Uruguayans dubbed their victory, probably scarcely registered with most illiterate rural Brazilians at the time. Regardless, Brazilian writers have called it their country’s “Waterloo” or “Hiroshima”. Humiliated again, Brazil hadn’t been able to shed what Rodrigues described as its “stray-dog complex”.

Yet by 1962, Brazil had become the “futebol nation” – not just the world’s best football country but a country whose sense of self and international image derived largely from football. This story is told best by David Goldblatt, British author of the game’s landmark history The Ball Is Round. Now he has written a history of Brazilian football because, he explains, “someone had to write it”. Nothing similar exists, perhaps not even in Portuguese. Goldblatt graciously admits: “This book ought to have been written by someone else, preferably someone Brazilian, at the very least a person with a good command of the Portuguese language.” His heavy reliance on sources in English is, indeed, a weakness. However, Goldblatt has a knack for putting football into its socio-economic context, a gift for synthesis, and frightening eloquence. After a stodgy beginning, the book soars from 1950 onwards.

Goldblatt shows how football helped Brazil accept itself as a mixed nation. In the 1930s the social scientist Gilberto Freyre began to spin a national story in which Brazil’s mixed heritage became a source of pride, not shame. In his book about life on a northeastern sugar plantation, Freyre celebrated sex between white masters and black slaves. That, he said, created a unique Brazilian race. Later, Freyre argued that Brazil’s “mulattoism” brought dance, trickery and artistry to its football. This made Brazil potentially a better, more beautiful football nation than white countries such as England or Argentina. Other Brazilian writers took up the theme. Across Latin America, intellectuals were trying to celebrate their local heritage rather than sell their countries as just lesser versions of Europe.

Finally, players such as Pelé and Garrincha arrived to embody Freyre’s racial theories. After Brazil beat hosts Sweden in the World Cup final in 1958, writes Goldblatt, “the King of Sweden actually came down to the pitch to join the celebratory melee”. The world was falling for Brazilian football. In 1962 Brazil were world champions again.

With hindsight, those years were a golden age, and not just in football. Brazil then was a less violent country, with fast economic growth. The military coup of 1964 was yet to come. The best Brazilian players still played for Brazilian clubs rather than in Europe. Children had ample open spaces to learn football. (Brazil’s population in 1960 was just 70m; today it is 200m, and few poor Brazilian kids now ever see a beach, let alone get to play on one.)

By 1970, when a “Beautiful Team” won Brazil its third World Cup – the country’s peak moment of global esteem, its equivalent of the American moon landing – the military regime was crawling all over the Seleção. In a country with poor literacy and no modern wars to solidify national identity, dictators needed football to build the nation. Campomar argues that something similar happened across Latin America: football helped the new Spanish-speaking nations differentiate themselves from each other, and gain European respect.

Football was the one arena in which Latin America led the world, at least until about 1994. No wonder former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva was desperate to host this year’s World Cup: only football has ever given Brazil a place on the global stage commensurate with the country’s size. As Bellos wrote, whereas “Britain marks out the twentieth century in blocks divided by the world wars”, Brazil measures the century in World Cups.

Yet though Brazil won the tournament in 1994 and 2002, it has never matched the glory of 1970. In fact, every Brazilian team now has to play against the memory of 1970. The task is twofold: to win the World Cup, and to do it while playing “jogo bonito”, the “beautiful game”. Brazil almost certainly won’t manage it this year either.

Gradually a national argument has developed pitting “futebol-força” against “futebol-arte” – should Brazil play more with force or art? The military regime and the Seleção’s coaches tended to prefer force and discipline; most fans favoured art. This echoed a broader Brazilian debate: should Brazil emulate organised countries, or did it have its own more creative route to development? The argument crystallised around Brazil’s beautiful defeat against Italy in the World Cup of 1982, which had Brazilians weeping in the streets and then welcoming the returning team home as heroes. Many Brazilians still prefer their losers of 1982 to their dour winners of 1994.

These arguments about national style are nicely recounted in Fernando Duarte’s Shocking Brazil. A Brazilian journalist living in London, Duarte offers something unique: a rollicking account of the country’s World Cup history in English by an insider. He’s longer on description than analysis, and the strain of writing in a foreign language shows, but he tells good stories, and the great players he interviews actually say interesting things.

The “beautiful game” is often taken to reflect Brazil’s gift for sensuous beauty. But after 1970, modern Brazilian football has more often reflected Brazil’s ugliness. Take the country’s mistreatment of its poor: fans packed into decaying stands, players overworked in unending league seasons (FC São Paulo once played two games in a day). Most Brazilian footballers today earn the minimum wage – if they get their salaries at all.

Brazilian football also reflects Brazilian violence: fans frequently get killed, occasionally live on TV. Then there’s Brazil’s economic reliance on exports of raw materials: all the leading Brazilian players now play abroad, where many grow estranged from the fans back home. Duarte quotes the great left-back Roberto Carlos gloating about his expensive Rolex: “I carry a whole flat on my wrist.”

And there’s Brazil’s corruption. The directors who traditionally run Brazilian football – “cartolas”, or “top hats” – make European clubs look like models of good governance. One family – João Havelange and later his son-in-law Ricardo Teixeira – ruled Brazil’s dreadful football association, the CBF, for most of the era from 1958 to 2012. Teixeira recently briefly decamped to Miami after some embarrassing revelations but he has left his mark. The initial organising committee for Brazil’s World Cup, writes Goldblatt, consisted of Teixeira, his daughter, “his lawyer, his press secretary, his personal secretary and factotum, and the man who had advised him during the 2001 congressional investigation into football”. Also on the committee was an ex-president of the Bank of Brazil from the military era – but nobody from government. In important respects, the coming World Cup is Teixeira’s baby. His successor, José Maria Marin, a relic of the military years, is best known for stealthily pocketing a winners’ medal during an awards ceremony after a youth match. You can see why, in a recent survey by research group Datafolha, most Brazilians said that the World Cup would bring “more losses than benefits”.

Still, things may be improving. Partly thanks to the magnifying lens of football, Brazil’s horrors are coming into full view. The mostly peaceful, mostly middle-class demonstrations during last year’s Confederations Cup were among the largest protests in Brazilian history. People were protesting against everything from bus fares to gay-bashing but, as Goldblatt notes, it was the wasteful spending on the World Cup that helped galvanise anger. Teixeira is gone, average attendances at domestic games have been creeping up, Brazil’s recent economic rise means that fewer players are leaving to play abroad and, although about half the country’s 12 new stadiums will probably become white elephants the moment the World Cup ends, the other half may finally allow Brazilians to watch football in safety and comfort.

For now the Brazilian game remains mostly ugly. These books help us see the coming tournament clearly, stripped of the unrelenting “beautiful game”/samba/1970 hype.

Simon Kuper is an FT columnist and author of ‘Football Against the Enemy’ (Orion)

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