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For my first review I would like to talk about my favorite book among the many that I have read this year, Alex Bellos's look at football (or soccer, if you prefer) in Brazil. To almost anyone in the world the mention of the word Brazil instantly brings up one image, that of the seleçao, clad in the famous yellow shirt, dancing across the field in pure joy. Perhaps no other poor country in the world has such a favorable stereotype as Brazil - images of samba and carnival and a racial melting-pot and beautiful women in small bikinis on the beach. Above all, the world's view of Brazil in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries has been shaped by the exploits of its national football team, the practitioners of what is seen as the purest and most beautiful form of the world's game, the jogo bonito.
Brazilian culture, beyond the simple stereotypes mentioned above, is largely unknown in the Anglophone world. Brazil, with over one hundred and eighty million people in over half the land mass of South America, is an increasingly important and vibrant player internationally. It is also a nation of notoriously deep economic divisions, where European levels of prosperity exist alongside African levels of poverty. It's major cities, where shantytown favelas controlled by heavily-armed drug gangs squat near luxurious walled condominium complexes, witness some of the world's highest crime rates, as seen in Fernando Meirelles's spectacular film City Of God. Yet, despite these problems, Brazil still functions, and it has proven to be one of the world's great creative laboratories, producing incredible music, film, literature, dance, and, above all, it's own particular slant on the world's game.
Football was brought to Brazil by the English (the game's inventors) in the early twentieth century. It caught on quickly and would in short order redefine how the entire nation saw itself, rewiring perceptions of masculinity, of race, of class, of region, of religion, and of Brazil's place in the wider world. Brazil's population, a spectacular melange of indigenous, European, African, Middle Eastern and Asian elements, took to the game like no other people on earth. The genius of this very entertaining book is that Bellos uses futebol as a key into the Brazilian soul, starting with the game and looking at how it is influenced by, and influences, a wide range of elements of Brazilian culture.
I first wanted to know how a British game brought over a little over a century ago could shape so strongly the destiny of a tropical nation. How could something so apparently benign as a team sport become the greatest unifying factor in the world's fifth-largest country? What do Brazilians mean when they say, with jingoistic pride, that they live in the 'football country'?
In the course of his thousands of miles of travels around Brazil he looks at the links the game has forged with all elements of society. As you would expect from a trip around a country as culturally rich and varied as Brazil he meets all sorts of wonderfully quirky and expressive characters, such as Father Santana, the candomblé (an Afro-Catholic hybrid religion synthesized by black slaves) priest at Vasco Da Gama, traditionally the club of the Portuguese community in Rio; a man whose career has seen him burying crosses behind goals, crowned the Black King of Carnival in Rio, and serving as the chief masseur to the Kuwaiti national side. Or The Man With The Crutches, who has lost one leg up to the knee yet nevertheless travels Brazil performing keepie-up exhibitions using his stump and his crutches. Not to mention the team of transvestites, the Brazilians playing in the league of the Faroe Islands (part of a 5,000 strong Brazilian footballing diaspora), the man who designed the legendary national jersey (who, it turns out, supports Uruguay at international level), a football stadium where the equator serves as the half-way line, the upper-class playboys who invented 'autoball' in the 1970's as a sort of Demolition Derby with a giant ball, the Peladao (a combination football tournament and beauty queen contest held annually in Amazonas state), the hyper-devout Pentecostalists of Athletes of Christ, the Corinthians supporters club Hawks of the Faithful who have nearly sixty thousand members and annually compete for the Carnival championship in their guise as a samba escola. He takes in games everywhere from the famed Maracana in Rio to mudflats on the Amazon River to 'ecoball' kickabouts among remote Indian tribes, all the while delving into the history of the game and discussing such important events as Brazil's shock loss in the 1950 World Cup final to Uruguay, and discussing great players of Brazil's past and present like Pele, Garrincha, Socrates, and Ronaldo.
Of course, as with anything in Brazil, the joyousness of the people's game is dogged by a darker side. The domestic game is in particularly dire straits. The national governing authority, the CBF, has been consistently knee-deep in corruption scandals, especially among many of the more prominent members. The directors of many clubs consistently pocket huge windfalls from the sale of players overseas while their players go months without being paid. Each season the league format is re-jigged, leading only to confusion and apathy among supporters, and frustration among the players, especially among the lesser lights, who are underpaid and buried under what is one of the world's most densely-packed seasons. Frustrated to the point where taking a guaranteed paycheck in Armenia or Malaysia seems tempting. There is all sorts of chicanery in the selection of the national squad, especially for friendly matches and lesser qualifiers, as appearing in the famous yellow strip is the single most effective way to advertise yourself overseas. Then, of course, there was the debacle of the 1998 World Cup final, where Ronaldo mysteriously fell ill before the match, and was only a shadow of himself as Zinedine Zidane led the French to a famous 3-0 victory.
Yet, despite these problems, this is ultimately quite an uplifting book, concluding with a fantastic interview with Socrates, O Doutor, the hero and captain of Brazil's legendary (but ultimately unsuccessful) 1982 World Cup side, and one of the all-time greats of the world game. A middle-class youth who continued his medical studies even as he was breaking into the Corinthians first-team, and from there into the seleçao, he even played an important role in moving Brazil towards democracy during the last days of the military regime through the anti-authoritarian players movement he founded, Corinthians Democracy. With his education and life experiences he is probably the best person to explain the unique appeal of Brazilian football and culture and why Brazilians, despite the problems of their nation, would never want to be from anywhere else:
"Brazilian culture - this mix of races, this form of seeing the world and life - is possibly our greatest national resource. Because it is a very happy culture, it is not discriminatory, it's free...it's a big disaster zone, really, but it is the essence of humanity. When humanity organized itself too much it lost its most basic characterisations, its instincts, its pleasures. I think this is what we have which is best, which is absolutely why I am in love with Brazil."