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Against Brazil

“This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” —The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance

What if the legend stops being fact? What if the legend not only stops being fact, but goes on being printed anyway, printed incessantly, at every opportunity, printed and duplicated and reprinted and reduplicated to the point that it becomes an inescapable atmospheric cliché? What if it starts to distort the desire it originally gave expression to? What if it stops even being a legend, and becomes instead a slogan, a logo, a trademark, a campaign?

Brazil do not play a particularly attractive brand of football, though within football, they have formed a particularly attractive brand. Under Dunga, they’ve adopted a methodical, disciplined, and businesslike approach to the game, one part Mourinho and two parts Mannschaft. They score from set pieces, they win headers, they build from strength in the back. There’s nothing wrong with that, though from a stylistic standpoint it’s often a bit banal. Under Nike, however, they’re relentlessly exported as the avatars of creativity, beauty, and joy in football, as though the 1970 World Cup never came to an end.

I mind this. I mind being told that I have to love Brazil because “all true lovers of the beautiful game,” etc. Brazil didn’t invent the beautiful game, they only invented new ways to sell it. It’s no coincidence that João Havelange, the lavishly corrupt former president of FIFA who essentially gave birth to modern sports marketing through the sponsorship deals he signed with Coca-Cola and Adidas, was the head of the Brazilian Football Confederation before he went to FIFA. Nor that he secured his election as FIFA president in part by exploiting the prestige of Pelé and the Brazilian national team. During Havelange’s 25-year reign in Zurich, Brazil became the centerpiece of FIFA marketing, the “samba football” ideal started being used to sell cheeseburgers, and the CBF profited enormously, scooping in huge sponsorship deals such as the record-breaking £100 million contract they signed with Nike in 1996.

The image of free-flowing, spontaneous, dancelike soccer—an image that was based on a real culture that had nothing to do with the marketing deals, and on wonderful players who were artificially shrunk in the orbit of Pelé—became so ingrained that, particularly in the last decade, it paradoxically started to seem joyless. Even when the team really played that way, it was impossible not to see it as a kind of contractual obligation, as though Nike, who were already in charge of arranging many of Brazil’s international friendlies, were programming their tactics as well. When the team weren’t playing that way, as they haven’t been over the last few years, the gap between their mythic identity and and their mundane reality imposed a bizarre cognitive dissonance on their games. During their World Cup qualifier against Argentina on Saturday night, my Twitter feed was full of two things: reports on the USA-El Salvador match that was happening at the same time, and jokes about how the announcers wouldn’t stop gushing about the samba even though Brazil were playing like 2005-era Chelsea.

Everyone basically knows all this. Complaints about the team’s moribund style are commonplace in Brazil, where football is still one of the emblems of national identity, and the role played by corporate sponsors in the seleção has been a point of country-wide anxiety. (After the loss to France in the 1998 World Cup final, the relationship with Nike was subjected to a months-long congressional investigation that resulted in dozens of charges of corruption.) But within the promotional and presentational arms of the sport—in commercials and by commentators—Brazil continue to be portrayed as twinkling icons of innocent aesthetic purity. We’re effectively asked not to see what we’re seeing, effectively so that Ronaldinho’s smile can move some more vitamin units. I’m not the sort of fan who believes that money is always wrong in football or that commercialism is exclusively bad for the game, but when you’re marketing what amounts to your own purity, and all the official channels keep rhapsodizing about how pure you are even though everyone sees what’s happening, something is out of joint.

Brazil have one of the most glorious histories in the game, have produced some of its most spellbinding players, and have some marvelously talented players on their roster now. I would love nothing more than to see them recapture the qualities that made them one of soccer’s great joys between, say, 1958 and 1986. In the meantime, I kind of hope they don’t make their own World Cup.

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Against Brazil

by Brian Phillips · September 7, 2009

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