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Bread and Circus: A Round-up of our Best World Cup Pieces

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Photo: Brazil, May 10, 2014

By Leon Dische Becker

If you’ve been following our World Cup symposium, Brazil’s lackluster performance will not have come as a surprise to you. We kicked off our coverage with a pertinent interview about the legendary rise and recent fall of Brazilian football.

In dialogue with our own Timothy Spangler, David Goldblatt (author of Futbol Nation) illustrated how Brazil’s players revolutionized the sport from 1950 to 1970, “sweetening and rounding the European’s angular game,” making it beautiful for the first time; only to explain how this revolution was undermined after Brazil’s 1970 victory. Recognizing the great ideological potential of the sport, the ruling military junta “deformed and malformed Brazilian football…both in how it [was] played and how it [was] organized. It became a much more physical and much more aggressive game…military style training and an obsession with fitness became the expected norm.” The Brazilian game became tactical and cynical, reliant on destructive players in the back and one or two magicians up front. Brazil won the cup that way in 1994 (thanks to Romario), and again in 2002 (thanks to Ronaldo), thus keeping the myth of their beautiful game alive. But Brazil’s victories came at a heavy price. While 1970 empowered the junta, the 2002 victory essentially voided all congressional investigations into Brazil’s corrupt football association. According to Goldblatt, this repeated exposure to Bread & Circus complicated Brazil’s love affair with their favorite sportI doubt the country’s encounter with FIFA has done much to rekindle old feelings.

For such an opaque organization, FIFA is rather transparently corrupt. “Russia 2018, Qatar 2022: coincidentally, their executive committee picked the two regions that were investing most heavily in European football teams,” Grant Farred noted slyly in his World Cup diary, published the day of the first game. The question on Dr Farred’s mind at the time was whether the ugly politics were starting to overshadow the game. In other words: was football losing its innocence? I was alarmed by this notion, until I sat down at a bar and the ball got rolling; as usual, the politics became just another facet of the contest. Brazil’s gotta win, otherwise the whole country will explode was a popular talking point at halftime. Instead of complaining about referee decisions with the traditional slurs, many of the people watching the games with me espoused something I like to call casual FIFA paranoia. Whenever the ref made a bad decision, somebody next to me would mumble fucking FIFA, and my Facebook feed would flood with casual accusationsOf course, I also noticed that the referees blatantly favored the home team. (Incidentally, this advantage hurt Brazil in the quarter final against Columbia — the referee’s unwillingness to card Brazilian players early on in the match led to a free-for-all that eventually broke Neymar’s back.) Brazil 2014 isn’t the first time this deferential trend has been noted; indeed it was even more explicit in South Korea and Japan in 2002. The question that remains open to my mind is whether home bias was a result of policy  — i.e a reflection of FIFA’s desire to see the home team advance — or intimidated referees.

This observer couldn’t help but notice that British commentators sounded a tad gleeful reporting the demise of Brazilian football, and he couldn’t help but suspect that this was related to their own team’s somewhat earlier, more humdrum exit. Spain must also be relieved. Their own epic collapse has now been eclipsed, partially — though it should not be. Indeed, to football nerds like myself or Dr. Farred, the Spanish collapse is rather more significant.

Their 1-5 drubbing by Holland was more than the demise of a footballing empire or the end of a cup-winning streak. It marked the  — again, preliminary — collapse of a radical football philosophy. Farred described it exquisitely:

Their free-flowing style of possession-based football, featuring short, intricate passes, befuddled opponents from 2008 to 2012; Barcelona dominated Europe and Spain dominated the world. They thrilled us in 2010 with their exquisite touches — everything short and quick, the stuff of geometric wonder. With tiki-taka (“touch, touch”), its purveyors caressing the ball, treating it with care, a whole new realm of footballing possibility revealed itself. Angles we never thought possible on a football field suddenly became a matter of a slight flick or a delicately placed pass. The system seemed unbeatable: the best its opponents could hope to do was temporarily disrupt it and counterattack — if, that is, they could get the ball. Today, sadly, Barcelona is in decline, and Spain has aged; strong counterattacking teams have recently pierced the tiki-taka shield on several occasions, breaking the illusion of total control.

To illustrate what these four years of football dominance meant to Spain, I defer to Aaron Shulman’s essay on the topic. “The irony of Spain’s meteoric hot streak in global football is that it has coincided precisely, and sadly, with the country’s cratering economic collapse.” But while many Spaniards have derived solace from the success, a vocal minority has substantial objections:

 Most Spaniards who hate soccer, like my wife, feel the way they do for reasons of political conscience, which hark back to the Roman poet Juvenal and his idea of bread and circus. According to them, soccer is an instrument of social control…They see soccer as an enemy of change in a country where things have to change: unemployment is close to 30 percent, corruption is farcically normal, over a hundred foreclosures on subprime-mortgaged homes occur every day, and police violence is brutal…Several people I talked to brought up the role of soccer during the days of the Franco regime, which used the sport to beat the nationalistic drum for the patria and derail discussion of thornier issues. “We’re returning to the times of Franco,” says my mother-in-law, who was born and came of age under the dictatorship. But she also sees soccer’s prominence as an extension of the ongoing economic crisis. “People are losing in their personal lives, but then on an international level, they get to experience victory. They personalize it to an extreme extent. The problem is that the government uses victory to export a ‘Spanish Brand’ instead of actually fixing things.”

A central and positive function of national football teams in Europe today is the presentation of a successful multi-cultural collective. While in most European nations, this means bringing together players of native and migrant origin, in Spain it means uniting players and fans from nationalist and separatist regions.

 Competing in the World Cup turns up the temperature on the always-simmering issues of what Spain is — and who is Spanish — in the first place. I am referring, of course, to Catalonia and the Basque Country. In both of these regions, large portions of the populace don’t consider themselves Spanish. These nationalist/separatist mindsets mean that Catalans and Basques root for Spain with a certain ambivalence, if they root for Spain at all. Chino, who now lives in Barcelona, told me, “I have co-workers who didn’t even watch the final game of the last World Cup. They said it wasn’t their team.” …Of course, the architects of the Spanish winning streak hail overwhelmingly from Catalonia. Pep Guardiola, the coach responsible for the tiki-taka strategy that enabled Spain to dominate world football, could be seen just the other day, on his World Cup break, attending a rally for Catalonian independence in Berlin.

 Guardiola’s influence has outlasted Spain’s. Indeed, it will be felt in the final today, with six of his current Bayern Munich players/pupils starting for Germany, and two of his former Barcelona players/pupils starting for Argentina — the all-important Messi and Mascherano. Their country has its own fraught relationship with football, as our contributor Tim Benjamin pointed out in his review of a popular Argentine soccer novel.

 NEAR THE END of Papers in the Wind, Argentine writer Eduardo Sacheri’s frustrating tragi-comic second novel, Mono, the cancer-ridden owner of a floundering soccer talent, is talking to his brother Fernando and their best friend Ruso about the futility of prayer — specifically, praying to God to decide a soccer game in your team’s favor. “On the other side,” he says, “in the other stands, or at home, there are a ton of guys asking for the opposite, you understand?” His companions reply that, no, they don’t see what he’s getting at. “When somebody wins,” Mono clarifies, “somebody else loses.” This is the kind of epistemological prickliness that anyone who maintains an unwavering faith in anything — gods, sports franchises, lovers — must inevitably confront.

Benjamin finds one of the few redeeming aspects of the book in its rendering of a failed soccer career: a Brazilian player named Pittilanga, who is effectively bought by the novel’s protagonist at the age of 17, when his “potential looks to be boundless,” only to put on weight and languish in Argentina’s backwater leagues. “Far from European capitals and endorsement deals, soccer for him has become just another poorly paid blue-collar profession, the kind that defines the community he hails from.” Returning to the broader historical picture, Benjamin quotes a recent statement by the novel’s author:

 “Football is one of the few places where the poor can win — or at least that’s our illusion.” Spectacle, prayer, illusion, faith: these are all synonyms. Argentina, a country in which 90 percent of the population supports a soccer club, won their second World Cup in 1986 partly because of a score that shouldn’t have been: Diego Maradona’s infamous “Hand of God” goal against England. And while that mythology was used in defense of a breakdown of another kind, perhaps the greater trick was performed eight years earlier by Jorge Videla, the military dictator who overthrew Isabel Perónin a 1976 coup d’état. Videla instituted a systematic culling of dissent leading up to the global game’s biggest stage, ostensibly to present the image of a stable Argentina on the country’s home turf when Argentina hosted the World Cup in 1978. After his regime abducted and killed thousands of political enemies, he left it up to the national team to transform a tournament into yet another mythology, that of national unity, while people outside the stadiums (and perhaps inside as well) still mourned their dead or hoped for the return of their disappeared.

 Benjamin doesn’t think very highly of this work of half-satire, concluding that it amounts to little more than a “a weepy nod to the purifying magic of the spectacle.” The same can certainly not be said about The Arab Autocrat’s Guide to World Cup Qualification, Karl Sharro’s sly contribution to our symposium:

Arab leaders have historically taken a keen interest in the beautiful game — a keen interest, particularly, in qualifying for the World Cup. To this end, leaders from Libya to Qatar have adopted management styles that would be considered intrusive in other parts of the world. And, though they shared the same goal, their approaches would be very different. Every autocrat is a peerless philosopher. And so, over the last half-century, football fans throughout the Arab world have witnessed some rather extravagant social experiments. In what follows, we offer you a short survey of this grandiose and neglected history.

Saddam Hussein, we discover, “is the prototype of the Arab dictator as football philosopher. He set a template that would become industry standard, appointing his son head of the national football body and promising players huge rewards in case they qualified for the World Cup.” Furthermore, he “once fielded an entire team of players named Saddam in a crucial World Cup qualifier against Oman, earning him the admiration of his entire cabinet.” Saddam even incorporated his dreams into football strategies. After dreaming of an Iraqi team winning the World Cup in traditional garb, “Saddam ordered his tailors to make Assyrian costumes for the whole Iraqi team. Predictably, the imperialists at FIFA intervened against this expression of native pride, declaring the costume and its accessories contrary to international standards.” Syria’s Hafez al-Assad, on the other hand,

cultivated the image of a reasonable pragmatic leader…This restraint manifested in his policy on football, which was restricted to subtle gestures such as naming every single football stadium in Syria “The Hafez al-Assad Stadium,” like every school, university, hospital, airport, and dam. While this made life hard for Syria’s taxi drivers, it filled the Assad family with pride and humility.

 In case you haven’t gleaned the obvious, Karl Sharro is a satirist. But there are facts intermingled with his fiction. This is accurate, for example:

George Orwell described international football as “war without the guns.” Clearly he hasn’t been to Lebanon. The Lebanese differ from other Arabs in many respects. For one, they don’t have individual autocrats who rule the country, but a more egalitarian system based on a committee of autocrats, formed from feudal chieftains and warlords. The Lebanese are also quite astute and pragmatic. Rather than supporting the national team, the Lebanese pick strong teams like Brazil and Germany through which to channel their passion for football. This combines two of the favorite Lebanese pastimes: football and proxy wars. Ideally, this would involve a game between Iran and Saudi Arabia, which would allow the Lebanese to split their support neatly along sectarian lines.

While most of our essays dealt with Bread & Circus, our last piece was more concerned with drink & football. In his resplendent essay Specimen Daysauthor Pauls Toutonghi recounts kicking his heavy drinking habit while watching Bosnia qualify for the World Cup.

As a child I assumed, in the way that all young children subconsciously assume, that my adult life would be an ordered one, that there would be answers for all of my questions, that the narrative I’d live through the world would follow, in some very real sense, Freytag’s dramatic pyramid, with its rising action, and its sensible climax, and its orderly denouement. I certainly never imagined myself at age 37, sitting, soberly, in a bar full of obstreperous Bosnians, concentrating on two screens at once, watching, crestfallen, as Greece increased its lead over Lichtenstein.

Boozing and watching football are juxtaposed throughout the piece. And though Toutonghi never makes the nature of this juxtaposition explicit, his piece demonstrates the similarities between the two activities. Both are form-religious, a summoning and challenging of fate, a plea for instaneous judgement or deliverance.


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