Brazilogue

British Cultural and Historical Perspectives on Contemporary Brazil

The English Disease: Part 2

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A little over a week ago, Brazil woke up wondering how it had managed to behave so embarrassingly at its own party and make clumsy passes at so many different people. Brazil hadn’t just been beaten: it had been beaten up, as someone wrote of Mike Tyson’s 1990 clobbering by James “Buster” Douglas. In seeking to lay the ghost of the Maracanazo, it had summoned the seven-headed monster of the Mineirazo. It’s players were left reeling and predictably tearful. By the end, even their theatrical penalty-area dives lacked conviction. Central defender, Dante, about whose private Inferno much wordplay was made, was described as looking like “a dazed cockroach”. Every member of the Brazilian team was given 0 out of 10 by the following day’s O Globo newspaper. “God is Brazilian and he likes football!”, or so goes the popular Brazilian saying. But in that 18-minute/5-goal flurry, God appeared to have renounced his nationality and Brazil to have succumbed to that other English Disease: massively underperforming at World Cup tournaments.

The inevitable inquest began while the game was still in progress and found its immediate scapegoat in head coach, Felipão. In the post-match conference, dark headphones circling his bald crown, he had the air of a Nuremberg Trial defendant wondering where he was going to source the cyanide pill. But in the succeeding days, this gave way to an almost Roy Hogson-like mood of denial and defiance. Rather than fall on his sword, it appeared he intended to have the words “good job” – his self-assessment of his performance – engraved on its blade. The Brazilian Football Federation duly disavowed him of this misapprehension.

Like a reverse Old Testament Patriarch – stern, authoritarian, God-fearing – Felipão had seemed intent on leading his cultish ‘family’ of players into a footballing wilderness. He had dragged them to the semi-final on a heady cocktail of raw energy, misplaced self-belief and Art-Of-War motivational bluster. But when faced with a well-oiled German attacking machine, Brazil’s extravagantly-coiffured Maginot Line was effortlessly outflanked.

Felipão later admitted that he had tried to ‘confuse’ his opposite number, hausfrau fantasy-object, Joachim Low, by adopting untested tactics and an untried formation. (For reasons he didn’t care to go into, the Brazilian squad had only had one training session between the quarter- and semi-finals.) But the Brazilian players were the only ones left bewildered by the strategy. The magical realist tactics failed once the team’s only real magician – Neymar – had been sidelined. Their midfield proved as flaccid as Felipão’s paunch; its spine as fragile as Neymar’s third vertebra. Moreover, the players’ near-infantile subjugation to Big Phil’s unquestioned authority left little room for leadership in adversity on the field.

Following the tear-fest of the second-round penalty shoot-out against Chile, psychologist Regina Brandão was rushed to the Brazilian training camp to patch together the player’s shredded nerves. She observed that “on realizing that they weren’t as good as they thought they were, the players lost confidence in their talent.” They lacked the psychological resources to bridge the yawning gap between Big Phil’s triumphalist rhetoric and the jarring reality of their own limitations. Phil had previously declared himself to be the team’s only ‘psychologist’ but his efforts to build a siege mentality had simply left his charges terrified of what might be outside the walls. An intermittently active emotional volcano, Phil’s own anxiety was apparent in the less than reassuring admission that he felt “unsafe” when left alone.

The Guardian’s art-critic, Jonathan Jones was moved to speculate whether the game amounted to a genuine tragedy. He noted that, to fulfil Aristotle’s definition of the form, it needed “to arouse pity and terror” (tick). It also needed to lead to catharsis, which was provided, amongst other things, by the good-humoured self-mockery in which Brazilians sought refuge on social networks (“And you thought the opening ceremony was the most embarrassing thing about this tournament?” read one tweet). There was also something Oedipal in Germany’s reluctance to kill the ‘footballing father’, defender Mats Hummels later claiming that Germany’s players made a gentlemanly agreement at half-time not to ‘humiliate’ Brazil – before delivering a couple of valedictory knife-thrusts in the second half for good measure.

But to qualify as true tragedy, the narrative would also require a dose of hubris – Felipão and assistant coach, Carlos Alberto Parreira’s, pre-tournament assertions that Brazil were favourites who had ‘one hand on the Cup’ and ‘no Plan B’ (Plan A being: give the ball to Neymar) – and for the protagonist’s demise to be mirrored in the broader collapse of his society.

Certainly, if the heart of Brazil’s broader footballing society is the Brazilian Football Confederation (CBF), there were many, in the aftermath of the game, calling for its overthrow. 1994 World Cup winner-turned-congressional deputy and political establishment gadfly, Romário, fired off a series of Facebook broadsides claiming, among other things, that, “our football has been deteriorating for years, the life sucked out of it by ‘top hats’ (corrupt administrators) who haven’t got the talent to do one keepy-uppy. They stay in their VIP boxes toasting the millions that go into their bank accounts. A bunch of corrupt thieves and gangsters!” He accused the Chairman of the CBF, José Marin, of being “a thief of medals, energy, public property and a supporter of the dictatorship.” A bewigged relic of military regime politics, Marin has been accused of stoking the 1970s climate of anti-leftwing hysteria which led to the abduction and brutal murder of journalist, Vladimir Herzog. Romário further noted that Marin’s successor-in-waiting, Marco Polo Del Nero, was recently charged with, “crimes against the financial system, corruption and conspiracy.” Marin’s predecessor at the CBF was Ricardo Texeira, who resigned in the wake of FIFA-related scandal and who, in turn, is the former son-in-law and ally of gilded-pillar of administrational improbity, João Havelange.

Others have subsequently called for more state intervention in the game (Sports Minister and Communist Anglophobe, Aldo Rebelo), an embargo on the export of Brazilian talent (President Dilma) and even (whisper it) the appointment of a foreign coach, both José Mourinho and Manoel Pelligrini having allegedly been contacted in recent days. (Marin, however, would appear to have put the kaibosh on that option, having declared, erroneously, last October: “I can state that we have nothing to learn from any outsider, principally in the field of football. We have always had the best in Brazil!”)

German comedian, Henning Wehn, meanwhile, suggested that it’s simply time to “put an end to those stupid documentaries about how South America’s poverty is the catalyst for footballing excellence, and how everyone in Brazil learns to play barefoot on the beach. Even the ones living thousands of miles away from the sea. It’s time for more accurate documentaries that explain how well-maintained municipal facilities and the supportive families of a prosperous middle class are the secret to world domination.”

Five days after their Brazilian job, Wehn’s countryman returned to the city from which, two hundred years previously, Germans had been expelled by knife-wielding locals, bellowing, “Go home, foreigners!”. Now they were welcomed back as models of global citizenry, cultural sensitivity and footballing magnanimity. They had even achieved that unthinkable feat, prior to the tournament: of replacing Brazil as every right-minded person’s second team. They would further ingratiate themselves with their hosts by proving that the Argentinean captain, contrary to his fellow countrymen’s insistence, was not the MessiAH after all. He was just a very naughty boy.

Meanwhile, the FIFA circus rolls on under a swirling cloud of rumour and uncertainty concerning the legitimacy of Blatter’s mandate, corruption charges regarding the Qatar bid-process, illegal ticket-selling allegations involving banged-up-abroad Brit, Ray Whelan, and questions over the sanity of staging a World Cup in a desert in the middle of summer. Blatter and Co., whilst awarding Brazil (and, by extension, themselves!) a 9.25 out of 10 for the tournament’s organization, failed to quell concerns about their terminal venality and unfitness for purpose. When the FIFA delegation was housed for several days in São Paulo’s Grand Hyatt hotel, delegates insisted on the implemention of a ‘day use’ policy, whereby guests were allowed to join them overnight in their suites for a supplementary payment. A substantial increase in female traffic was duly noted in the hotel lobby. The official slogan of the 2014 FIFA World Cup™ was: ‘All In One Rhythm’. Perhaps that should have been amended to: ‘All In One Rhythm – the rhythm of old men having sex with Brazilian prostitutes in luxury hotels.’

The English Disease: Part 1

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Arthur Friedenreich: the first great German-Brazilian exponent of the English Disease

Arthur Friedenreich: the first great German-Brazilian exponent of the English Disease

Never in the history of this country – to borrow a favourite phrase of football fanatic and former President Lula – had Brazil seen anything like it. Germans rampaging across the field leaving a trail of destruction and panic in their wake. Locals looking on aghast, powerless to stop the carnage. Their leaders clueless as to how to respond.

The year was 1828; the field, Rio de Janeiro’s “Campo de Santana” or “Field of Saint Anne”. German mercenaries garrisoned in the city centre had risen up with Irish fellow-troops in violent protest against appalling living conditions and unpaid wages. For three days, they overran the streets around the Campo, looting bars and houses, binge-drinking and engaging in running battles with locals and – frequently – each other. On the third day, in the absence of regular forces, desperate city leaders authorized the arming of local slaves and capoeira gangs, who willingly set about dispatching and mutilating the hapless and, by now, profoundly hung-over Europeans. The Imperial Guard of Honour and English and French marines were drafted in to oversee the endgame. “I don’t believe,” wrote military historian, Juvênico Saldanha Lemos, “that there had ever been such an abdication of responsibility or such indiscriminate killing in Rio de Janeiro.” Some 200 men, women and children died in the mayhem.

In the aftermath of the rebellion, the fighting Irish were packed off home and the Germans sent to do battle with Argentinean troops in the war over the disputed territories of the future independent Republic of Uruguay. They would subsequently establish thriving immigrant communities in the southern Brazilian states of Santa Catarina, Rio Grande do Sul and Paraná, their presence still evident in surviving German-speaking settlements, Brazil’s pilsner-dominated brewing industry and the names of famous German-Brazilians such as Gisele Bundchen and Gustavo Kuerten. They would also play an important, if largely unacknowledged, role in the development of Brazilian football.

Much is made of the status of Anglo-Scots-Brazilian, Charles Miller, as the sole progenitor of football in Brazil. But, before and after Miller shipped a pair of balls to Santos in 1894, an army of unheralded British sailors, merchants and engineers was busily spreading the Word of the Football Association Rulebook to the farthest corners of the country. And wherever they went, they encountered German immigrants carrying their own peculiar strain of die englische Krangheit – or the ‘English disease’ – as they dubbed the game.

Within a couple of years’ of Miller’s founding Brazil’s first regular football team – of the São Paulo Athletic Club – former Hamburg club captain, Hans Nobiling, had set up the rival Sport Club Germânia. Nobiling had initially been snubbed by a cold-shouldering British expat community but his team, largely composed of German immigrants, would become a mainstay of Brazil’s first five-club football league – the Liga Paulista de Foot-ball. Germans and Brits, including Miller, would play side-by-side in a German-sponsored charity match in 1904, beating a team of ‘Brasileiros’ 3-2 – a score-line to bring tears of nostalgia to the eyes of today’s ‘Brasileiros’ in the wake of their more recent German fixture.

In 1900, English-educated Anglo-Brazilian civil engineer, Arthur Cecil Lawson, clubbed together with childhood friend, German-descended Henrique Buhle, and Hamburg native Johannes Minnemann, to form Sport Club Rio Grande in the capital of the eponymous southern Brazilian state. Lawson became the goalkeeper, captain and later chairman of the German-speaking club. Between 1902 and 1903, he and his teammates embarked on a series of footballing excursions of the region which would inspire the founding of numerous teams, including legendary first division side, Grêmio. Sport Club Rio Grande remains the oldest active football club in Brazil and its founder is remembered in the name of its stadium: the Estadio Arthur Lawson.

In 1909, Charles Wright, an English employee of the American S. Brazilian Engineering Co. – a British company responsible for building a railway line between São Paulo, Paranã and Rio Grande do Sul – founded the first football team in the state of Paranã – the Club de Football Tiro Ponta-Grossense. Their first fixture was scheduled against the German-descended members of the Club Ginástico Teuto-Brasileiro, which would subsequently evolve into Coritiba Football Club, a regular if lower-end presence in Brazil’s current first division.

The most celebrated Teuto-Brasileiro of them all, and Brazil’s first footballing superstar, was Arthur Friedenreich. ‘Fried’ was arguably born under the ideal constellation of footballing influences: to a German father and black Brazilian mother, in the Luz district of São Paulo where Miller and his British colleagues staged Brazil’s inaugural ‘official’ kick-abouts. As well as appearing for Nobiling’s Germânia and Paulistano (another founding club of the Paulista League), he featured in Brazil’s first ever international match against Exeter City, on July 21st 1914. In what might be regarded as a rehearsal for the four-year long England vs. Germany fixture that would kick off in Europe a few weeks later, the English boys rough-housed the ‘German’ lad off the pitch. But Fried returned, Schweinsteiger-like, bruised but unbowed, to the fray, helping his teammates secure a landmark 2-0 victory.

A staunch amateur, who played for 26 years without receiving a penny in pay, he scored a total of 568 goals in 580 matches (for many years he was listed in the Guinness Book of Records as the world’s all-time highest goal-scorer with an inflated tally of 1,329 goals. Fried himself shamelessly perpetuated the myth that he never missed one of his 500 penalties.) Christened ‘El Tigre’ after his match-winning 150th minute goal in the final of the 1919 South American championship, he was described by his vanquished Uruguayan hosts as “the most perfect centre-forward in South America”.

“I refined my skills watching Charles Miller,” he later claimed, “kicking the ball under his watchful eye; he was like my primary teacher. But it was Hermann Friese who gave me my secondary and higher education. With him, I began to climb the ladder and attain the heights of footballing achievement.” Friese, Germânia’s trainer, was another imported product of the Hamburg footballing school. Under his tutelage, ‘El Tigre’ adopted a rigorous training regime, learning to shoot with both feet and perfect his heading skills. Friese taught him that you “didn’t hoof the ball into the area. Football was a game of passes and dribbles.” Once again, footballing raw material, roughly-cut by the English, was polished to perfection by the Germans.

A dandyish bon vivant off the pitch, Fried played an active role in the Constitutionalist Revolution of 1932 and inaugurated the grating sportsman’s habit – subsequently adopted by Pelé – of referring to himself in the third person when describing his achievements.

This Sunday (20.07.14),  Exeter City will return to Fluminense’s football ground in Rio to play a commemorative match against the club’s under-23 side, on the very pitch where Brazil’s inaugural international fixture was staged almost 100 years ago to the day. It’s unlikely that, as in 1914, proprietors of local bars will be able to make a killing, auctioning off the glasses from which Exeter’s players drink their orange juice or the chairs on which they sit. But it’s hoped that the game will be played in a more amicable spirit. And that somewhere Fried will be enjoying the notion that, on the occasion of the centenary of his and Brazil’s first international, in the aftermath of a German triumph at a Brazil-hosted World Cup, he remains the perfect embodiment of the English Disease.

Bigode, Serve The Queen

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On Tuesday afternoon (17.06.14), before Brazil’s group match against Mexico at the ‘Castelão’ stadium in Fortaleza, would-be World Cup sensation, Neymar Junior, was reduced to tears by a tradition inaugurated almost exactly a year ago at the same venue. That day, Brazilian players and supporters united in a heartfelt a capella version of the FIFA-outlawed second section of their national anthem, in solidarity with thousands of people protesting outside the stadium against corruption and wasteful World Cup spending. The tradition was upheld for Brazil’s opening match against Croatia and subsequently adopted by the Chilean, Colombian and Argentinian teams before their inaugural games.

Referring to the phenomenon, the celebrated Brazilian columnist and writer, Luis Fernando Veríssimo, noted, “the smaller the country, the more ferocious its anthem. Anthems of former colonies are generally martial and bloody, in contrast to the hymn, for example, of England, that old criminal colonial power, which is simply a plangent plea for God to protect their lovely queen.” He added that the, “old subjugating powers tend to produce short, tranquil anthems, while the old subjugated powers produce long, resentful ones.”

The Brazilian anthem celebrates the mythical moment when, as immortalized in the canvas painted by Pedro Américo, Emperor Dom Pedro I, rapier held aloft on a dashing white charger, defiantly declares ‘Independence of Death!’, having received letters from Lisbon ordering him to submit to the authority of the Portuguese government. The more prosaic reality is that, when Pedro received his marching orders, he had just shakily remounted a pack-mule having evacuated his bowels for the umpteenth time in roadside bushes following an acute bout of food poisoning.

The Brazilian anthem is fittingly florid, rich in high-flown sentiment and replete – like those of fellow former colonies, Chile, Colombia and Argentina – with the inevitable references to heroism, liberty and death. But it’s redeemed by an upbeat rhythm and jaunty melody not unlike the theme-tune from the BBC TV consumer programme ‘That’s Life!’

Veríssimo’s description of the English national anthem betrays his unfamiliarity with the belligerent second verse of the standard version. With its entreaties to ‘scatter our enemies and make them fall’ and to ‘confound their knavish tricks’ (appropriate as that may be concerning any team which numbers Luis Suárez among its players), it’s an unlikely candidate for the upbeat a capella treatment before England’s game against Uruguay at the Itaquerão on Thursday. The appeal to ‘confuse their politics’, moreover, has a decidedly redundant ring to it in Brazil.

A  version of the English national anthem is featured in a Brazilian World Cup lager commercial. In the ad, beer-swilling Brazilians praise the English, to the tune of ‘Bigode, Serve The Queen’ (a play on words on the Brazilian pronunciation of God Save The Queen), for inventing football and then mock them for failing to win anything since 1966. It’s a legitimate target for satire and a bullet-headed John Bull takes the ribbing in good humour. But the joke would have more punch if it was used to promote a beer that didn’t taste of fermented cat’s piss. Skol, the brand in question, is one of a limited number of bland lagers imposed on Brazilian consumers by monopolizing Belgian-Brazilian beverage giant Ambev. The multinational includes the more palatable Bohemia and Original pilsners in its portfolio but, with the exception of overpriced craft brews, beer-drinking in Brazil is a largely joyless activity.

It was the British, inevitably, who introduced beer to Brazil, during their commercial occupation of Rio de Janeiro in the early 19th century. “There are … plenty of English pot houses,” noted travel writer, Maria Graham, in the 1820s, “whose Union Jacks, Red Lions, Jolly Tars, with their English inscriptions, vie with those of Greenwich or Deptford.” “The cult of Bass and Allsopp is popular in Brazil,” added engineer Thomas Woodbine Hinchcliffe, forty years later, “and, even in remote places, it is relatively easy to find English beer.” By the 1870s, German immigrants were getting into their biermeister groove and, as predicted by another English engineer, William Hadfield, “the well-known English brands of Bass and Allsop” were gradually superseded by lighter pilsners more suited to the climate. The British brewing legacy amounted to little more than a reputation for national bibulousness, as noted by British consul, polyglot, adventurer, spy and author Sir Richard Burton, who observed that the phrase “a drunken Englishman” was considered a virtual tautology in Brazil: ‘”fala Inglez” – he speaks English, in Portuguese African [means], “he’s drunk”.’

The Brazilian refusal to drink beer at anything above the temperature of liquid nitrogen, meanwhile, has provided little incentive for producers to offer a product with any discernible flavour. This is unlikely to trouble travelling English football fans, however, who will doubtless continue to belt out Skol-fuelled a capella versions of the national anthem until at least June 24th.

Let Them Eat Cognac Diamonds!

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Do-It-Yourself  FIFA 2014 World Cup Opening Ceremony

Do-It-Yourself FIFA 2014 World Cup Opening Ceremony

President Dilma Rousseff looked glum during the preamble to the kick-off of the 2014 FIFA World Cup. And not just due to the realization that organizers had blown R$18 million on an opening ceremony with the production values of a school fête (R$2.7 million of which was lavished on the jewel-encrusted leotard in which Bahian popstar Claudia Leite mimed ineptly to playback of the dire musical mission-statement, ‘We Are One (Ole Ola)’. Dripping with ‘Noble Gold’ and cognac diamonds, like a latter-day Marie Antoinette, Leite declared that she had “dressed like a Brazilian supporter”. If someone had told her of hungry punters’ frustration at the discovery that snack bars at the R$1 billion Itaquerão Stadium had failed to stock any snacks, she would doubtless have declared: “Let them eat cognac diamonds!”)

No sooner had the ceremony ended then crowd and players revived the tradition – inaugurated during last year’s Confederations Cup protests – of defiantly singing the FIFA-outlawed second verse of the Brazilian national anthem. A large proportion of Brazilian supporters then warmly and repeatedly urged the President to perform an unorthodox sex act (“Ei, Dilma! Vai tomar no cu!” – “Oi, Dilma! Go fuck yourself (up the arse)!”). The stadium’s speakers played conspicuously loudly and continuously thereafter.

Dilma and Blatter had long since abandoned plans to give speeches at the event for fear of provoking further hostility. They were roundly booed on their introductions. The previous day, Rousseff had called off her attendance at the rubber-stamping of Blatter’s proposal to be allowed to run for the FIFA Presidency in perpetuity, citing a convenient cold. (At the FIFA Congress, a convenient malfunction of the secret electronic ballot boxes enabled Blatter to force an open vote on the matter). Sitting side by side in the Itaquerão Stadium, their body language suggested a couple desperate for the divorce papers to come through. This wasn’t what Dilma had expected when her arranged marriage into the FIFA family was contracted in 2007. Why, after all the Workers’ Party had done for them, were the People so ungrateful? Where, as Blatter had so richly demanded in response to similar barracking at the Confederation’s Cup, was the “Fair Play”? Dilma had wanted this World Cup to be about so much more than football and that wish had come back to bite her on the very bum in which supporters took such a lively interest at the Itaquerão.

There is something Shakespearean in Blatter’s mad-old-man megalomania and hubris, but also in the recalcitrant, foul-mouthed character of the Brazilian World Cup public. Shakespeare’s lyrical satire on New World colonialism, The Tempest, was indirectly inspired by 16th century navigator, Amerigo Vespucci’s, vivid descriptions of recently ‘discovered’ Brazil and its native inhabitants: ‘They have no laws or faith and live according to nature. They do not recognise the immortality of the soul; and they have among them no private property, because everything is common; they  have no boundaries of kingdoms and provinces, and no king! They obey nobody, each is lord unto himself …’. Vespucci’s letters, with their promise of the possibility of idyllic communistic coexistence, caused a sensation in feudal Europe. But Shakespeare had little time for New World romanticism and created the grotesque character of the man-monster Caliban (a reference to Brazil’s ‘cannibalistic’ Tupi peoples) as a riposte to panegyrics about noble savages and Utopian societies. ‘You taught me language,’ Caliban tells his master, Prospero, ‘and my profit on’t Is I know how to curse.’

Like Caliban, the Brazilian people have been changed by knowledge. They are now too well-informed to be fobbed off with over-priced bread and over-billed circuses. Like Shakespeare, they have become disillusioned with the notion of the socialist paradise, at least the version of it promulgated by Dilma’s corrupt and discredited Workers’ Party. They want good governance, competent economic management and a better return on their excessively high taxes. They also know how to curse, bilingually, as the lurid abuse of Dilma and the proliferation of ‘FUCK FIFA’ phenomena attests. If football is a religion in Brazil, its people have learned to separate church from state. They have emerged from their democratic infancy and entered a period of grumpy adolescence. And they’re in no mood to be ordered by Father Sepp or Mother Dilma to go quietly to their bedroom. They’re also concerned that, once the World Cup party is over, to cite Prospero’s closing speech from The Tempest, ‘the gorgeous palaces, the solemn temples’, of the FIFA-mandated structures, will, ‘like an insubstantial pageant faded, leave not a rack behind’.

The World Cup has allowed Brazilians to explore a Caliban-like penchant for Anglo-Saxon profanity

The World Cup has enabled Brazilians to indulge a Caliban-like penchant for Anglo-Saxon profanity

FUCK FIFA

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The Central do Brasil - or Central Railway Line - passes through the former estate of the Brazilian Emperor Dom Pedro I who learnt to swear in English from his potty-mouthed Irish groom

The Central do Brasil – or Central Railway Line – passes through the former estate of the Brazilian Emperor Dom Pedro I, who learnt to swear in English from his potty-mouthed Irish groom

The penultimate governor of Aden, Sir Richard Turnbull, famously declared that “when the British Empire finally sank beneath the waves of history, it would leave behind it only two monuments: one was the game of Association Football, the other was the expression ‘Fuck Off’.” Turnbull’s prophecy appeared to have been ironically fulfilled when a battered Brazilian passenger train was recently seen clattering through Rio de Janeiro’s suburbs with the phrase “FUCK FIFA” emblazoned on its side.

Brazil was never part of Britain’s formal empire. But for much of the 19th century, thanks to a combination of one-sided trade treaties and financial-commercial bullying, it was reduced to the status of de facto British colony. And nowhere did the “British disease” – as the Germans dubbed association football – infect the collective imagination as in Brazil. Football helped the country construct an inclusive post-slavery identity, providing an arena where black Brazilians could be regarded not only as equals but idols, and enabling a formerly work-averse slavocracy to embrace an ethic of collective endeavour. The game also enabled an emerging nation to assert itself on the world stage as a sporting superpower. The hosting of the 2014 FIFA World Cup was supposed to consecrate the country’s status as a global power, having leapfrogged the UK in the GDP table (not to mention leaving England far behind in the FIFA rankings). But sluggish growth has seen Brazil slip below an underachieving UK in the economic leagues and the FIFA brand is increasingly tainted, if not fucked.

A third British imperial monument which Turnbull failed to mention was the railways. The knackered tracks along which the graffiti-scrawled engine rattled belong to the Central Railway Line – formerly the Dom Pedro II – built by the British in the 1850s. The Central/Dom Pedro was one of a dozen or so Brazilian railways constructed, financed and/or run by the British in the 19th century which helped make Brazil the world’s biggest coffee exporter and spurred São Paulo’s transformation from rural backwater into financial-industrial powerhouse.

The British-built railways also brought British football enthusiasts to Brazil, notably the Anglo-Scots descended San Paulo Railway clerk Charles Miller, the so-called founder of the “violent British sport” in Brazil. (The symbiosis of railways and football is evident in the number of clubs formed by rail workers, from Manchester United – founded by employees of the Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway – to Corinthians and Ponte Preta of São Paulo. There is even a Brazilian football club simply called Ferroviaria – or ‘Railway’. The railways moreover allowed for the formation of national leagues in Britain and the playing of the first interstate fixtures in Brazil, with teams from São Paulo and Rio travelling on the Central Railway to their respective away games).

The plight of the Central Railway, with its disintegrating tracks, near-weekly derailments and violent passenger mutinies, epitomises the dismal state of rail infrastructure in Brazil. The once glorious lines on which passengers could travel in armchair comfort in soot-protective smocks, from Rio to the Bolivian border, have largely been mothballed, or sold off and earmarked for cargo traffic. With the waning of British influence in the post-war years and her substitution by the US as the dominant economic force in Latin America, Brazil – under modernizing President Juscelino Kubitschek – embraced the American auto-centric transport model (itself inspired by the Nazi autobahn system in which Hitler invested heavily). International auto-plants sprang up all over the southern São Paulo region, once criss-crossed by British-built railways, and the rail network was gradually reduced, by policy, privatization and indifference, to a rump. The current state of Brazil’s rail passenger transport programme is illustrated by the story of the planned Rio-São Paulo bullet-train. Announced with great fanfare in 2009 by then Chief of Staff – now President – Dilma Rousseff, the project was due to be inaugurated in June 2014 – in time for the World Cup! An estimated R$1 billion has since been consumed in preliminary studies and consultancy fees and not a single metre of track has been laid. (An ironic celebration to mark the (non-)opening of the line was recently organized on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/events/239212782917216/)

It is, thus, no coincidence that the Central Line became a focus for the animus of World Cup-averse Brazilians. The widespread protests of June 2013 were kicked off by the Passe Livre campaign for free/improved urban transport and sustained by intense anger at underinvestment in infrastructure and public services, and the squandering of taxpayer money on inherently obsolete sporting stadia. Hijacked by militant self-styled ‘anarchists’, the protest movement reached its nadir when Brazilian cameramen Santiago Andrade was fatally wounded by a homemade firework in front of the Central Railway terminus in February of this year. The movement has since lost much of its popular support and momentum but the Central Railway station remains the departure point of choice for intermittent Rio-based demonstrations.

Rio de Janeiro’s rugged topography makes it highly unsuited to the pro-car culture which has seen the city’s fleet of vehicles double in the last ten years, with predictable consequences for its increasingly grid-locked roads. The prospect of being stuck in traffic between their São Conrado hotel and Urca training ground had been one of the England football squad’s main concerns prior to their arrival in Brazil. But yesterday (09.06.14), it was England who were responsible for a snarl-up. In an ill-omen for those fearing England might revert to a more conservative style of play at this tournament and sideline their flair players, they literally parked the team bus across two lanes of traffic in front of their hotel when someone belated realized that midfielder, Ross Barkley, had been left behind. Barkley eventually appeared with the lateness of a Honduran tackle and the insouciance of Glen Johnson leaving a B&Q branch with a shoplifted toilet-seat. (The Mexican team fared even less successfully when their official FIFA bus suffered a flat battery – arguably the best FIFA metaphor of the competition so far – on their way to their Santos training ground, forcing players to complete the journey by taxi. The Dutch meanwhile have been reinforcing laid-back hash-pancake-eating national stereotypes, playing keepy-uppy and frescobol on Ipanema Beach, and ‘dribbling’ – as Brazilians would say – local traffic problems by eschewing official transport in favour of minibuses).

England park the bus

England park the bus

The England team eventually reached their training ground, located picturesquely in the lea of the Sugar Loaf Mountain, late yesterday morning. The mountain was originally scaled by a joint team of Austrian and English officers and sailors, in 1818, according to the son of former British consul, Henry Chamberlain:

“The Eastern side was chosen as the easiest ascent, but it cost them two hours of dangerous and difficult exertion to reach the summit. Having deposited under some Stones a Bottle containing a Paper with the names of the Parties, and set up a Staff bearing a large White Flag with a Red Cross, they descended, but, upon reaching the foot of the hill, were, to their great astonishment, arrested, and carried prisoners to the Guard-House.”

It wouldn’t be the last time that Englishmen flaunting a St George’s flag abroad would be detained by the authorities. Chamberlain added that “some thought it the work of the devil” and couriers were sent to the Prince Regent at his country estate to report the “wonderful news”. Yesterday afternoon, several members of the England team took part in a capoeira class at the Rocinha favela. Their teacher, Ismael Vasconcelos, described their efforts as “clumsy” – “They don’t have our flexibility” – and ruled them out as contenders for the trophy, predicting a Brazil-Spain final. It seems the England team has its work cut out if the St George’s flag is to recover its capacity to inspire fear and wonder in Brazil.

Train-surfers on the British-built Central do Brasil railway line. Why risk life and limb surfing a train when you could be 'spotting' it from the safety of the concourse?

Train-surfers on the British-built Central do Brasil railway line. Why risk life and limb surfing a train when you could be ‘spotting’ it from the safety of the concourse?