British Cultural and Historical Perspectives on Contemporary Brazil

Month: June, 2014

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


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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:

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?