British Cultural and Historical Perspectives on Contemporary Brazil

Month: July, 2014

The English Disease: Part 2

Subscribe to Feed

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

Subscribe to Feed

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.