The day the music died


I will never understand why this cup was kicked off with music by J-Lo and Pitbull. Brasil, a country of roughly 200 million souls, a proper, great nation with centuries of history and a deep, rich culture, should have been given the right to pick the artist who would create the soundtrack for this World Cup. Instead, it goes to Jenny from the block and some guy who I think is from Miami and dresses like a pimp. What an insult. It’s almost as shameful as Shakira’s naked pilfering of someone else’s tune for the 2010 cup and then insisting she’d penned it herself.

FIFA’s message is pretty plain: your culture and heritage matter nothing at all compared to our business model and profit-generating machine. This is a hell of a thing coming from a supposedly non-profit organization.

But music wasn’t the only cultural marker to be given short-shrift during the last month of what has been (arguably) the greatest cup of the modern era: Brasil found out that, despite five little stars above the vaunted CBF (Confederação Brasileira de Futebol – Brazilian Footbal Federation) badge, they are no longer the greatest footballing nation in the world. That honor belongs to Germany, who at many points during the tournament reminded me of another, long-since-gone footballing powerhouse who inspired Spain’s tiki-taka and its direct antecedent, the Clockwork Orange of the 1970’s: Brasil. Yes, Brasil. Once upon a time, Brasil was the country of the dazzlingly quick passing through the middle of the park, of the carefully orchestrated, fulminating counter attack. Often times in the same play.

Brasil was rightly feared on the global footballing stage. This is because of the belief that no matter how good the academies, structures, tactics and scouting the European powerhouses had in place, Brasil just seemed to pop out another footballing genius every day. Some think it’s because kids start playing the game in the streets almost as soon as they can walk. Others think it’s down to how Brazilian kids play futsal in the same way American inner-city youth play basketball.

Both of the above play a role, to be sure. But in order to understand something of Brasil’s obsession with this sport (and uncanny ability to keep producing superb talent), one needs to look back to the early part of the 20th century, when FIFA instituted the World Cup, first played in Uruguay in 1930. Brasil took part in that and every World Cup since. The Brazilians were humbled at the hands of their aristocratic neighbors Uruguay and Argentina, who were arguably wealthier and better organized, both as nations and as footballing federations. To many, Brasil was this great, big, populous nation, ungovernable and largely a backwater. Low self esteem on a national scale ran deep, but Brasil saw the opportunity to set the record straight when the cup was awarded to them for the 1950 edition.

We all know how that story ended.

What is notable was how Brasil responded to that loss. It took a little time but through a focus on tactics (it is Brasil who gave us the back four, wingbacks, 4-4-2, etc.) and the continuation of the Brazilian assembly line of world-class talent (Garrincha, Pele, etc.) Brasil went on to win three Jules Rimet trophies in four World Cups (1958, 1962, 1970). They invented a brand of football that became known alternatively as “futebol arte” (artful football) and “jogo bonito” (the beautiful game”). In doing so, Brasil became everyone’s other team, as in, the overdog everyone loved.

Three demoralizing World Cups followed the success of 1970, but it is the 1982 edition that changed Brasil. The squads of 1974 and 1978 were made up of leftovers from the 1970 team and did not have the level of quality for which Brasil was renowned by that stage. The 1982 team, though, was the real deal. Zico. Socrates. Júnior. Falcão. Toninho Cerezo. Éder. Probably the greatest team at any given World Cup to not win the big prize. Cynically stomped out in the quarterfinals by eventual winners Italy. Catenacio won the day against class. Brutality over beauty. The reverberations of that loss hit the CBF and the Brazilian public at large in dramatic fashion. It hurt like the loss of a family member. Soul searching ensued.

The question was asked “what good is it to have the world’s prettiest football if we’re not winning trophies?” The cynical Italians had shown them that if you play hard enough, if you simply lock your opponents down and do not allow them to play, then you win. It was ugly. It was “anti-jogo” (anti-game). It flew in the face of all that is decent and right and beautiful in this beautiful game. But Brasil had won the cup three times. They wanted to win more.

They wanted to win more because Brasil was known for so little if anything other than their football. The country was run by a crummy military dictatorship, the economy was a constant problem, inflation was out of control, the disparity between the rich and the poor was gigantic (it is still so). The only thing that seemed to bring a smile to the face of the people was football. And in Brasil, how you won mattered.

That being said, winning, in the end, matters even more than how. And Brasil were sick and tired of playing pretty and losing.

1986 saw the remainders of the ’82 team come back. If memory serves me right, we were still playing some decent ball, but went out in penalties in the quarters again, this time to France.

1990 we don’t talk about. Awful.

1994. World Cup, USA. The World Cup the host nation (mostly) did not realize was going on. A watershed year in so many ways; so many that it’s a separate post right there. I’ll work on it, promise.

Brasil were compact, efficient and, sadly, not so easy on the eye. Not exactly ugly, but not really Brasil either. Bombastic captain and midfield general Dunga embodied the spirit of the team: tough, unified, determined. Brasil won. The country wen into gigantic paroxysms of joy. The economy flourished. God was Brazilian again.

1998. Much like 1994, plus Ronaldo. He famously suffered some kind of spell (nervous breakdown?) before the final and we were soundly beaten by the French three nil. Questions were asked. Brasil would have to wait another four ears to slake its insatiable thirst for more stars.

2002. Asia’s first cup saw a Brazilian roster packed with truly great, world class talent. Ronaldo was back, but joining him were the marvelous Rivaldo, the man with a cannon in his left leg (Roberto Carlos), inspirational captain Cafú, and even a nascent talent in Ronaldinho, the greatest waste of natural ability whose name was not Maradona. Brasil looked likely to go all the way, all the way through the tournament. Ronaldo vanquished the anguish of ’98 and Brasil were on top of the world.

This team looked a bit more like the Brasil of old at times, but they were led by a steely, determined, tough southern Brazilian (the same part of the country where we get Dunga and, oddly, Brasil’s current president Dilma Rousseff) by the name of Luis Felipe Scolari. A pragmatic man, Scolari knew the seleção he’d been asked to guide to glory had the talent, but needed the backbone in order to batter all others into submission. By creating a family-like atmosphere in the camp, he won the players’ unquestioning loyalty and they adopted his tough-tackling methods. While the squad was bristling with great talent, what won the 2002 cup for Brasil was uncompromising determination and toughness. They were the best team in the cup, no question. Then again it wasn’t a tournament shimmering with great, great talent either.

2006. Brasil go back to Zagallo, who won the cup as a player in 1958, and as a coach in ’62 and ’70. He must be lucky, thought the CBF. We didn’t do so great.

2010. Let’s go with Dunga. He won it as a player in ’94. Grim, defensive, ugly. We did not get far.

2014. Like a dog returning to its vomit, we drag back not one but two former winners in the shape of Scolari and Carlos Alberto Parreira, the latter of whom coached the Brasil side of 1994. Two firm believers in the tough tackling, defense first football that has, tragically, come to be descriptive of Brasil’s game these days. It is ugly. It is bereft of anything happening in the midfield. Our former players included attacking clinicians of unsurpassed creativity and beauty such as Pele. 2014 gave us Hulk. Power replaces art. Cynicism usurps craft.

What team is this? Who are these chumps? Who is to blame?

We are. Brazilians are. What else are we known for other than this game? Steakhouses and corruption? And when you are known for one thing and one thing alone, we lose our souls when we lose the game. And when we stop playing the game in the way that we were known for winning it, then we doubly lose. At home. To Germans who played and won in the same style and class with which we used to play.

For shame. My heart hurts within me. Something is incredibly wrong when the bloody Teutons are beating us at our own game in our own back yard!

What Brasil really really needs (other than finding ourselves in something other than this fickle game) is to return to what got us here in the first place. We won in 1958, 1962 and 1970 playing joyful, creative football. The team of 1982 did not break our hearts. Italy did. They did so playing ugly, cynical, defense first football. We have, to some degree, become that which we hate the most. How you win matters just as much as winning, especially when who you are is at stake.

When winning becomes the only thing, then you become shaped by the goal. Raping and pillaging might be effective in war, but those who perpetuate it are monsters. Football might be war, but we cannot morph into Hitler. We have to be Brasil. We have to be us.

Thankfully, there are a few players out there who look the part. Neymar lived up to his billing in this World Cup. He will come into his own in years to come. He represents more than the continuation of a rich tradition of “craques” (star players) that Brasil seems so adept at creating. He is the new prototype: disciplined, wildly creative, humble and strong. He is not Hulk. He is not brawn. He is art. Just like Zico was. Zico was the right player even back in 1982, when we lost the game and lost our way. That is the real tragedy. Every World Cup since that day has been another step away from our distinctive brand of football.

There is a little saying which fits here: of what profit is it for a man to win the whole world, yet lose his soul?

After the events of this cup, Brasil must put art before brawn to get back not only its pride but its soul. That is job one. Footbal is a game. How we play it matters because it says something about who we are as a people.

Two: The issues with corruption within the biding process and the building of the stadiums in Brasil went quite far to expose to the world the unvarnished cynicism of Brazilian politicians, to whom nothing is sacred. These people felt no compunctions in capitalizing on that which Brazilians love the most to enrich themselves. It led to violent protests that on can only hope carry on now that the visitors are leaving, and may they lead to the ousting of this shameless government.

May it also lead to the kind of soul searching where we ask whether or not this game is not more of a narcotic to salve what truly aches, which is the rampant injustice and social inequity of the country. The ruling party has for years now bought the votes of the destitute through the offering of welfare packages, creating a dependent class whose size is unparalleled even in Brasil’s sordid socio-economic history.

Change must come. It must come now. It is time to admit that while this game is the joy of our people, it is the wrong place to go for identity, for happiness. And while we can argue for things from a million different angles, I think we can all agree that until the vast majority of Brazilian are afforded the chance to make a decent, honorable living through work the like of which they can be feel proud. Not only that, but school, hospitals, just the basic amenities of a civilized society matter more than the number of stars on our badge.

The Germans will be happy about this victory for years, and good for them. They also have way more than football to fall back on when it comes to things about which their people can be proud. Theirs is an equitable, transparent society where the rule of law is enforced and respected, at least for the most part.

Brasil is not like that. Brasil is a sunny, warm place of wonderful people who are daily reminded of how little their opinion matters. This is because all their politicians care about is holding onto power. In order to do that, anything goes.

Corruption is Brasil’s real national pastime. You find it within every layer of society, but it is most obvious at the very top. You see it in other countries around the world, like Angola, Mozambique, Guinea Bissau. While it’s perhaps not as egregious as in those places, political “safadeza” (shamelessness) is something the average Brazilian knows about and tolerates.

Until the people hold their government to account over their behavior and, most importantly, make them pay dearly for the blatant robbery they perpetuate,  we will continue to see no real, systemic change take place in the nation. The poor will get poorer. The little shred of middle class that is there will continue to dissipate like the morning mist in the strong afternoon sun. The super wealthy will continue to vacuum up the money and line the pockets of unscrupulous politicians in Brasilia. We never seem to run short of those.

Let’s wrap this up, as this has gone on for too long…

I feel sad for Brasil, for the nation and its seleção. These guys wanted to give joy to their people. These guys donned the canary yellow shirt with pride. You could see it in the way they sang the national anthem. They know how important this is for their people. They grew up drinking the kool aid. They get it. Losing while wearing canary yellow is bad. Losing while wearing canary yellow in a World Cup is worse. Losing while wearing canary yellow in the World Cup at home is a national disaster. But to lose at home seven to one… to a country that has always embodied efficiency over art…

Germany came to the conclusion back in 2004 that there is a right way and a wrong way to play, and that they would play the right way… and win. That they did, in the country that birthed the right way to play. It seems fitting, in a way.

My greatest sorrow in this World Cup is this: Brasil showed the world how to play. When the tournament came to its spiritual home we should have seen that Brasil come out and play. If we’d lost playing beautifully… well, it would have hurt terribly, but it would not have felt so shameful as to go out the way we did: playing ugly. Looking bad. No ball up the middle. No creativity. No flair.


Sixty-four years ago, Brasil hosted the World Cup. They lost in the final, a heartbreaking affair. This year, we suffered a second ignominious defeat, this time such a savage beating, such a one-sided affair, it is hard to even look at the score line. It’s as if the Germans were playing Mauritius. In every sense of the word, this defeat far outstrips the 1950 defeat in the final to Uruguay.

Last time, Brasil found a way to discover their identity in the game. I hope they do it again, and believe they will. My deepest, wildest wish, though, is that these people, among whom I was born and raised; this country glorious in natural beauty and abundant in verdant canopies of trees, deep in human and natural wealth; that this nation of proud , warm and generous people will wake up and realize that they have a right to see their country run in the interests of all, not just the wealthy and powerful.

Then we can play football for the joy of it, not because our sense of self worth depends on it.


One thought on “The day the music died

  1. Completely agree with everything you say in this article. I cannot imagine what it felt like for Brazilians. Most surely realize that their government wasted millions of resources that could have been better spent on more pressing needs building stadiums and unnecessary infrastructure for the right to host the Cup. Their “reward” was to see themselves publicly humiliated twice at the game which is such a source of national pride. You captured that reality and made it, the causes, and hopefully future actions and responses, brilliantly in this essay. Parabéns.

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