Brazil: Eighteen Months On

Remember 2013? Wasn’t it great? It was if you were Brazilian. For a few short weeks in June, Big Felipe Scolari’s Tropa de Elite were untouchable as they swept aside the likes of Italy, Uruguay and world champions Spain on their way to Confederations Cup glory. “Spain have to remember there’s a hierarchy,” goalkeeper Júlio César chuckled smugly, while director of football Carlos Alberto Parreira declared giddily that Brazil had, “one hand on the trophy” of the following year’s World Cup. Hapless striker Fred, lest it be forgotten, scored twice in the final and looked briefly like a world-beater.

Brazil’s triumph was driven by the waves of combustible patriotism that tumbled from the stands of the Maracanã, the Mineirão and the other stadiums where the Seleção appeared. That energy, expressed most clearly in extended acapella renditions of the national anthem, was fuelled in turn by the massive anti-everything (including World Cup spending) street protests taking place across the country at the time.

Such demonstrations were angry and often involved violent clashes between the police and protesters, but were also in large parts unpinned by an infectious youthful exuberance – “Sorry my room’s a mess mum, I’m trying to change Brazil!” ran the slogan of one memorable poster.

Brazil were back, the kids were on the streets, and the times they were (maybe) a-changin’. 2013 was great. 2014…not so much, either on or off the pitch. 2015 has arguably been even worse. The times, it turns out, haven’t changed much at all. And if they have, they’ve gotten worse. These days, perhaps the only person in Brazil less loved than President Dilma Rousseff is national team coach Dunga.

That misguided Confederations Cup optimism sustained Brazil for much of the World Cup, even after it had become abundantly clear that Fred’s agility and movement up front had more in common with Dibnah than Astaire, and that Scolari had moulded a side that was a volatile mix of aggression and emotional fragility.

The tears, yellow cards and paranoia (“somebody out there doesn’t want us to win the World Cup,” muttered Parreira, darkly, at one stage) flowed unbridled as Brazil worked their way unimpressively through their group, squeaked past Chile in the Round of 16, and then roughhoused Colombia out of the competition in a boorish quarter-final.

At the same time, the anger at the cost of staging the World Cup had put the always strained relationship between Brazilian fans and their team under the microscope. In a country where corruption runs deep (this week a Brazilian parliamentary enquiry announced it would seek access to the phone and internet records of the last three heads of the CBF (the Brazilian FA), while elsewhere, head of congress Eduardo Cunha has become known as Brazil’s Frank Underwood, such is his love of the political dark arts, and the ongoing Operation Carwash investigation has revealed a billion dollar graft ring involving the national oil company, construction firms and politicians) ordinary Brazilians often take a dim view of public institutions, corporate slipperiness, and Fancy Dan footballers.

“They’re just interested in money,” Alexandre, a port worker said of the Brazilian team, while we were watching the Honduras v Ecuador World Cup tie in a bar in a shabby neighbourhood in Fortaleza. “It creates a division between the team and the fans.” The taxi driver who took me to the Mineirão for the semi-final against Germany went further. “They’re liars,” he spat. “It’s a team of liars.”

Taxi driver wisdom for once proved right that day, with David Luiz and co shown up to be the worst kind of frauds by Toni Kroos, Thomas Müller and co. The difference with the euphoric “we’re back” mood at the Confederations Cup semi-final win over Uruguay at the same stadium a year before was vivid, in terms of both football and politics. During the World Cup Final between Germany and Argentina a few days later, chants of “hey, Dilma, go take it up the arse” could be heard ringing around the stadium. Rousseff’s predecessor as president, former working class hero Lula, snapped that the shouts were the work of a “white elite”. Things were getting toxic.

The World Cup bubble, sustained by the apparent miracles of some great football, the relief that the stadiums were actually ready on time, and the fact that everybody, Brazilian and foreign visitor alike, seemed to be having a terrific time, had burst, and reality was about to bite on and off the pitch.   

“Brazil needs a coach with scientific knowledge, coupled with the wisdom to be a good observer and a desire to win, while playing attractively. Forget it! It was just a fantasy, and now it’s gone. The reality is quite different, and much sadder. The reality is Dunga.”

– 1970 World Cup winner Tostão, writing after the Seleção appointed its new manager following the World Cup.

Sure, there was a run of ten perky-enough friendly wins in a row after the CBF’s latest retread got the job, and a kind of manly, drill sergeant approach that seemed refreshing after the histrionics of the Scolari era. More revealing, however, was the paucity of the team’s attacking play and the dispiriting quality of a number of players selected by Dunga – the aging Kaká and Robinho, now decent if not remarkable back in the Campeonato Brasileiro, were given recalls, while there were chances for other domestic big fish, small poolers such as Diego Tardelli, Ricardo Goulart and Everton Ribeiro. It is doubtful if any of the above would get a regular game for a top ten Premier League side.

The roof caved in at the Copa America in Chile this June. Brazil were barely average in an opening win against Peru, then ugly and petulant in defeat to Colombia, where Neymar showed that it’s a lot more fun playing for Barcelona these days than it is for the Seleção, when sent off for squabbling at the end. There was another unlovely win over Venezuela to ensure qualification for the quarter-finals, before a miserable elimination against Paraguay on penalties, in a performance summed up in the following tweet I sent from the press box in Concepción:   

“A display of spirit-crushing mediocrity and unrelenting gloom from Brazil so far (and not much hope it will get better.)”

For Brazilian fans, however, there was one good thing about watching their team in Chile – it was probably better than being back home. There, the economy had gone into a tail spin (reports this week have described the recession as the worst in 25 years), Eduardo Cunha/Frank Underwood had become the most powerful man in the country (though has since become embroiled in his own political scandal), and the youthfully enthusiastic marches of 2013 had been replaced by unhappy, generally upper middle class Brazilians taking to the streets and calling for the impeachment of President Rousseff and, in the case of some clever lads and lasses, military intervention  (Brazil suffered through the darkness of a military dictatorship between 1964 and 1985).

Rousseff is clinging on, however, as is Dunga – mainly, in the case of the latter, because there isn’t much alternative. Brazil have limped out of the blocks in 2018 World Cup qualifying – easily elbowed aside by Jorge Sampaoli’s impressive Chile side in Santiago, before beating Peru and Venezuela and drawing with Argentina.

With gloomy skies on and off the pitch, the historically turbulent relationship between the Seleção and disgruntled home fans has once again come under threat. “People are disgusted with certain things, and we all end up paying for it. We’re in the front line of the attacks, because we’re wearing this shirt. We’re at the mercy of all the anger,” said Dani Alves, pleading for supporters to get behind the team before the opening home World Cup qualifier against Venezuela.

There is of course no neat line between football and politics, and nor is there any reason why the country’s economy should not thrive while the national team sinks into decline, or vice versa. Unfortunately for Brazil, since that brief moment of optimism in 2013, both team and country have followed the same unhappy, downward path. Sadly, it may be a long time before either recovers.

You can follow James Young on Twitter (@seeadarkness)

James Young has lived in Brazil for the last ten years, and has written about the country and its football for The Independent, The Observer, Rolling Stone, Sports Illustrated, Al-Jazeera, ESPN, Soccer Gods, World Soccer, The Blizzard, Howler and others. His book of short stories set in Recife, “A Beer Before Lunch” is available from Amazon.
Brazil: Eighteen Months On
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