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May 28, 2014

Futebol: The Brazilian Way of Life

From beach football on the Copacabana to giant kickabouts in the Amazon, football is a national obsession in Brazil.
From beach football on the Copacabana to giant kickabouts in the Amazon, football is a national obsession in Brazil.

Rating:

The Faroe Islands may seem like an odd place to begin a book about football in Brazil. After all, the cold, tiny outcrop of land in the north Atlantic bears little resemblance to the brilliant beaches of Copacabana or the lush rainforests of the Amazon. Yet the idea that there is more than one Brazilian plying his trade in the Faroese football league is so within the realm of possibility that it speaks volumes about how we view the legitimacy of Brazilian football. Simply put, the allure of Brazilian football has no boundaries.

To the casual fan, our perception of Brazil as the custodian of the world's most popular sport is largely guided by the country's trophy haul in World Cup tournaments and the playfulness with which they approach the game. However, in "Futebol: The Brazilian Way of Life," Alex Bellos provides a cultural analysis of Brazilian football that extends much deeper than the superficial platitudes that we often associate with the country. Bellos' conclusion is simple: football is central to the identity of Brazil, and it manifests itself throughout all aspects of society. He writes, "No other country is branded by sport... to the extent that Brazil is branded by football."

"Futebol" successfully provides a comprehensive portrait of Brazil by capturing both the collective psyche of the nation and the individual avenues through which Brazilians express themselves. This top-down and bottom-up approach suggests that both World Cup final losses in 1950 and 1998 and an event like the Big Kickabout (the Peladao) -- an amateur football tournament in the Amazon city of Manaus featuring more than 500 teams -- are equally integral to the country's footballing identity.

Throughout "Futebol," a theme emerges of football as a source of empowerment and unity. On the one hand, this means that powerful people in powerful positions like Eurico Miranda, the former president of Vasco da Gama, or Ricardo Teixeira, the former president of the Brazilian Football Confederation (CBF), can collude and manipulate the game and the political process for their personal gain. On the other hand, this means that, in a society where the wealth has traditionally been concentrated at the very top, football is a powerful platform for the disenfranchised. From the terraces of Corinthians in Sao Paulo to the annual Indigenous Games tournament, Bellos gives a voice to the disparate groups that represent Brazil. By the end of "Futebol," readers should be wholly convinced that the tide is at least beginning to turn, even if the process is slow.

For readers already familiar with the original edition of "Futebol," the updated and revised edition for the 2014 World Cup does not offer a great deal of groundbreaking new information. In addition to a postscript that succinctly summarises the political events of the last decade, several chapters offer brief and poignant updates. Frustratingly, these often leave more questions than answers. The places and characters in "Futebol" are so vivid that it is a shame that we are unable to connect with them or learn of their fate more than 10 years later. Regardless of this wishful thinking, "Futebol" is a timeless exploration of Brazilian football that provides essential context as the country prepares to host the world.