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Jun 9, 2014

Deromanticising Brazil's relationship with the Selecao

Three-time World Cup champion Pele discusses "the most important tournament in the world".

The first thing I did after landing at Sao Paulo's Guarulhos International Airport for the 2013 Confederations Cup was nip into the gentleman's bathroom. I emerged positively giddy after discovering that in Brazil even the urinal cakes in public bathrooms had famous strikers' faces etched on them.

Here was immediate proof of the nation besotted with football I had always heard about, one in which, after searing national team losses, suicides are rumored, government inquisitions demanded and Brazilian flags flown at half-staff.

Yet as I soon discovered, things were not entirely as they seemed. After following the Brazilian national team's dashing, anthem-propelled journey to Confederations Cup glory, the relationship between the people and the team was far from the poetic romance I projected. Football fans and journalists alike discussed the team and the Brazilian Football Confederation with a sense of hard-nosed commercial reality.

In Salvador, a town known as "the African capital of Latin America," I watched the Selecao thump Italy in front of a virtually all-white crowd. The only black face in my section was a food vendor who told me with disgust, "The Brazilian national team is beloved only among casual fans who don't follow football week in, week out."

Is the relationship between the Brazilian people and their national team not as close as advertised?

"A lot of what we believe when we talk about Brazilian football is about a mythical reality that does not exist," said David Goldblatt, academic and author of "Futebol Nation: The Story of Brazil Through Soccer." "Everybody in Brazil would like the team to play the same symbolic role as the great squads of the 1950s and '60s and herald a return to the golden age that gave us the imagery and language we draw upon to describe and think about Brazilian football -- the mercurial Garrincha in 1962, of a nation dancing while a red municipal fire engine pulls the team from the airport to the presidential palace. But Brazil has changed so much since then, and so has Brazilian football."

Paulo Vinicius Coelho, the iconic Brazilian broadcaster on ESPN and columnist for Folha de S. Paulo, is able to pinpoint the main difference since the golden age of the '60s and '70s.

"The main players no longer play [domestically] in Brazil; they play abroad, so they do not develop the same emotional relationship because club fans cannot see their development week in, week out," he said. "Just look at David Luiz, who has never played in the top flight of the Brazilian league."

The distance and unimaginable wealth enjoyed by Brazil's players is compounded by the fact that the national team itself feels more foreign. "The CBF [Brazilian Football Confederation] sold the rights to their friendlies to a sports agency who keep them on the road playing lucrative games," Goldblatt told me.

"The federation have an agreement with European clubs so the players will only fly small distances, which means the team play games in London and Switzerland more than in Brazil, where the poor people can see them live," Coelho said. "It is an important factor in the relationship between the team and the fans."

With the weight of a nation on his shoulders, this summer will do much to define Neymar's eventual legacy.
With the weight of a nation on his shoulders, this summer will do much to define Neymar's eventual legacy.

Goldblatt noted that this change has occurred over decades. "In truth, that sense of the team as commercialized commodity kicked off in 1996 when the federation signed their first, massive deal with Nike, which has become the richest in football," he said. "They can charge more than any other team in the sport, and no one is blaming [them] for that, but no one knows exactly where the money is going. It is definitely not flowing down to the grassroots or the women's game."

The hyper-commercialisation swamping the team is, in a way, a symbol of the extent to which Brazil itself has changed over the past 60 years. "In 1950, Brazil was a world away from how we think about it today," Coelho said. "There were no big cities; even Sao Paulo was more rural. There was no industrialization, movies or restaurants. The only thing to do was to watch football."

This line of thinking allows the broadcaster to flip the argument on its head. While Brazilians might not love their soccer team the way we imagine, that might never have been the case. "To be truthful, I don't believe they loved the [national] team more back in the '50s and '60s," he said. "Yes, the feeling that the team made us feel more of a nation is truer than today, but there are so many romantic stories told about the loss in 1950 with very few documented realities. People always say there were suicides, but back then journalists were not really journalists; they were popular writers, so the myths that surround the past may not be true at all."

Goldblatt agrees. "In a way, 1950 has been slightly exaggerated by the Rio intellectual elite whose voices we hear tell the story more than any other," he said. "In Sao Paulo, it was far more back to work as usual after the game." And what of 2014?

"How Brazil hosts and organizes the tournament will be more important than the way its team performs," Goldblatt said. "If the team loses, it will not be a national trauma. If it wins, it will be a fantastic party, but it won't have the depth of meaning of the '50s or '60s.

"If Brazil fail to win, there will be a lot of anger at the CBF for spending so much money over the last seven years with nothing to show for it. I foresee a depression for the football industry in Brazil but not for Brazilian society or the economy."

I ask Coelho to imagine the impact of a Brazilian win, and he collects himself before answering. "The Confederations Cup surprised many of us who thought a special relationship with the team no longer exists," he said. "A big World Cup can change that relationship and make it intense once again."

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