The weight of legacy can either propel you or crush you down. The people of Brazil will hope Neymar and co. can ride the tide at Russia this summer.
The World Cup is here; you can almost hear it scooting into town now. The world’s elite have landed in Russia, finished with their warm-ups and ready to dream the dream once more. Suddenly, the scanty little football shop in your neighbourhood will start selling national team jerseys too. Manchester United and Real Madrid kits will have to spend a while inside the dirty-racks nobody reaches out for as the blue of France and the red of Spain catch your eyeballs from the street outside.
As the opening ceremony draws closer, the air of hype and anticipation is growing denser by the minute. For the next month, football discussions at office water-coolers will inadvertently include a World Cup angle now. “Ronaldo has a better chance, but Messi can win the Ballon d’Or if Argentina do well.”
Amongst the thirty-two teams, Brazil can call themselves the rightful owners of the highest share of this mindspace, transcendent of patriotism and support for other countries. They are the rockstars of football fandom; not everyone’s cup of tea, but they escape the attention of very, very few. Brazil could enter the first group match against Switzerland with eleven goalkeepers and the world will still watch with bated breath.
“Brazil are the tribune of those football cultures that have never qualified for the World Cup. Except in Argentina and Uruguay, they are almost everyone’s second team when the tournament rolls around.” – Goldblatt, David. Futebol Nation: A Footballing History of Brazil
For Brazilians, football is their sanctuary. They are the fifth-largest nation in the world by population and area, yet have precious little going for them. Brazil have an empty cupboard of Nobel Prizes, their most famous sculpture is made by a Franco-Polish guy, and their music and dance is relevant for one week every year, and that too merely to satisfy the thirst for the exotic and hedonistic. Politically, the country has been an easy-to-miss sidenote in modern history, with no revolution or war to amplify its significance. Coffee, their largest export to the world yet, too has been colonised and taken over by the far more famous Italian variants.
Devoid of social, cultural or scientific relevance in the global arena of popular culture, all they have for any sort of visibility is their football, and it is a connection that goes beyond scorelines. Football is the only space where the entire world celebrates them as torchbearers of a style, a captivating blend of music, dance and athleticism. The capoeira.
It helped that Mexico ‘70, the highest point of Latin American football, was the first world cup to be televised in colour across the globe. The explosion of bright colours in the stands formed neat rims for the artistry on the pitch exhibited by Pele and his amigos. While the Europeans wilted under the hot sun, the Brazilians used heat and sweat as props for a show so surreal and extravagant that those who watched it are yet to recover.
‘Other teams thrill us and make us respect them. The Brazilians at their finest gave us pleasure so natural and deep as to be a vivid physical experience…the qualities that make football the most graceful and electric of team sports were being laid before us. Brazil are proud of their own unique abilities but it was not hard to believe that they were anxious to say something about the game as well as themselves. You cannot be the best in the world at a game without loving it and all of us who sat, flushed with excitement, in the stands of the Azteca sensed that we were seeing some kind of tribute.’ – Hugh McIlvanney, McIlvanney on Football (1994)
Today, the capoeira, or samba football as it is more popularly and maybe incorrectly known across the world, is synonymous with fearlessness and bravery, of an approach to the game only the most gifted could dare to attempt. In a matter of great poetic symmetry, it is interesting to note that the style was born out of fear. Back when Brazil was still under colonial occupation, it was punishable for a local to even briefly touch the proverbial white man. Scared of the leash, but determined to win at sport against their colonisers, they turned to dance and music and found a way to dribble the ball forward while successfully evading any physical contact.
Ever since Leonidas chose France ‘38 to light the flame of what was possible with a rubber ball, every Brazil team has been expected to carry the torch and the ball forward. It is as much a march of dominance, as it is a symbol of non-conformance to the somewhat aesthetically impaired imperial world.
There have been those, like in the Pele and Garrincha years, who have ran, nay glided, with the torch, the balance of the flame unwavering. Tele Santana’s 1982 epoch was one such sprint, although the side ran out of breath before the world had hoped them to. Ronaldo, Romario and Ronaldinho too were figureheads of a less exhilarating, but immensely successful phase. And as with every ritual, there have been those who fell along the way, creating a bruised, bloody mess sometimes. The 1974 and 1990 World Cups were as forgettable as they come. Some even managed to brush off the wounds and finish the rest of the race without the torch, a la Dunga’s team in 1994, but each group, every campaign, must attempt to run the race. Far from a mere hope, it comes sewed with the fabric of the canary yellow.
Brazil enter the 2018 World Cup in much better shape than they did in 2014. For starters, they have a coach who won’t call back folks who last kicked a ball during the Mayan civilisation. Tite’s team is young, dynamic, and filled with competitive footballers who’ve all seen a fair amount of success at the club level. In Neymar, they have a talismanic leader, who seems to be born for the brightest lights on the biggest stages. And finally, for once, they have a team, a set of players willing to shed sweat and blood for the collective cause.
Come 17th June at Rostov, when all the music stops and the first words of Hino Nacional Brasileiro start to ring around the stadium, Neymar, Firmino and co. will know that for a month, the spotlight will not leave them, sometimes willing them on, and sometimes acting as weighted resistance. To carve themselves any sort of space in the annals of Brazilian football history, they must emulate the greats of the past. If they can do so while upholding the torch of O Jogo Bonito, they will get an entire page to themselves.