//A Tale of Two Brazils: The Protester and the Champion//
Originally appeared in the Huffington Post, July 2, 2013
In my fiction classes, I teach my students that the writer’s obligation, first and foremost, is to observe the world around them, even in sports — especially in sports. It’s amazing to me how many writers don’t follow sports. In sport, there’s a time frame, a narrative arc, a plot, sometimes a subplot, rising action, a climax too, among other things. And more often than not, sport is a microcosmic reflection of the macro elements within which it’s allowed to operate. You follow sport and you’re really following people — personal narratives, struggles, politics on the pitch and off. In this year’s Confederations Cup, we’ve witnessed the tale of two Brazil’s unfolding before our very eyes: On my living room screen, the pomp and circumstance of our underdog Confederations Cup Champions after defeating Spain. On my computer screen, an aerial shot of Saenz Pena square in Rio, thousands of protesters sitting peacefully in the street blocking traffic.
The protesters themselves cite a myriad of reasons for taking to the streets. What started as a protest to the increased price in transportation fares throughout Brazil ahead of the World Cup eventually grew to a protest of the Brazilian Government itself as it spends billions of dollars on new soccer stadiums, much to the consternation of Brazilian protesters who say Brazilian hospitals, transportation systems, and schools need the money. Additionally, protesters cite FIFA’s demand that Brazil amend Brazilian laws in order to protect outside sponsors and skirt local taxes during the World Cup. Such is the conflict in Brazil’s 21st century narrative: the clash of a people’s demand to be granted basic dignities under the government they elected and their government’s desire to perform, and therefore sell, Brazil to the world at any cost.
Brazil’s Confederation’s Cup win no doubt sold Brazil as the scoring soccer magicians of Brazilian past. They seemed every bit apart of their dynastic roots: the Brazil of Pele, the Brazil that won five World Cups, and now the Brazil that beat Spain 3-0, perhaps ushering in the end of an era dominated by Spanish soccer greatness ahead of next year’s World Cup. Two goals by Fred in the 2nd and 47th minute and a goal by Neymar in the 44th minute sealed Spain’s fate. Spanish striker Sergio Ramos sent a penalty kick wide in the 45th minute and defender Gerard Pique was sent off the field following a red card after fouling Neymar on a drive in the 68th. Pique’s ejection summed up much of Spain’s desperation in this match. The Spanish team was clearly stymied by Brazil’s midfield athleticism and defensive panache. David Luiz’s spectacular sliding goal-line clearance thwarted what would have otherwise been an easy goal for Pedro. And of course it should be noted that Brazil’s goalkeeper, Julio Cesar, never let anything slide past.
After watching this game, you almost scoff at Brazil’s ranking of 22nd overall in theFIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking System (Spain is ranked number one). But let’s take a minute here to consider the fact that there is an international soccer ranking system named in part after Coca-Cola. This is where the plot thickens. This is where the subplot begins. And for many Brazilians, this is the entire narrative altogether. The blessing of their legacy as a soccer nation and the curse of it as well. The curse of living under FIFA as a host nation. The curse of footing FIFA’s bill while sponsors, like Coca-Cola (but not necessarily Coca-Cola), are able to skirt laws, change laws, and effectively shape a nation that is slowly becoming a world power but, in the process, is still becoming.
Brazil’s story in the 21st century is playing out every day in today’s streets, in today’s news, in Brazilian homes, on Brazilian soccer pitches. Every nation’s story is the story of its people. This is why the single narrative of samba, soccer, and Carnival are so appealing to the international soccer spectator looking on. We gain cultural access to this underdog world: twenty-second ranked Brazil on the pitch against number one Spain, BRIC nation Brazil emerging as a world power ahead of the World Cup. The belle of the ball. The dark horse and her moment of brilliance. In becoming a fan we gain cultural navigability. Moreover, we feel a part of Brazil’s story and its chronology too. We gain access to Pele and his his dancing dribble. Everything associated with that nation so many consider to be the Mecca of soccer. We want to love it and Brazil wants us to love it.
Moreover, there’s money to be made off it, and Brazil knows that too.
It’s a beautiful narrative. It’s a single narrative, the dangers of which Chimimanda Adichi explains in her infamous TED talk on the single story. But the beauty of sport is it allows us access to the unified story — the story of the Brazilian Champion and the Brazilian protester, both inextricably interlinked.
As the great Joe Strummer once said, “without people you’re nothing.” And as I’vewritten about before, that’s especially true for a team. Most especially a national team because in many ways, a nation and its team are a simulacrum of each other. What affects Brazilian soccer affects every strata of Brazilian society and what affects Brazilian society will ripple all the way to the head of FIFA. Should FIFA continue its meddling in Brazilian government, protesters threaten to continue protesting at the World Cup as well.
I always tell my students, “if you know sports then you know people.” That is, you know stakes. What they mean and what they are.