Alex Bellos, Futebol: The Brazilian Way of Life
With the US team eliminated and another day before the quarterfinals start, you may be feeling like you have a bit more time on your hands. What better time for a World Cup Book Club Extra? And if this book doesn’t appeal to you, be sure to scroll down the bottom for further reading suggestions.
From its original publication in 2002, Alex Bellos’s Futebol has been the major source for English-language sports fans seeking a thoughtful picture of Brazilian football. If Eduardo Galeano’s El Fútbol a Sol y Sombra (the focus of my first World Cup Book Club) is a poet’s book, Bellos offers a journalist’s account of football’s role in Brazilian society. It comes by that tone honestly; Bellos was a Brazilian correspondent for The Guardian from 1998-2003. Bellos offers notes for each chapter which are quite open about his sources, he has a series of useful appendices (on domestic Brazilian clubs and on the national team’s World Cup history), and he has that tone of cultivated reserve which encourages readers to believe that his judgment has been carefully weighed. After a stroll amongst demi-gods and devils with Galeano, it is refreshing to feel one’s feet more firmly on the ground.
The book also has the structure of a journalist’s book, in that each chapter feels like an independent magazine article. They offer narrative encounters with interviewees designed to humanize their subjects, usually breaking away at some point to provide a context in which to understand the significance of that individual’s experience. We usually return to an interviewee at the end to reconnect with the human element of the story. This may sound formulaic (as is all writing), but Bellos has a deft touch, and in the finer chapters at the beginning and the end of the book it is extremely effective.
Many of the early chapters offer an historical overview, as Bellos explores the game’s early development in Brazil, their historic home loss to Uruguay in the 1950 World Cup, and the special place of Garrincha in the Brazilian mythos of the game. These chapters provide excellent introductions, often based on quite specific Portuguese sources that Bellos warmly acknowledges. His handling of Gilberto Freyre’s romanticized vision of Brazilian football is telling. Unlike Galeano’s unapologetic embodiment of that mythic worldview, Bellos explicitly recognizes the racism implicit in attributing Apollonian rationality to Europeans and Dionysian fecundity to Africans, but does so without quite dismantling the attractive story of Brazilian football that has been built upon it. The chapter on Garrincha is indebted to Ruy Castro’s biography of the icon, since translated into English (see below). Bellos’s account of the 1950 loss includes a visit with Aldyr, the designer of Brazil’s yellow-shirt-blue-shorts kit, who turns out to be a Uruguayan supporter and novelist. It also discusses Paulo Perdigão’s book-length “anatomy” of the game (published in 2000), and Bellos himself has posted Perdigão’s film about the game–included below–to youtube.
Other early chapters are more interested in the contemporary sociology of the game. The opening chapter uses four professional Brazilian footballers plying their trade in the Faroe Islands as a window into the export economy of footballing talent, while the fourth explores the role of indigenous peoples in Brazilian soccer. The sixth focuses on the vital yet disturbing role of supporters’ clubs, both at present and historically, primarily studying Corinthians’ Hawks of the Faithful, though several other specific celebrity fans are also included. A very brief seventh chapter offers an account of the politics of Brazilian stadium production echoed in the twelfth chapter story of the decaying Amazonian Zerão (built to straddle the equator), and both seem markedly prescient given the current World Cup. The intervening chapters (and indeed, the Zerão chapter itself) feel less like popular sociology than magazine human interest writing: “crazy” football-related games and pastimes, “crazy” religious superstitions, “crazy” nicknames, “crazy” intermingling of beauty pageants with football tournaments.
Don’t abandon the book for these chapters–though you may wish to skip over them–as Bellos saves his best work for last. An account of then Vasco da Gama President and politician Eurico Miranda paints a picture of the inter-tangled corruption of football and government in Brazil. This leads into the lengthy penultimate chapter on the more than slightly surreal federal investigations into Brazil’s (and particularly Ronaldo’s) failure in the 1998 World Cup. The comic and serious mix delicately in Bellos’s fullest depiction of Brazilian politics at work. The final chapter is a somewhat starstruck interview with the great Corinthians and Brazilian national player, Socrates. Given the appeal of his subject, one can forgive Bellos a bit of breathlessness. Collectively, these three chapters move the book behind the scenes into the corridors of Brazilian power that put a point on the Corinthian Democracy for which Socrates fought, and which is a centerpiece of the final chapter. It is a strong conclusion that is worth the wait.
(Click on image for a link to Bellos’s book on Amazon).
One final note: it’s definitely worth buying the updated 2014 edition, notwithstanding its deeply ugly American cover (above right), for Bellos’s new account of Brazil under Lula. In some ways, Bellos’s book was published at the worst possible time, right before the 2002 election that, whatever one’s view of matter, reshaped Brazilian politics. Bellos’s account of Lula’s tenure is short and decidedly romantic–the subject lends himself to just such a treatment–but it is a compelling and in many ways necessary bridge from 2002 to the Brazil of this World Cup.
David Goldblatt, Futebol Nation: A Footballing History of Brazil/The Story of Brazil Through Soccer (2014). If I find time for another mid-tournament World Cup Book Club extra, this will be its subject. I finished Goldblatt’s book right before the tournament started, and can assure you it is a fantastic read. If you have any interest in a history of the evolving relationship of Brazilian football to the nation’s culture (and especially to its political and economic history), this is a very good place to start.
Various, ed. Jonathan Wilson, The Blizzard, Issue 13. The premier journal of popular football writing understandably devoted its most recent issue to the World Cup, and with digital and hard copies available with pay-what-you-want pricing, there’s no excuse for you not to check it out. The issue ranges broadly across World Cups past, but sections on “Brazil” and “Protagonists” are both firmly fixed on the present tournament.
Andreas Campomar, Golazo! (2014). Much like Goldblatt, this is an exploration of the intermingling of football with political culture and economy, but for South America as a whole rather than just Brazil. The result is a much longer text, and I have not yet looked closely enough to speak to its other qualities.
Ruy Castro, Garrincha: The Triumph and Tragedy of Brazil’s Forgotten Footballing Hero (2004 trans. of 1995 original). The main biography of Brazil’s most evocative star (with the possible exception of Socrates).
Janet Lever, Soccer Madness: Brazil’s Passion for the World’s Most Popular Sport (1983, reissued 1995). Originally published by the University of Chicago Press, this is a decidedly academic book of sociology, in many ways ahead of its time. I do not know if the 1995 reissue has been updated, and if so to what extent.
Tony Mason, Passion of the People?: Football in South America (1995). Another book that speaks about South America more broadly. I believe that it is also fairly academic in its approach, though I have not reviewed the book enough to say for sure.
Brian Glanville, The Story of the World Cup (1973-2014). Glanville is the doyen of British sports writing, and his magisterial (and ever-expanding) account of the World Cup is well worth reading. The most recent edition will carry you through the last World Cup, which is as far as one can reasonably expect, isn’t it?