The masters of the improbable

In 1982, Reinaldo, a striker prone to making black power salutes, was left out out of Brazil's World Cup squad.

Zico and Socrates.

Canadians think that to put their flag on a backpack earns them safe-passage globally.   They have no idea. Outside of Europe and North America, to show a Brazilian passport is to not only earn smiles but to instantly invite reverie about people’s memories of Pelé, Rivelino, Zico, Ronaldo and Ronaldinho; if not to hear their condolences, and maybe explanations, about Brazil’s humiliation during the 2014 World Cup.   To travel most of the world with a Brazilian passport is to engage in one long, existential and extended conversation about Brazilian football.

It’s hard to fully appreciate the extent to which Brazil’s Seleção is the team of Everyone Else on the planet.  From Haiti to India and Mexico, Brazil is almost always everyone’s second team, if not their first.  Many cultures in Africa and Latin America have the figure of a trickster. In Brazil we have a team full of them at every World Cup.  They are multiracial, oddly and singly-named (Hulk? Kaká?), often not especially physically gifted (or fit), but who manage to be the masters of improvisation, flair, and, most of all, beautiful and fun football.  The history of the Seleção is full of legendary moments, their players seeming to do the impossible in their bright yellow and blue uniforms, defeating bigger and stronger opponents, not with strength, but with flashes of individual brilliance and art.   They are postcolonial superheroes from a very fun and groovy future. Bandung may have fizzled but we will always have Pelé in 1958. And if you squint just so, you can almost imagine they are playing barefoot and not actually touching the ground.  

A former combatant from the FMLN in El Salvador once told me he’d heard that Socrates, Brazil’s bearded and chain-smoking Marxist attacking midfielder, organized players to throw the 1982 quarter-final match with Italy as a way to snub the Generals and bring down the military regime.  In the former guerilla’s account, government shelling of the rebels ceased for the duration of the match, broadcast on radio.   But no one could understand the outcome of the game. I have a sharp recollection of that game, too. I was ten that July, when Italy’s Paolo Rossi sent home the amazing team that was going to finally earn the glory denied the country since 1970.  After matches, I would go outside with my friends and imitate the moves of the players, Socrates’ heel-kicks, Zico’s gentle penalties, and Falcão’s improbable runs.    Brazil’s incomprehensible defeat that afternoon sent many of us outside, away from the TVs, there in the outskirts of São Paulo.  I remember walking in disbelief down the middle of an empty street and an adult, maybe a friend’s dad, pulled me aside and whispered that I should not be sad because, for sure, this would surely hurry the end of military rule.

Over the years I have often thought about that account.  It is true, of course, that the regime had a lot of interest in the national team, and probably vetoed Reinaldo, Rei (“King”) an amazing striker prone to making black power salutes. (He was later a politician in Lula’s PT.)   They might have also vetoed Zico and the outspoken Socrates, had they not been so famous, and frankly, so good. Zico was one of the founders of the country’s first union of football players in Rio in the late 1970s, while Socrates led Democracia Corinthiana, a hugely important participatory democracy movement within his team, and was very public in the movement for direct elections that started in 1983.   

The former FMLN guerilla’s theory is almost certainly not true, though.  If nothing else, a victory might have given Socrates – so outspoken – an even bigger platform.   There has been so much reflection and recollection about that day and it is clear that the team really wanted to win.  But they simply couldn’t. It happens. But it is nice to think that the men in the canary-yellow jerseys with their super-human powers might have had another plan that included bringing down dictators and the powers to do so.

As of this writing, we don’t know who will win the World Cup, but we know it will be an European team again (France play Croatia in the final on 15 July 2018).  Like every time but twice in the last three decades, the title will remain in the continent that invented the game in first place. Of course, there is hope that the rainbow face of today’s European teams, the amazing talent of the Mbappes and Pogbas of this world, will help bring along a reimagining of what a Europe can be, or at least make it slightly more friendly to immigrants and their children who call the continent home. 

But it will still be an European team.   We were taught as kids that football was the people’s sport because unlike most other sports you don’t need any equipment to play, just a surface and a round object. And having “happiness at your feet”–as Brazil’s coach likes to say of Neymar–was what made the difference and a Brazilian’s birthright.   Nowadays, though, to win internationally you need other things, too. Like an organized infrastructure from youth clubs to professional leagues, the latest fitness and training regimens, constant exposure of your players to high-level international club play, and access to technology for coaching, among other things.  Of course, as pundits are saying, that almost does not exist outside of Europe. Brazil’s own football infrastructure is in shambles, a shadow of earlier glory days, some teams essentially reduced to talent farms for foreign scouts.

But ,as I tell my kids, heartbroken over yet another Brazilian defeat at the hands of an European team, this does not rule out Brazil in the future.  Of course, we have no Socrates to defend democracy today. And sure, much is stacked against Brazil. But I tell them the story of 1982 and of Brazil’s importance in so many places.  But most of all I tell them about that, in the end, their gift has always been about mastering the improbable.

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