Football’s inexorable triumph

Shayan S. Khan
Monday, July 7th, 2014


Rio de Janeiro's famous Christ the Redeemer statue, with the Maracana in the background. Photo: AP

 

For the world’s legions of football followers, the realisation that the World Cup finals actually end is crueller than the game itself. Ah, that World Cup. That promise, the delivery, the deliverance of a month every four years, for which life takes on the taste of what can only be heaven. It’s so delectable. Imagine a mouthful of rich, dark, chocolate consumed over a month. How the taste swirls inside the mouth, and your tongue lashes at it. The yearning, in its consumption, to be consumed by it, savour every last scintilla of brilliance. How good it feels to be alive in that moment. How inevitably it passes.

 

From the moment Brazil won the right to host the 2014 edition, a generation of football fans had it earmarked for something special. For the first time since 1950, when it all ended in such unforeseen tragedy with a staggering 200,000 packed into the Maracana, the World Cup was to return to the storied land where children were born with a commitment to upholding ‘o jogo bonito’ – the beautiful game, a Utopia where football held all the answers, to crime, to poverty, to anonymity. Around the same time, Rio de Janeiro, the throbbing heart of its vast and varied landscape, was awarded the 2016 Olympics. It all happened during the presidency of Luiz Inacio ‘Lula’, who led the country from 2003-11. Under Lula, whose victory in 2003 followed three failed attempts starting from 1989, Brazil entered a new era of poverty reduction, as his left-leaning Workers’ Party government embarked on massive redistributive programs such as Bolsa Familia that aimed to lift millions out of poverty. Today it is widely acknowledged within development circles as one of the most successful and innovative social programs of its kind, and according to the Economist, “winning converts worldwide”. Direct cash transfers – previously anathema to the ears of policymakers – to help hard-up people cut past short-term poverty is merely one of its features being looked at closely by governments worldwide.

 

At about the same time, driven by the exponential growth of companies like Petrobras, Vale, and Embraer, Brazil became the darling of the BRICs. After decades as the largest foreign debtor among emerging economies, it became a net creditor for the first time in January 2008. But its new-found economic clout on the world stage was not enough to satisfy the vision of Lula. From football we know, that Brazilians can never be satisfied with merely winning. And so Lula, whose persona accommodated qualities of statesmanship almost effortlessly to go with his working-class background and years spent in the labour movement, railed at the United Nations against the injustices bred by the present arrangement of international relations. He fought valiantly for a permanent Brazilian seat at the Security Council, but just when the old powers looked set to budge and consider two new entrants, arguably his finest moment on the world stage served to put them back on the defensive, and the door was closed. Working with the like-minded Prime Minister Recip Teyyip Erdogan of Turkey in 2010, Lula had managed to defuse the build-up to a possible invasion of Iran by brokering a deal under which Tehran would exchange low-enriched uranium for nuclear fuel. It was a defining moment. For the very first time, the West’s war machine had been ground to a halt by an act of deft diplomacy undertaken by two countries with almost no record of international engagement since the Treaty of Versailles. From then on, the emergence of Brazil, as well as the entire effort to achieve reform in the UN system, began to be viewed with suspicion, in the halls where power roams in Washington, London, and Tel Aviv. Today there is no talk of anyone joining the archaic UNSC, or any serious reform to the UN.

 

Lula’s chosen successor, Dilma Rousseff, duly led the Workers’ Party to a third successive election victory. Not blessed with Lula’s natural grasp over leadership, she has been forced to endure a far more hostile environment, both domestically and in dealings abroad. Protests sprouted across a number of Brazilian cities in the summer of 2013, starting with a demand for reduced bus fares, and later boiling over to include calls for better infrastructure and governance. The World Cup, looming in the horizon, proved an easy target in which to direct the public’s anger. Billions of dollars spent on swanky new stadiums or upgrades to existing ones was viewed as a waste of public resources, at a time when the economy was slowing down. Polls can be designed to promote almost any point of view of course, and a number of them duly came out to support the view that most Brazilians didn’t want the World Cup to be held in their country, and even less about winning it. The motives driving the campaign to disrupt Brazil’s very own coming-out party can be gleaned from polls asking the country’s citizens to choose between winning the World Cup and building more schools and hospitals.

 

The entire crescendo as June 12th drew ever closer centred on expectations of an almighty let-down. Reports started circulating in the international English-language press of the country being underprepared, with stadiums apparently left incomplete and inadequate facilities to accommodate the travelling fans. With 60 out of the 64 fixtures completed, and not a single glitch yet worth reporting with equal vigour, such fears we may conclude have been unfounded. The largest group of protesters carrying over from last year during the World Cup numbered roughly 300. Last Wednesday at a FIFA mid-tournament shindig in Rio, just six people turned up with placards and slogans. Admittedly FIFA, with its rotten core of clientelism and institutional bureaucracy that resembles the farthest departure you can imagine from the game it administers, doesn’t help matters by operating like a fiefdom for its president, the much reviled Sepp Blatter of Switzerland. Blatter rose through the ranks of world football’s governing body by nurturing a close bond with Joao Havelange, the Brazilian who led FIFA for 24 years before Blatter’s reign started in 1998. For almost any organisation in this day and age, just one change of leadership in the last 40 years should set alarm bells ringing to watch out for stasis and institutional atrophy.

 

And yet football fans know how far-removed from matters on the pitch FIFA has always been. Its doubtful whether Blatter has ever kicked a ball in anger. Equating FIFA with football is a profound mistake, for it overlooks the point that FIFA has always been organised along a bureaucratic structure with all its attendant ills, as its leadership has always been drawn from men steeped in such cultures. In recent years calls have been growing for a former footballer with subsequent administrative experience to replace Blatter. No-one fits that description better than Michel Platini, the boss of UEFA, which controls the game in Europe. But the former France and Juventus midfielder, one of the very best footballers of a generation that included Maradona and Zico, is currently suffering the fallout of the increasingly regrettable choice to award Qatar the 2022 World Cup. Platini may yet pay the price for being too close to the Qatari bid, which has been accused of bribing officials. Meanwhile Blatter is said to be planning another bid for the presidency. The fight to wrest control of football away from bureaucrats and products of crony capitalism is still a long way from success.

 

Yet from the moment that first game kicked off between Brazil and Croatia at the Arena Corinthians in Sao Paulo, everything else surrendered, to make way for the football to take over. Whisper it, but any lack of enthusiasm regarding the tournament on the part of the Brazilians hosts probably had more to do with the limited resources at the disposal of coach Luiz Felipe Scolari. The likes of Fred and Hulk would probably not have made the cut to figure in any of the great Brazilian squads of the past – and this is the only country in the world to have played in every single World Cup. But riding on the young, ultimately tragic shoulders of Neymar, the team got off to a confident start, and despite persistent doubts hanging over their ability to make it far, not looked back since. The victory over resurgent Colombia, who gave the tournament its breakthrough star and likely recipient of the Golden Boot in young James Rodriguez, will have been such a boost, after the struggle to dispose of Chile. But without Neymar and captain Tiago Silva, the last thing you want standing in your way is a group of ruthless, clinical Germans. The tie is already a classic on pedigree alone. The other semifinal is no Sunday league walkabout either, with Argentina squaring off against the Netherlands. Four great footballing nations, four distinct traditions that represent all that is best about football, have been assembled to bid a fitting farewell to one of the best World Cups of the modern era – a thrilling concoction of great goals, often late, often unexpected, brought about by a collection of positive and clear-thinking managers who kept faith in their players’ ability on the ball. They’ll say it exceeded expectations. But as Christ the Redeemer’s towering statue over Rio bears witness, this too was inevitable.

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