Midweek Books: Political futebol at the World Cup

On Wednesday I highlight noteworthy new sports books, with links to reviews, interviews and other information about the subject and/or author.

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FutebolNationSeveral new books written in the recent context of Brazilian citizen protests against the backdrop the World Cup (as well as the 2016 Rio Olympics) have understandably received the lion’s share of reviewer’s attention.

They’re fresh, they’re packed with history, socio-economic insight and the deep cultural connections Brazilians have with a sport they dominated with a record five World Cup titles — known as the “Penta.”

David Goldblatt’s “Futebol Nation: The Story of Brazil Through Soccer” and “Brazil’s Dance with the Devil” by Dave Zirin are reviewed here by The Economist, along with “The Country of Football: Soccer and the Modern Making of Brazil” by Roger Kittleson, who teaches history at Williams College.

Goldblatt, an English academic, is the author of the magisterial “The Ball is Round: A Global History of Soccer.” If you read that gloriously heaping 900-page volume, you can understand the enthusiasm over his latest work.

“Futebol Nation” comes in at just over 300 pages, and The Economist writes how Goldblatt shows how “the sport has long reflected both the best and worst of Brazil.”

Review here from World Soccer Talk, and here from The Guardian. Goldblatt is interviewed here by Timothy Spangler for the Los Angeles Review of Books.

Kittleson, the magazine states, “convincingly illustrates Brazilians’ surprising ambivalence toward the game.” And as he writes in regards to the protests:

“The Brazilian people are no longer satisfied with this simplistic understandings of their country and culture.”

Country of Football

Zirin, according to The Economist, comes off a bit heavy-handed, which isn’t a surprise. An American journalist, author and sports-and-politics media pundit, Zirin has subtitled his book “The World Cup, the Olympics and the Fight for Democracy.” In his many sports books and magazine and blog posts, he writes from a reflexively leftist point of view.

That’s because for Zirin, politics always trumps everything else. In this book, he blasts the rise of “neoliberal” politics in Brazil for the whoppingly expensive staging of the World Cup and Olympics, while everyday citizens are left out in the cold.

Over the last year, they’ve taken to the streets, and some are gearing up again as the opener between Brazil and Croatia takes place Thursday in São Paulo. Embattled Brazil president Dilma Rousseff this week defended the estimated $11 billion cost for the World Cup — the most expensive in history — but skipped the ongoing FIFA Congress.

The Economist notes that while these huge sporting events may deserve some of scorn heaped on them by Zirin and others, “the Brazilian reality, however, is not as neat as he would have it. The country’s difficulties with staging global showcases long precede its supposed neoliberal turn.”

Brazil's Dance with the DevilAnd instead of affixing blame on the Swiss-based FIFA, keep in mind that the international governing body that coming in for heated criticism now was shaped into its modern state by ex-FIFA boss João Havelange, a Brazilian who rose to power in a dazzling coup 40 years ago, and whose reign Goldblatt explains well in “The Ball is Round.”

But Zirin has earned quite a bit of attention, even from the usually blistering American press corps, as this Q and A with Jeff Pearlman attests. Zirin also did this chat the other day on Deadspin, which excerpted some of his opening chapter here.

He’s a self-styled iconoclast, even given space over the weekend by The New York Times for his simplistic call to get rid of FIFA.

And replace it with what, exactly?

I just spent some time re-reading Alex Bellos’ marvelous “Futebol: The Brazilian Way of Life,” which has been re-released in anticipation of Brazil’s first World Cup in 64 years. The book was originally published in 2002, the last time Brazil won the World Cup. Bellos, who was a Brazil correspondent for The Guardian at the time, traveled the country in search of every facet of football, culture and daily life in Brazil. futebol bellos

This book is easily accessible for general readers, and Bellos has added a postscript with the recent Brazilian protests. He sets the tone superbly by casting the lost 1950 World Cup final to Uruguay (by a 1-0 score in what he calls “The Fateful Final”) across the scope of modern Brazilian history in general:

“A victory would have vindicated Brazil’s national optimism and euphoria. The defeat reinforced a sense of inferiority and shame.”

Bellos doesn’t shy away from politics, and his detailed account of a Brazilian Congressional inquiry into soccer corruption — led by then-deputy Aldo Rebelo, now Rousseff’s sports minister — is excellent. So is the final chapter of the original book, an interview with 1980s Brazil World Cup star Sócrates, whose hard-left politics influenced his political activism on behalf of professional soccer players in Brazil (he died in 2011).

Zirin, whose Twitter avatar is a photo of Sócrates, also has this book excerpt about the man in Pacific Standard.

Bellos admirably has set up future examinations of Brazil just as it was lurching out of the long shadows of dictatorship and beginning to clean up antiquated, corrupted institutions, including soccer. As he concludes in his new epilogue:

“Brazil has more swagger than it did but it remains an insecure country, desperate to show the world that it is a serious, competent and nation. Its old self-image could again depend on a single goal.

“Roll on the Hexa!”

This seemingly lighter touch, when applied correctly, sometimes turns out to be the truer one.

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