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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“Every time the national team plays, no matter against whom, the country holds its breath. Politicians, singers and street vendors shut their mouths, lovers suspend their caresses.”
– Eduardo Galeano, “Soccer in Sun and Shadow”
In the introduction to his newly released “Golazo!,” his thorough history of Latin American soccer through the prism of nationalism, author Andreas Campomar cites the above quotation from his fellow Uruguayan, whose own book about the sport remains a literary and cultural touchstone.
Future editions of Golazo! may still keep that remark up front, with a fresh and startling new reference point: Brazil’s humiliating 7-1 loss to Germany Tuesday in the World Cup semifinals.
This is already being regarded as a far, far worse catastrophe than the 1950 World Cup final Brazil lost 2-1 to Uruguay before nearly 200,000 at Rio de Janeiro’s Maracaña Stadium. Author Alex Bellos dubbed it the “Fateful Final,” as Brazilian keeper Barbosa was haunted by the late winning goal to his near post for decades:
“The opposition is irrelevant. Brazil is always playing against itself, against its own demons, against the ghosts of the Maracaña. The Fateful Final is a metaphor for all Brazilian defeats.”
Will the mourning and loathing over Tuesday’s dreadful semifinal top all that? ”Maracanazo,” as the 1950 game has been called, surely looks set to be replaced by “Mineirazo,” taken from the name of the stadium in Belo Horizonte where a first-half German assault resulted in a shocking new national trauma for Brazil.
It’s not an exaggeration to use such words — catastrophe, trauma and more — as Campomar ably explains. The story of soccer in Latin America is littered with tragedy, tied so often as it is to national political and economic fortunes — or, more commonly, misfortunes.
For the richest nation of them all, in soccer and more belatedly in economic terms, the dramatics can seem over the top. Before the World Cup began, Campomar, wrote in The New York Times that Brazil “has no choice but to win the tournament.” The headline: “The Weight of the World Rests on Brazil.”
On Wednesday, noted Brazilian journalist Juca Kfouri wrote in Folha da São Paulo that “Brazilian football was reduced to dust” in a column entitled,“Dante’s Inferno.”
Hyperbole? Certainly not in Brazil, as the second-day inquest includes the common sight of other headlines and signs all around the country bearing the word “vergonha” — shame. As the shock and sadness settle in, further anger and rage at the utter destruction of a national team figure to carry on for months and years.
Campomar’s tour of the continental sport, ranging from Brazil’s penta — its record of five World Cup titles — to the struggles of landlocked Bolivia and Paraguay to become even nominally competitive, seamlessly blends soccer aspirations with national identity. When the results on the field come up short, there is understandable concern about the well-being of societies. (Review here in The Economist.)
And when political and social disasters occur, soccer is helplessly swept up. The strongest sections of “Golazo!” are Campomar’s examinations of what he calls the dark ages of the 1970s, which culminated in Argentina’s first World Cup title, played at home in 1978 during a military dictatorship and the genocide of “The Disappeared.”
“Argentinians would conceal their their pain beneath the national flag. The victory, however, showed the frailty of Argentinian culture: that a society so terrorized could be anesthetized by the ephemerality of a single sporting triumph. This was football as sedation.”
That decade, Campomar concluded even more unsparingly, “was a decade of untold cruelty, one in which Latin America had all but lost her way in the world:”
He also marks that period as the starting point for the demise of Brazil’s vaunted artful playing style made famous by Pelé — O Jogo Bonito — and that was shockingly absent during the present World Cup.
The saga of Diego Maradona was even more reflective, Campomar argues, of the society that produced him, especially his infamous “Hand of God” incident in the 1986 World Cup semifinals that also included a magnificent second score, as he slalomed his way past English defenders:
“And yet it was the most Argentinian of goals: the cult of the individual at work.”
Here too Campomar may need to revise this theory given the current performance of Lionel Messi. And surely other updates are needed to account for the return of beautiful soccer by Colombia, which like fellow South American side Chile fell to Brazil in the current World Cup, and the enigmatic Uruguayan star Luis Suarez, banished after biting an Italian opponent during a group match.
Although “Soccer in Sun and Shadow” was a gimlet-eyed look at the global game, Galeano’s lyrical portrait, first published in 1998, was informed by the sense of playfulness and artfulness of the game in South America during his youth. The Marxist novelist is him is famously revealed in the opening pages:
“The history of soccer is a voyage from beauty to duty. When the sport became and industry, the beauty that blossoms from the joy of play got torn out by its very roots. . . . Play has become spectacle, with few protagonists and many spectators, soccer for watching. . . . The technocracy of professional sport has managed to impose a soccer of lightning speed and brute strength, a soccer that negates joy, kills fantasy and outlaws daring.”
Nearing the conclusion of his book, Campomar circles back to these pressures on the sport in Brazil in the wake of its 3-0 loss to France in the 1998 World Cup finals, another national disaster that prompted a Congressional inquiry. Brazil got its penta at the following World Cup in 2002, as Ronaldo redeemed himself. But the jolt to Brazil’s national — and not just sporting — psyche, is seemingly permanent, and hauntingly prophetic today:
“Brazil had come to enjoy a somewhat symbiotic relationship with the World Cup. She had become everyone’s favorite, a parody of herself. To those who examined the country closely, there was now something distasteful about her quest to win another World Cup. Not only did it suggest gluttony, there was also a degree of narcissism at play. At times, Brazil seemed to be competing against her own history rather than against another nation.”
Soccer historian and “Futebol Nation” author David Goldblatt hopes the demolition of Brazil — the national team — might spur some cold reality about finally addressing more pressing needs for Brazil, the country:
“I suspect that a victory in 2014 would have resulted in a similar absolution of the people and institutions that have run this World Cup. That the broken promises to the poor, the squandered opportunities for progressive urban redevelopment, the widespread and shameless stealing that has characterized the seven years since the tournament was awarded to Brazil, would all be, if not forgotten rendered utterly marginal. That is going to be a much harder act to pull off. But as Carlos Drummond de Andrade, the mid-century Brazilian poet and football chronicler, wrote in 1982 after the famous defeat to Italy – it’s time for Brazil to wipe its tears, roll up its sleeves and get back to the serious business of political reform.”