Having just returned from two months living in Salvador de Bahía, Northeastern Brazil, I was mainly reading Brazil- and football-based books for two months. Here are some of the highlights…
‘A Death In Brazil: a book of omissions,’ Peter Robb
When I picked this up in a second-hand book-shop in London days before leaving on my travels, I thought I was getting a gritty novel which would give me some warning what to expect about life on the Brazilian streets.
Much more interestingly, this book weaved a casual blend of Brazilian social strands, (from culture to food to the pleasures and dangers of Brazilian beaches), around two equally fascinating themes: the 500-year history of Brazil, especially the earlier settlements in the Northeast, (which was perfect, as that was where I was staying); and the political rise and (not nearly hard enough) fall of former President Fernando Collor de Mello and his literally unbelievably corrupt campaign treasurer PC Farias.
“…the killing rate in Brazil, tens of thousands of violent deaths a year, falls within the parameters of the United Nations’ definition of a low-intensity civil war…”
“”It is a problem in northeastern Brazil not to be a lunch person and sometime after sundown that difficulty starts making itself felt for a dinner person…”
“The gap between rich and poor was more than six times the difference in countries like India, Egypt, Pakistan, Indonesia…the only Latin American country that came anywhere close to Brazil’s inequalities was Guatemala…if you compared wealth inequalities in the countries of the world, Brazil came third to last in a list of the ninety-three countries for which data existed…”
“…the starving people who arrived in Recife from the interior had been helped by Dom Helder Câmara, the bishop of Recife, and he remarked, when he grew notorious as a friend of the dispossessed, that ‘when he fed the poor people called him a saint and when he asked why they were poor people called him a communist’…”
“The land [of the Northeastern interior] was utterly unsuited to agriculture and desperately unproductive…Half a million people of the interior died in the ‘great drought’ that finally broke in 1879. It was followed by a worse one ten years later…”
[On frequenters of a local restaurant]:
“These last, rather grand ladies of considerable age, always drank a caipirinha whose cachaça the waiters were constantly required to top up, so the ladies could get through the evening on a single drink…”
“[Salvador is] the most African city in the Western Hemisphere…”
‘Futebol: the brazilian way of life,’ Alex Bellos
This book had been on my shelf for years, ever since I had decided I was going to be at the 2014 World Cup. It finally got dusted down and read, and was more interesting and diverse than I had expected, covering not just the history of Brazil’s famous teams and players, but also everything from forms of the game which the country has developed, to the corruption present in the upper echelons, (surprise surprise).
“Among its 170 milllion population there are more blacks than any other country except Nigeria, more Japanese than anywhere outside Japan, as well as 350,000 indigenous Indians, including maybe a dozen tribes who have not yet been contacted…”
On João Luiz, movie maker who created a fake film of Brazil winning the 1950 World Cup:
“In my mind Uruguayans and Argentinians are the same – men with big moustaches in overcoats…”
“The film was six months’ of psychoanalysis that I never did, that would have taken me ten years, cost a fortune and I would have discovered that I hate my mother…”
Brazil first wore their famous golden jerseys (designed by a Brazilian who preferred Uruguay to his national team), in 1954, but didn’t win a World Cup in them for another eight years apparently. Why?
“In the 1958 World Cup final, the team faced Sweden, who also have yellow shirts. Having no other kit prepared, Brazil cut off the national emblem from its yellow tops and sewed them on to blue shirts bough at the last minute in Stockholm city centre…”
“During the 1970s, a survey showed that Pelé was the second most recognisable brand name in Europe after Coca Cola…”
“Football clubs usually have several [supporters clubs] based around different networks of friends or criteria including gender, sexuality or age. To be a member of São Caetano’s Blue Walking Stick, for example, you need to be over sixty-five, rheumatic and have false teeth…”
“One of the best known dictums in Brazilian football states: ‘If macumba [Afro-Brazilian religion] words, then the Bahian football state championship would end in a draw’…”
“Brazilians are obsessive nick-namers. It reflects their informal, oral culture. There is a town [Cláudio, in Minas Gerais] where so many people have nicknames that the phone directory lists them that way…”
Brazilians can be a people of great faith, (if not, apparently, much imagination when it comes to names):
“One of the most common names for footballers is Donizete…It is not a traditional name…A Brazilian music lover named his sons Chopin, Mozart, Bellini, Verdi and Donizete. The latter became a priest who, in the 1950’s in São Paulo, became a famous miracle worker.It spawned a wave of Donizetes. One estimate puts the number at more than a million people…”
Sports journalist Juca Kfouri on Brazilian football authorities:
“I have always said that God put the best players here and the worst bosses to compensate…”
And finally, in the chapter on variations of the ‘beautiful game,’ I learned of these two feats of the imagination made real:
Footbull – five-a-side football with a bull released onto the pitch.
Autoball: a 1970’s Rio invention where cars play with a 1.2m, 12kg novelty advertising ball which they had to do something with.
‘Inverting The Pyramid: the history of football tactics,’ Jonathan Wilson
I expected this to be a dry, boring analysis of football tactics. In places it may have been a little analytical, but following the changing shape (literally) of the sport over 100+ years via the legendary managers and teams whose names from the 1950s I may have vaguely have heard of but knew nothing about was actually highly enjoyable. Some highlights:
On Italian football in the 1930s:
“How shall we play the game?” the French journalist Jean Eskenazi asked. “As though we are making love or catching a bus?”
Former Benfica-curser Bella Guttmann on being fired from A.C.Milan in the middle of the 1954-55 season whilst they were top of the table:
“I have been sacked,” he told a stunned press conference convened to announce his departure, “even though I am neither a criminal nor a homosexual. Goodbye.”
Anthropologist Robert DeMatta on ‘jeitinho,’ the Brazilian art of getting things done often outside the rules, and the first (and favourite) word I arrived soon after arrival:
“Jeitinho..is a personal mediation between the law, the situation in which it should aply and the persons involved in such a way that nothing really changes, apart from a considerable demoralistion of the law itself…So…the Americans, the French and the British stop in front of a ‘Stop’ sign, which seems to us a logical and social absurdity…”
On the infamous 1950 ‘final’ between Brazil and Uruguay at the Maracanã:
“Officially there were 173,850 at the Maracanã that day; in reality, there were probably over 200,000. So overcome with nerves was Julio Pérez, Uruguay’s inside-right…that he wet himself during the anthems…”
On 1970’s Dutch footballing legend Johan Cruyff and his relationship with Hungarian coach Ștefan Kovács:
“On one occasion, it is said, when Cruyff complained of pains in his knee before a game, Kovacs, knowing his captain’s reputation for loving money, took a 1,000-guilder note and rubbed the afflicted area. With a smile, Cruyff agreed he was feeling better, and played without any real effect…”
‘City Of God,’ Pedro Lins
I end this Brazilian/football edition of the blog with a single quote from the fascinating, horrifying and enjoyable (if not, apparently, particularly quotable) book which brought us the celluloid hit of the same name. Since Rio may well be one of my next destinations, (for the 2016 Olympics), it was good to visit the metropolis for a week and find out that not every kid, teenager or man in the streets there was about to rob and shoot me. It was actually extremely nice…away from the favelas.
“Night always comes as a surprise to those who wake up late…”