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Reflecting on the Brazil’s Failure at the World Cup

by Mauro Bellesa - published Aug 07, 2014 04:40 PM - - last modified Apr 18, 2019 05:02 PM
Rights: Carlos Malferrari (translator)

Camiseta da seleção brasileira - 1

In a text that ponders the metaphor of God being a sphere whose the center is everywhere, Jorge Luis Borges begins by saying that, “It may be that universal history is the history of a handful of metaphors.”

In our own time, however, soccer as a representation of Brazil is seemingly not a valid metaphor to talk about the country. At least not in the eyes of almost every participant of the Debate in Two Halves: The Phantasmagoria of Defeat – Soccer as Metaphor, held by IEA-USP on July 25. Throughout the discussions, metonymy was the prevailing figure of speech for contemporary Brazilian soccer, a part that represents the whole of everything that is wrong in the country.

Production of knowledge

Opening the debate, IEA-USP’s director, Martin Grossmann, said that soccer is a complexity in itself, but one that allows us to establish bridges with society, with what it means to be Brazilian and with Brazil’s role in the world. For him, the fact that soccer is suitable to build up metaphors and analogies grants it the power to produce knowledge.

Debate em Dois Tempos: A Fantasmagoria da Derrota, o Futebol com Metáfora - 1


Another important feature of soccer, according to Grossmann, is that it facilitates relationships: “In England, the first conversation topic when two people meet is the weather; in Brazil, it is soccer.”

In view of the importance of soccer and of the derisory performance of the Brazilian team at the World Cup held in Brazil, with the demeaning defeat to Germany by 7x1 and to the Netherlands in the third place match, IEA-USP decided to organize a broad debate on the possible effects of this debacle on Brazilian self-esteem and on the image the country has tried to project internally and externally in recent years.

The debate brought together scholars from IEA-USP, School of Philosophy, Letters and Human Sciences (FFLCH-USP), Paraná Federal University, Princeton University (USA), Museum of Soccer, University of Oldenburg (Germany), Institute of Education and Research (Insper) and a filmmaker.

Pro and con the metaphor

Renato Janine Ribeiro
Renato Janine Ribeiro

Renato Janine Ribeiro, professor of Ethics and Political Philosophy at FFLCH-USP and coordinator of IEA-USP’s Research Group on The Future Questions Us, moderated the debate and made the initial remarks in both "innings."

Seeing what happened in the World Cup, Janine asked the panelists to what extent soccer is or is not a metaphor of Brazilian society, especially at a time when the country is facing a polarized presidential campaign. He mentioned that the desire for a Brazilian victory at the World Cup might represent a metaphor for a victorious political project: “This would be the crowning of a period that began in 2003, with the election of the Workers’ Party to the presidency, during which we saw a process of inclusion of the masses.”

However, according to Janine, this political project began to falter last year, with the popular demands for quality public services. “The metaphor of the ‘Fifa standard’ meant winning the Cup inside and outside the stadiums. Those who cheered for or against were actually engaged in a political metaphor.” However, in his view, soccer ended up being demetaphorized.

Fortuna and virtù

With the Brazilian defeat, “a German team characterized by planning and organization was set against the decline of Brazilian soccer and the corresponding decline of the country.” Janine sees in Germany’s favorable outcome a hint of Machiavelli’s thought: fortuna would account for 50% of the outcome, in terms of either good or bad luck; the other 50% would be due to virtù, identified as a virile action: “When setting a goal, planning is a virtù.”

Martin Grossmann
Martin Grossmann

Responding to Grossmann on whether in today’s Brazil, with its new middle class, the society that built democracy is capable of reforming it, Janine said that the media sets forth the discourse and arrogates its terms – as when it appropriated the manifestations of the Free Pass Movement, which were initially inspired by the Left but when they proved efficacious became demonstrations against corruption. “But there are some auspicious signs. There is freedom of expression and there is no tutelage over the freedom of the press, despite the media wanting to inhibit what takes place in the social networks.”

Internal malaise

In the morning session, the first half of the debate brought together, in addition to Janine and Grossmann, political scientist Bernard Sorj, visiting professor at IEA-USP; historian Luiz Carlos Ribeiro, from Paraná Federal University (UFPR); filmmaker Ugo Giorgetti; and anthropologist Daniela Alfonsi, content director of the Museum of Soccer.

Bernardo Sorj
Bernardo Sorj

Bernardo Sorj observed that Brazil was being transformed economically and politically into an emerging power, but then came June 2013 and its internal malaise showed through. “As the blazoned image was that of a better country, people wanted internal improvements as well and said: ‘Soccer is soccer, but there are more important things’.”

Sorj noted that, in 2013, only 30% of the population supported the World Cup, but when the event was about begin this percentage jumped to 60%. Be that as it may, he does not believe that the World Cup or the Olympics can serve as metaphors of Brazil’s public policies. One indication of this severance, in his opinion, was how fans reacted to the defeat to Germany: “Already at the end of the first half, the social networks on the internet were full of jokes about the 5x0 defeat so far.”

For him, what must be questioned is whether a developing democratic country should take it upon itself to organize an overly expensive international spectacle such as the World Cup. In his view, legacy benefits (access roads, public transportation, airport expansion etc.) are no excuse, for the public works should be carried out regardless. “This type of event is appropriate for rich countries or, perhaps, for authoritarian nations that require this kind of self-assertion,” he said.

Asked by Janine what should be done now that the public works have been executed, Sorj said that today people have democratic demands: “There is no need for expressions involving soccer or carnival; the country does not need this for its self-esteem. People are increasingly less willing to listen to speeches by nationalists on things that don’t matter.”

National identity: a project of the elites

Luiz Carlos Ribeiro
Luiz Carlos Ribeiro

In his presentation, Luiz Carlos Ribeiro said that “soccer has symbolic power and has for long had its own historicity; thinking about it is to think about the history of Brazil itself.” For him, soccer was always used in the pursuit of a national identity, “as a way to legitimize our identity in the international scene.”

Ribeiro said that soccer was the most visible popular component in the development of Brazil’s national project and that this project has been slowly carried out over the years: “In the early 20th century, the political elite, the intellectuals and the ruling leaders sought to use it to build a national identity. Getúlio Vargas attempted the same thing with capoeira, but failed.” For him, the idea that soccer explains Brazil “is a project of the elites, an ideological and political project.”

For Ribeiro, many of the ideas introduced with Lula’s inauguration in 2003 were taken into account. “Dialectically, however, new expectations arose. The Workers’ Party and certain spheres of the international market provided a paradoxical experience: contemplation and frustration of expectations.”

This led to a redirection of expectations: “The national question lost momentum. In the case of social movements, the best example is June 2013. There was a tapering off of the need for a national identity.”

Transposing the situation to the sports arena, Ribeiro exemplified with the internationalization of soccer players, who until the early 1980s had an almost civic relationship with the national team. And this does not occur only in Brazil: “Messi does not hold the Argentinean mind’s eye as Maradona did.”

Before and after 1970

Ugo Giorgetti
Ugo Giorgetti

Ugo Giorgetti said there is a “tendency to see soccer as something that traverses history monolithically.” For him, until the 1950s, soccer was somewhat restricted; it was not a sport for the masses. “In the field of art, soccer was wholly absent, except for a 1927 short story by José Alcântara Machado, ‘Corinthians (2) x Palestra (1)’." He recalled that in the 1950s the newspaper O Estado de S. Paulo dedicated only one page to sports, in which soccer had to share space with chess, horseracing and boxing.

“The leaders were ignorant, despotic, the players were slaves. We won [the World Cup] in 1958 and things continued the same. Change only happened in 1970, when Brazilian society became a mass society. It was the first Cup in which everyone that was trying to sell something to someone got organized.”

According to the Giorgetti, the 2014 World Cup was foisted upon the people by television, advertising and the corporations. “The big winners were Odebrecht, the Globo Television Network, and TV manufacturers and retailers. The Cup was very good for those who scored big. The people, who derided the event on the social networks, put soccer in its proper place.”

The desire to be great

Daniela Alfonsi
Daniela Alfonsi

Daniela Alfonsi explained that the curators of the Museum of Soccer always worked with the assumption that soccer is Brazil gone right: “The key issue for the curators is the notion that people’s desire to be great is materialized in soccer: the greatest number of Cups, the greatest number of victories, the biggest stadium, a breadbasket of soccer superstars etc. This remained true until this latest Cup, with 12 host cities and the slogan ‘The Cup of Cups’.”

The museum has special areas on the onset of soccer in Brazil, its expansion in society, a room called Rite of Passage, dedicated to the trauma of 1950, and the Cup Lounge, with a chronology and facts of soccer, society and the world regarding each Cup. According to Alfonsi, the space where visitors spend most time is the Cup Lounge.

Asked if the Rite of Passage room will undergo changes because of the defeat to Germany and what the contents of the Cup Lounge will be regarding 2014, Alfonsi said no decision has been made on the matter and that an interdisciplinary team will be convened to define how the two issues will be dealt with.

Debate em Dois Tempos: A Fantasmagoria da Derrota, o Futebol como Metáfora - 2
Second half

In the afternoon session, the debate brought together Janine, Grossmann and five scholars: political scientist Carlos Melo, from the Institute of Education and Research (Insper), and member of IEA-USP’s Research Group on Quality of Democracy; political scientist Fernando Mires, from the University of Oldenburg, Germany; professor of Spanish Literature Germán Labrador Méndez, from Princeton University, USA; anthropologist Massimo Canevacci, visiting professor at IEA-USP; and the philosopher and art critic Lorenzo Mammì, from FFLCH-USP.

In favor of the metaphor

For Carlos Melo, soccer is a deep, cultural, historical and conjunctural metaphor of the country: “Until the late 1980s, Brazil had two or three generations of soccer stars. But in other periods, the national team showed that having ace players is not enough, you must have an atmosphere. And we have no longer have superstars in soccer, music, politics, as we had in the latter half of the 20th century. "

Janine asked Melo about the role of Fernando Henrique Cardoso and Lula as political leaders, as he believes there are no more leaders like Ulysses Guimarães. He also asked if Melo thought teamwork is superior to the individual talent of superlative players.

Carlos Melo
Carlos Melo

Melo answered by saying that Brazil has undergone a series of transformations, but the political system remains intact: “Politics is archaic compared to the rest of the country. In this sense, the organization of soccer is a portrait of Brazilian politics, or a metonymy of a larger reality. In addition to Ulysses Guimarães, you could have mentioned Juscelino Kubitschek, Getúlio Vargas. In the past, there were many leaders. Fernando Henrique and Lula may have been the last ones. Who will come after them? Fernando Henrique is more than 80 years old and Lula is approaching 70.”

Regarding the role of star players, Melo argued that it is not true that Brazil has always won because of them: “In 58, 62 and 70 we had teams. And the fact is that in soccer, as in politics, things have changed and teams only cut a sorry figure when they lose, not when they play badly.”

Soccer and politics as spectacle

For Germán Labrador Méndez, social life consists of games and “there is no distinction between the spectacle of soccer and the spectacle of politics; both are unpredictable.”

Germán Méndez
Germán Labrador Méndez

Méndez said that Spain won the European Championship in 2008 and the World Cup in 2010, “but no one felt the country possessed the soccer crown.” In his view, the 2008 victory was useful as an international reaffirmation, at a time when Spain was considered the 8th economy in the world.” In 2010, with the ongoing crisis, victory in the Cup served as a reaffirmation of collective aspirations. In 2012, with another victory in the European Championship, the situation was different; the country was in crisis, having to be rescued by the IMF, with material losses being consoled by immaterial victories.”

Méndez sees an important significance in the success of the Spanish teams in recent years, something suggesting an articulation, a joint coordination of the nations that comprise Spain.

With regard to 2014, he believes everything was prepared for a quixotic spectacle for the winning team of a country in crisis. “It was significant that the day Spain was eliminated by Chile coincided with the abdication of King Juan Carlos, ending a reign marked by scandals in its later years.”

Effects of evangelical growth

Massimo Canevacci
Massimo Canevacci

In his presentation, Massimo Canevacci said that psychology can instruct sports and that it is not possible to understand soccer without understanding the emotions at stake. He cited British anthropologist Gregory Bateson (1904-1980), who said that each culture tries to formulate its emotions of the most stable way.

Canevacci sees a metonymic dimension in Brazilian soccer, with the increasing growth of a specific subset of players: those who profess the evangelical faith, accrediting to God the actions of men.

“In the game against Germany, it was as if God was no longer on the side of these players. When Brazil began to lose, the religious metaphor went into reverse, as if they were thinking that if God is not for someone, then God is against them.”

For Canevacci, Luiz Felipe Scolari is a good coach, but does not understand that a certain intervention is needed to affirm the ability to act of each player and of the team in general. “However, the growth of the evangelical outlook on life makes that impossible, as the actions are attributed to God.”

“There is a political and ideological struggle for evangelical hegemony that is transforming Brazil. What is this creating in the country? This kind of hegemony tends to homogenize everything, to the point of declaring war on African-Brazilian religiousness.”

Entertainment and its contingencies

Fernando Mires
Fernando Mires

Fernando Mires stressed that, besides being a game (“and everything that has rules is a game”), soccer is a form of entertainment, a “having something in-between.” But if that is so, “it is something between what? Life and death? Far and Near? If it’s entertainment, then I refuse the notion of metaphor. Every metaphor is a substitute. All words are metaphors, including the word metaphor.”

As they were conceived, it is not possible to explain soccer as a metaphor or politics as a metaphor. “The rules of soccer are applied more accurately than in politics and soccer is more democratic than many democracies.”

For Mires, politics does not determine soccer and soccer does not determine politics; both are subject to contingencies. “There is a mutual transference, which is neither egalitarian nor harmonious, but depends on the type of politics that we are talking about.”

Proceeding with the links between soccer and politics, Mires said that metaphors are related to time and space; they are associations that seek something that will never take place. “A lot has changed. Speeds are much greater, and not only in soccer. Furthermore, there is no longer a national soccer.”

Metonymy of backwardness

Lorenzo Mammì
Lorenzo Mammì

Lorenzo Mammì, the last panelist of the debate, said that players develop their career abroad and are steeped into the culture of the teams they play for: “Even if the Brazilian national team won the Cup, it would have nothing to do with soccer that is played in Brazil.” For him, there are no longer soccer schools typical of each country; therefore, we can no longer define soccer as a metaphor for the culture of a country.

Another comparison that we must avoid, he said, is between spontaneity and organization: “There is nothing more difficult than organizing the parade of a samba school and the Brazilians are capable of it. Tourists visiting Rio think no one works there, but there are more people working than in Europe. The difference is that in Rio nobody dresses up to work.”

Related material

News: Soccer and society: the effects of Brazil’s defeat

Laboratories: Contemporary Societies

Photos of the event

Mammì listed several deficiencies of Brazilian soccer: the decline of the Brazilian Championship; loss of players to soccer-irrelevant countries such as Ukraine; patriarchal structure; misalignment with the European soccer calendar and the consequent departure of players in the middle of the Brazilian Championship; lack of fiscal responsibility policies; inability to renew the project. However, for him “soccer is not a metaphor, but a metonymy for backwardness in other areas.”

Ribeiro asked Mammì how one should deal with the departure of Brazilian players to foreign teams, and if this has anything to do with the international market. Mammì believes that only a better organization of the Brazilian teams will give them bargaining power to retain their athletes.

Borges ends his text on the sphere whose center is everywhere by returning to the issue of metaphors, but with a twist: “It may be that universal history is the history of the different intonations given a handful of metaphors.”  So, in view of what was presented and discussed by the panelists, it can be said that perhaps the history of the relationships between Brazilian soccer and the country is the history of different intonations of some given metonymies.

Photos: T-shirt, Media Ninja; other, Sandra Codo / IEA-USP
English revision by Carlos Malferrari