Offside, 20 July

Brazil is the embodiment of the jogo bonito (beautiful game). But perhaps the awe in which we hold the Samba Boys is set to end.

Duleep Allirajah

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‘It’s just like watching Brazil’, Barnsley supporters used to sing as their team was winning promotion to the Premier League in 1997 (suffice to say they haven’t been singing it very much since).

Brazil is the embodiment of the jogo bonito (beautiful game) – football at its most skilful and creative (think Brazilians dribbling through an airport lounge to the tune of Mas Que Nada). How many times, when an English player has performed a dragback or backheel, have we heard an excitable commentator shriek: ‘If he was a Brazilian, we’d all be raving about it’?

But perhaps the awe in which we hold the Samba Boys is set to end. Brazilian football is currently in a state of disarray. Two congressional committees have been investigating tax evasion, money laundering, trafficking of minors, and false passports. Worse still, the turmoil in the domestic game is mirrored by the decline of the national team, who have won only two of their past eight games, and – unthinkably – may even fail to qualify for the 2002 World Cup.

Coaches have come and gone. The last coach, Leao, promised ‘ballet dancer football’ but was sacked after his team produced something more akin to Morris dancer football. The current incumbent, Felipe ‘Big Phil’ Scolari, is better known for ordering his players to ‘commit more fouls’ than for creating teams that play the jogo bonito.

So who is to blame for this sorry state of affairs? In Brazil much of the anger is directed at US sportswear giant Nike. In 1996 the Brazilian football federation (CBF) struck a $200 million sponsorship deal with Nike. A controversial clause in the deal required the national team to play five friendlies a year featuring at least eight first team regulars.

After Brazil had lost the 1998 World Cup Final, rumours abounded that Nike had forced Ronaldo to play in the match even though he had just suffered a convulsive fit. Some believed that Nike had bought itself a say in team selection. ‘Disney didn’t sell Mickey Mouse, but the CBF sold the national team to Nike’, said congressman Aldo Rebelo, who set up the inquiry into the Nike deal.

But is Nike really to blame for the decline of the national team? When the deal was struck in 1996 few complained, because the World Cup holders needed friendly matches to prepare for the next tournament. Had Brazil retained their title, the number of friendlies would probably not have been an issue. Moreover, despite all the rumours, the congressional inquiry found no evidence that Nike had done anything improper.

Nike, however, has become an easy target. As an article in the UK Financial Times has pointed out, ‘some analysts suggest legislators, under public pressure to find a culprit for the disarray in Brazilian football, have unduly focused the investigations on Nike in the attempt to find a scapegoat’ (1).

If Nike is guilty of anything it is, as the BBC’s Tim Vickery suggests, that ‘their promotional campaign, spearheaded by the omnipresent airport lounge advert, sold an impression of Brazil as an unbeatable dream team’. But, as Vickery argues, ‘Brazil were there for the taking’ in France ’98. Over-reliant on Ronaldo, unable to deal with tight marking, and suspect in defence, Brazil were beaten by a superior French team who are now number one in the FIFA world rankings.

It remains to be seen how quickly Brazil can recover. In the meantime, while their poor form continues, how soon before fans start chanting ‘It’s just like watching Brazil’ to taunt useless opponents? How soon, indeed, before Brazil’s opponents start chanting ‘It’s just like watching Barnsley’ to taunt them?

(1) ‘Nike finds deal a bad fit’, Raymond Colitt and Matthew Garrahan, Financial Times, 12 January 2001

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