May 16, 2010
… and I’m no doubt buying into stereotypes, but what is that certain something about Brazil that sets it apart from every other country? Is it a lack of inhibition, a society that is open to any possibility and whose limits are only its crushing social divides, the poverty and racial stigma against its lower classes?
The Brazilian story is a swarming culture where basically anything goes in a good and a bad sense, a whirling kaleidoscope of motion and colour and emotion and sensory overload. Compared to the sedate Spanish countries surrounding it is an island of acceptance, of pleasure and suffering, where the highs are higher and the lows are lower, a miracle in one sense to counter the more orderly miracle of the Dutch in Europe.
And, from out of that chaos, Brazil has consistently produced the most gifted attacking football players on the planet over the last fifteen years. From Romario in 1994, to King Ronaldo and Rivaldo in 1998 and 2002, to Ronaldinho in 2005, to Kaka in 2007, the production line has been constant. But these kings often make sudden falls from the top that go against our society’s now-is-forever perceptions. Romario decided on a job well done after he gave the country the 1994 World Cup title and put his feet up. Rivaldo went from World Cup-winning lynchpin to a football nobody in the space of three months in 2002. Ronaldinho famously lost his mojo in mid-2006 after he appeared for all the world to be the greatest player of all time. Kaka hasn’t been up to much since he won the Champions League for Milan in 2007 (literally, he was the one who achieved it for the rest of the team and not vice versa). Ronaldo mostly bucked the trend with comeback after comeback from injury and he proved himself wherever he went, although not for extended time anywhere as his whims wandered.
Why does this consistently happen? Am I being unfair to these players who tap into uncertain magic in an uncertain business? Don’t these fades happen to many attacking players, who have the most difficult gig in organised sports (Shevchenko post-Milan, for example)? Is the summit a tightrope, easy to fall off? Or, is the fall a Brazilian trait? Did these players, many who came from abject poverty, lose their hunger after having proven themselves and risen in the world against all odds?
I might have expected Kaka to buck the trend, coming as he did from a stable middle-class family rather than the social breakdown and the doubtful lessons of the favelas. Or am I being classist, racist? I called in 2007 that he has enough of a head on his shoulders (implying: unlike the others) to appear for Brazil in their hometown World Cup tournament of 2014 at the ripe age of 32. But I think now I was wrong: he already seems like yesterday’s man. He has this World Cup to set things right, because he failed in 2006 and if he fails in 2010 there will be no 2014. He always seemed more beholden to European effectiveness than Brazilian fantasy, his cool glacial movement, passing and shooting producing stunningly skilled if emotionless goals by the standards of those other Brazilian masters. I’m not a Kaka devotee but I’m fascinated by the normalness of his story, perhaps the proof that ‘White men can jump’ by the disgraceful racial standards (in both directions) of the United States, and belying the cliché that genius can only spring from the turmoil and creativity of poverty.
Would I blame the shooting star tendencies of the others on the unsettled mentality that growing up with nothing produces? It would be crude, and cruel, to be sure. But I can’t help but think of Pele, who could never get over the favela mentality that he always needed more money even after he became stunningly rich and famous, and subsequently whores his endorsement to anyone who provides the golden handshake (remember Erection Dysfunction 2002?). Then there was the King Ronaldo, who always likewise felt that he needed more women in his life even after his exploits were set in stone and they began falling over themselves for him. Call it an overcompensation from his youth?
I love Ronaldo. The way he came back from three years of injuries into the second most difficult tournament in football that is the World Cup in 2002 and easily got back into his goalscoring groove – eight goals in seven matches, a modern-day World Cup miracle – would indicate that he was indeed something very special, probably the greatest pure goalscorer of all time. His otherworldly skill allowed him to overcome a few knee reconstructions and a questionable attitude to training to reach the top and consistently score wherever he went, even as late as at Milan in early 2007 after he was at least three years past it. He never fell forever like the others because he was simply the best at what he did (Ronaldinho hit the greatest heights as the best ever player for a brief time but that’s contradictory), but he didn’t stay at the top in Europe because he never stuck around in one place for long enough, mostly because of injuries. I have to recall at this point that Europe is not Brazil and no matter how clean a life Europe offers, it isn’t home for these players. Maybe that’s why Rivaldo fell, why the pretenders Adriano and Robinho couldn’t cope, why Ronaldo never found a ‘home’.
I hope Kaka, Luis Fabiano and Nilmar will be the 2010 version of the three Rs of 2002. I suspect their arrogant, complacent efforts of 2006 will be put to bed. There is one month before those beautiful yellow shirts show this time as always that their focus and ability to make exactly the correct runs, passes and shots when they see space is unmatched in world football, that when you see their attacks build up on the break you can feel the power of their technique, thought and movement. They are a creative facet of society that is seldom matched in any field. Is it part of the fabric of the country itself? Why doesn’t anyone else produce such exceptional attackers?
Just as Luis Fabiano, Robinho and Kaka looked to be getting into stride to provide a fascinating opponent to new it-team Spain, Brazil fell apart and conceded two quick goals to Holland in the 2010 quarter-final to be prematurely eliminated. Much to Brazil’s chagrin, Spain won World Cup 2010 with a distinctive style and for the first time ever it appeared that Brazil’s label as the world’s most recognisable, iconic national team was under threat.