The World’s eyes will turn to Brazil in less than two weeks. But what will they see? Yes, the World Cup, of course. It is hard for anything to coexist with the biggest tournament on Earth. But they will also see, perhaps more than ever, the nation playing host. The World Cup, which at times has defined Brazil’s progress, has brought turmoil instead. Inside the stadiums they will play games, but outside there will be protests. Futebol Nation, by David Goldblatt, provides to the outsider context and backstory for the country that more than any other is inseparable from the jogo bonito.
Goldblatt doesn’t concern himself too much with the action on the pitch. Occasionally results will be recapped, but only the very rare match is described in detail. The titular sport is important to Goldblatt only in the way it reflects Brazil as a whole. Each chapter describes an era of Brazil and its football, and in each he imparts a sense of the culture surrounding soccer: not just the rowdy and sometimes violent supporters—torcidas—but the songs, movies, and literature based on the sport. But even more important than the culture is the politics. The subtitle to this book is “The Story of Brazil through Soccer,” and in truth it is much more about the country than the game.
There is a downward slope to this book. Not in quality; Goldblatt does a solid job throughout. But the tone grows steadily more negative with the progression of history. Goldblatt won’t say it outright, but he is an opponent of so-called modern football, and the crass corporatism that defines it. The sport that once defined Brazil is no longer covering up its flaws. World Cup success in recent decades is contrasted with the shambolic, debt-ridden, and corrupt state of its club game. Attendances dwindled due to stadium violence in the 90s, and where it has recovered it is often the result of pricing out the common fan.
But nothing draws Goldblatt’s quite like its preparations for the upcoming World Cup. This book likely wouldn’t be written without the impetus of this summer’s tournament, and though it only merits a single chapter, I get the sense that it is the soul and point of this book. Even portions about the 1950 World Cup are written with an eye towards what is to come; the parallels are troubling.
Critics argued that scarce capital should be spent on hospitals and schools, but Vargas Neto, president of the Rio Football Federation, responded in Journal Dos Sports: “I’m not against your request! I’m in favour. But I want you to be in favour of stadiums. It could well be that hospitals will become less necessary.”
That, mind you, is about the 1950 World Cup, and in the six decades since it is safe to say that even the presidents of football federations have become more cynical. Goldblatt describes the 2014 cup as an opportunity for “more patronage to be handed out in the right political places.” Goldblatt concludes in light of the protests that surrounded last year’s Confederations Cup that “there might still be victories to be won on the field, but it is hard to imagine that they could unite the futebol nation the way they have in the past.”