Book Review: Futebol Nation
Futebol Nation by David Goldblatt
Published by Penguin
In a very modest afterword to his new book Futebol Nation, David Goldblatt, author of that all-encompassing and well-nigh definitive history of the sport itself, The Ball is Round admits that the outcome is in many ways but ‘an exploratory essay’ and with that admission, he confirms the opinion of this reader at least.
For this is rather a quick run through of a very broad topic – the history of Brazilian football – even if to describe it as hurried would be grossly unfair — the research is clearly meticulous and there is a real air of authority to the book as a whole.
Goldblatt treats events on the pitch with a light touch save for an ongoing account of the tragic figure of Garrincha and the apocalypse of defeat to Uruguay in the only World Cup Brazil has hosted until this week. He avoids the tactical analyses of a Jonathan Wilson, preferring to stick to the game in its sociological and political context.
That said, just as Simon Kuper has linked the new brutalism of Holland’s 2010 World Cup finalists to a lessening of Dutch liberalism, Goldblatt does attempt to draw parallels between the nature of the country’s various regimes and the style of football on display at the time — but Brazil’s two most pleasing XIs of the modern era — the 1970 and 1982 vintages — both plied their trade against the backdrop of military rule.
Goldblatt evokes the partly discredited work of Gilberto Freyre — a man who painted a portrait of a vivid, sensual, multicultural society; a utopian version of race relations in particular and the man who coined the term ‘Futebol Arte’ in order to distinguish the Brazilian way from the leaden footedness of the European style.
Against that is a persuasive final section on the shambolic preparations for the World Cup, a masterly overview of the issues including stadium deaths, the shady influence of former CBF President Ricardo Teixeira, the decision to use 12 venues rather than 8, the slowness of construction and above all the sweeping protests in a country which is intensely politically aware and in which for many citizens, equality is not just something to be paid lip service to. Such rich subject matter would have made for a magnificent book in itself.
But despite endemic violence both on and off the pitch, corruption and the increasing reliance of roundhead tactics as well as the happy clappy influence of evangelical Christianity in Brazilian society, in the end, there has to be a reason why the Brazilians are simply better than everyone else at this sport we love.
So Freyre’s theories are used as a basis and the message is that multiculturalism and immigration are fundamentally positive phenomena — Brazil remain at the pinnacle and are favourites to deliver a sixth title in a little over a month’s time. Goldblatt’s book is a sharp, conventional history and for me, the best book on the topic to date.