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How Brazil’s Confederations Cup triumph was born amidst protests

James Young
a 300x225 How Brazil’s Confederations Cup triumph was born amidst protests

Brazil won the Confederations Cup for the third time in a row with a hugely impressive win over favourites Spain in Rio de Janeiro (Getty Images)

Winning the Confederations Cup (the Pete, rather than George Best of international football tournaments) has surely never been commemorated with quite so much gusto.

The scenes of giddy celebration that followed Brazil’s rousing 3-0 victory over Spain would have softened the stoniest of hearts. Out on the Maracanã pitch, Hulk tapped on the bongos, Lucas rattled a tambourine, and the rest of the team jigged (some more gracefully than others) to an unidentified pagode rhythm. And in the stadium not-so-cheap seats, toothy grins were plastered on every face.

Perhaps the only misstep of the day came during the post-game press conference, when two English journalists asked about how it felt to be playing football in the middle of the anti-corruption street protests sweeping the country, which have often been marked by violent confrontations between police and demonstrators.

Neymar, a lucid defender of the rallies in recent weeks, chewed on his lip for a while before mumbling something about the violent side of the demonstrations being “very bad”. His boss was even less forthcoming. Looking for all the world like a kid whose iPhone battery has died seconds before he beats his Angry Birds personal best, Felipão scowled. “Not my area,” he said. “You’re from England, right? So what happened before the Olympics over there?” he continued, his face reddening. “Maybe you want to take a look at your own country before saying there’s something wrong with mine.”

In fact, the questions had not been critical of Brazil, and Scolari’s response came across as truculent and even childish. But the bigger error came when he said the protests weren’t his “area.” In Brazil now, the demonstrations are everybody’s area. And events in the streets played a huge role in this Seleção triumph.

That was clear every time Brazil took the field, most notably during the singing of the peppy national anthem. From the game against Mexico in Fortaleza, the day before more than a million people protested across the country, and at every game after that, Brazil fans continued to sing lustily long after the music from the speakers had stopped. The players joined in. “It made us sing louder too,” said Marcelo. Hardly surprising, that with such emotion coursing through their communal vein, Brazil scored early goals against Japan, Mexico and Spain, not to mention Julio César’s 12th minute penalty save against Uruguay.

The euphoric mood and sense of togetherness was a world away from the chilly reception Brazil had received at pre-tournament, pre-demonstrations, home fixtures. Then, boos were heard as often as cheers as Brazil struggled at both the Mineirão (against Chile) and Maracanã (against England). Just a few weeks later, the green and yellow heat pouring down from the terraces at the same stadiums would make Uruguayan and Spanish knees tremble.

As well as the growing cohesion of an exciting young side, this may be the Confederations Cup’s most important on-pitch legacy for Brazil. As the team, which seemed to be playing all its “home” games outside the country, slid down the FIFA world rankings after a string of disappointing friendly performances, the Brazilian public was growing weary of the Seleção. So much so that before the tournament, Felipão had highlighted the need for the fans to get behind the team, while Pelé said that he hoped the crowd wouldn’t boo the players. After Sunday, neither will need to worry for a while.

Pelé, of course, did his reputation no good at all during the demonstrations, when declaring, amid howls of criticism, that Brazilians should “forget about the protests and support the team.” Never the sharpest political operator, as Romário has repeatedly pointed out, Pelé seemed to be suggesting that football could exist in a bubble, oblivious to the social change erupting outside the doors of the stadiums. Not much could be further from the truth.

The great South American football writer Tim Vickery has said that he believes football to be very much a product of its social and economic environment. Whereas English football was “the creation of the world’s first industrial society, with its sense of community and its labour intensive emphasis on physical strength and reliability,” the Brazilian game developed amidst one of the world’s more unequal societies, where islands of fabulous wealth existed among a sea of poverty. For the millions of poor Brazilian kids hoping to escape hardship by signing with Flamengo or Corinthians, being a “team player” wasn’t going to do you much good. The trick was to shine, to dribble past as many defenders as you could before putting the ball through the keeper’s legs. While stereotyping, footballing or otherwise, is a dangerous business, this thinking undoubtedly contributed to the more maverick side of the Brazilian game.

Recently, however, Brazilian society has begun to change. Economic growth (now famously stalled), an expanded welfare state and an increased minimum wage have helped millions escape from extreme poverty. The biggest social class in the country is now classe C, or the lower middle classes (though it is a wide definition) which comprises more than half the population. And much like Felipão’s Seleção, which values energy and raça above the starry individual elegance of previous generations, this is a hardworking, pragmatic group. Perhaps, instead of thrilling to the other worldly wizardry of the past, many of today’s Brazilian fans can look at the blood, sweat and tears of the likes of Paulinho, Luiz Gustavo, or Hulk, and see a little of themselves on the pitch.

This Confederations Cup, a competition usually hastily confined to the dustbin of history, will not be so easily forgotten. As the protests seethed in the streets outside, the Seleção managed to capture the mood of optimism. It was a time when the players who embraced the demonstrations, like Neymar, Hulk and perhaps most notably, David Luiz, who revealed himself to be an eloquent spokesman (“I live outside Brazil now“, he said, “but I love my country. I’ve always wanted Brazil to be better. I support peaceful protests”), could form a bond with the Brazilian people.

In the same way, Brazilian fans that had turned their back on their country’s football team learnt to love the Seleção again, as the canary yellow shirt came to represent, once more, a country’s pride in itself. The world should watch out. As Spain discovered on Sunday, this Seleção and close on 200 million voices is a formidable opponent.

James Young writes about Brazilian football for Sports Illustrated, ESPN, The New York Times, The Blizzard, and World Soccer, among others. He has lived in Brazil for the last eight years, and is currently at work on a novel about “love, death and football” in the northeast of Brazil.

He can be reached on Twitter at @seeadarkness.

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