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Football: Cultural Identify within a Cultural and Intellectual Drama

A street in Brazil decorated for the World Cup

In my last essay, Football: Passion and Critical Consciousness, I developed the idea that having a critical approach to the football industry was a way I found to deal with this passion within the contractions of its professional business. Now, I offer a reflection from a cultural perspective of seeing football, from my own experience growing up in Brazil, for many the country of football.

In 1950, the World Cup was in Brazil. In the final, the host team faced Uruguay in the legendary stadium Maracanã, built in Rio de Janeiro for this event and that would have another World Cup final in 2014 featuring Brazil’s number one rival, Argentina against Germany. In the 2014 World Cup, Brazil lost in the semi-final to Germany in a humiliating 7 – 1 final scores. This defeat at home brought back the phantom of 1950 final which Brazil lost to Uruguay in front of a speechless Maracanã with over 170,000 fans.

Considering the trauma left by the 1950 defeat, journalist and playwriter Nelson Rodrigues wrote that the Brazilian squad fall to our neighboring country Uruguay made the lack of confidence and complex of inferiority of Brazilians to be manifested. Rodrigues used two expressions to say it: mongrel complex and inverted narcissus (in Portuguese, complexo de vira-latas and nacisio às avessas). The first refers to lack of self-belief and confidence. He said:

The team's problem is no longer one of football, nor of technique, nor of tactics. Absolutely not. It's a problem of faith in yourself. Brazilians need to convince themselves that they are not a mongrel dog and that they have football to give and sell [referring that Brazil has fantastic football skills to offer] there in Sweden [the host of World Cup on 1958 that was approaching, when he wrote it and Brazil would win]… I insist: — for the team, to be or not to be a mongrel dog, that is the question.[i]

The second expression is a metaphor of the Greek mythological story of Narcissus who was deeply convinced of and in love for his own beauty. According to Rodrigues, inverted narcissus refers to the beauty who thinks he is ugly, who devalues his own image and diminishes himself in the face of his potential. In football, he would be the star of the team at the end of the World Cup who, faced with an inferior opponent, would place himself as an amateur footballer on a clay field of a favela.

In football terms, even the five World Cup Championships (1958, 1962, 1970, 1994, and 2002) and being the only country that qualified for all World Cups are not enough to create more confidence. But the problem is not simply the lack of self-confidence in football, rather how this reflects an aspect of Brazilian culture for good and for bad. Here, football is more than a sport, but a cultural identarian expression of a people.

The relationship Brazilians have with football – in their way of cheering for their favorite club-teams, and in the unity behind the national squad – reflects a key aspect of Brazilian culture, a drama for those who think this passion is a problem for a country that stops to watch a World Cup final, but does not unite for a comprehensive project on universal access to education of quality for the development of the country. I do not understand why these two things must be in opposition. They can be together. It is not our passion for football that prevents us from development, but rather the mongrel complex and inverted narcissus presented in our minds and way of operating in society as a former colonized country.

Kids playing football on street after a Brazilian game

In my entire life in Brazil, I have heard that the day that Brazilians care about the socioeconomic issues of the country more than football, the country will progress. I agree that we should care more about these issues. I also understand that often the focus on football, especially the Brazilian squad in times of World Cup, is too much. The language is sometimes very problematic, such as saying the footballers in the national squad are “our heroes,” they “carry the entire nation,” it is the “nation of chuteiras (football boots).” Football, the way Brazilians play (dancing the jogo bonito that foreigners like to call the Brazilian style), how Brazilians cheer for the team and are unified during the World Cup reflect the cultural identify of a people/povo who is joyful and passionate in the midst of emotions, malandragem, and suspense. According to André F. C. Sousa, “it is impossible that such passion and devotion to a sport doesn't bring with it roots of our identity, our personality and the consciousness of the masses.” However, the mongrel complex and inverted narcissus are also in our identity, as a disease infected by a history of colonization that we have not reconciled yet. Here is our cultural and intellectual drama.

When I left Brazil to adventure in another country, I realized that passion for sports is not only a Brazilian thing. But seeing it from a self-inferiority is. In the USA, for example, the country stops every year (and not every four years) to see a sport game, the Super Bowl, a local sport that the US people call the World Championship of a sport that only this country professionally plays. When their football squads were in the World Cup finals in 2006, 2010, 2014, and 2018, Italians, Spanish, Germans, and French also stopped to watch the games. I doubt they think this is among the reasons for their socioeconomic problems. As Brazilians, they were proud of their national squads, but different than us, they do not think football prevents them from socioeconomic development. And the biggest irony, most Brazilians, especially people who self-declare intellectuals, many academics, and rich individuals with opportunity to travel around the world, do not see a problem in their European way of dealing with a sport. Why there – in the so called global north countries – is good and here, in the global south, is bad? It is tough to find an answer to this question. Certainly, there are many reasons for this double standard, but among them one will find historical reasons of a country marked by a cruel process of colonization with consequences even present today in colonized minds that must be liberated. As the African novelist, Ngũgĩ Wa Thiong’o says:

Colonialism imposed its control of the social production of wealth through military conquest and subsequent political dictatorship. But its most important area of domination was the mental universe of the colonized, the control, through culture, of how people perceived themselves and their relationship to the world. Economic and political control can never be complete or effective without mental control.[ii]

Football is a passion, not only a Brazilian passion. FIFA World Cup is the most viewed sport event in the world. Brazilians have a different way to deal with this passion that reflects who we are. Football unites us in a cultural passion and a drama of a people. The problem is not football per se that creates a healthy patriotism, but rather the mongrel complex and inverted narcissus responsible for the cultural and intellectual drama of our colonial historical disease.

[i] Nelson Rodrigues, À sombra das chuteiras imortais: crônicas de futebol (São Paulo: Companhia das Letras, 1993), 62–63. [ii] Ngũgĩ Wa Thiong’o, Decolonizing the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature, (Nairobi: James Currey, 1986), 17. (Italics mine).

*Alexandre A. Martins is a Brazilian and football lover who is also an assistant professor at Marquette University in Wisconsin, USA. Author of several articles and books in social ethics, bioethics, and global health, such as Covid-19, Política e Fé: Bioética em diálogo com a realidade enlouquecida (Gênio Criador, 2020); The Cry of the Poor: liberation ethics and justice in health care (Lexington Books, 2020)

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