Football arrived in Brazil in 1894. The ‘violent British sport’
did unexpectedly well. Within decades it was the strongest
symbol of Brazilian identity. The national team, as we all
know, has won more World Cups than anyone else. The
country has also produced Pelé, the greatest player of all
time. More than that, Brazilians invented a flamboyant,
thrilling and graceful style that has set an unattainable bench-
mark for the rest of the world. Britons call it the ‘beautiful
game’. Brazilians call it ‘futebol-arte’, or art-football. Which-
ever term you choose, nothing in international sport has
quite the same allure.
I arrived in Brazil in 1998. I didn’t do badly, either. I
became a foreign correspondent. It was a job I’d always
coveted and, journalistically speaking, Brazil is irresistible.
The country is vast and colourful and diverse. Among its
170 million population there are more blacks than any
other country except Nigeria, more Japanese than anywhere
outside Japan, as well as 350,000 indigenous Indians,
including maybe a dozen tribes who have not yet been
contacted. Brazil is the world’s leading producer of orange
juice, coffee and sugar. It is also an industrialised nation,
curiously one of the world’s leading aeroplane-makers, and
it has an impressive artistic heritage, especially in music
and dance.
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And, of course, they’ve got an awful lot of football.
Soon after I arrived I went to see the national team play.
It was at the Maracanã, the spiritual home of Brazilian – ergo
world – football. When the players filed on to the pitch, we
jumped and cheered. The noise was like an electric storm, a
rousing chorus of firecrackers, drumming and syncopated
chants. It crystallised what I already knew; that the romance
of Brazilian football is much more than the ‘beautiful game’.
We love Brazil because of the spectacle. Because their fans
are so exuberantly happy. Because we know their stars by
their first names – as if they are personal friends. Because
the national team conveys a utopian racial harmony. Because
of the iconic golden yellow on their shirts.
We love Brazil because they are Braziiiiiiiiiil.
As a sports fan, I immediately took an interest in the
domestic leagues. I read the sports pages, adopted a club
and regularly went to matches. Following football is perhaps
the most efficient way to integrate into Brazilian society.
As a journalist, I became increasingly fascinated with how
football influences the way of life. And if football reflects
culture, which I think it does, then what is it about Brazil
that makes its footballers and its fans so . . . well . . . Brazilian.
That’s what this book is about.
I first wanted to know how a British game brought over
a little over a century ago could shape so strongly the destiny
of a tropical nation. How could something as apparently
benign as a team sport become the greatest unifying factor
of the world’s fifth-largest country? What do Brazilians mean
when they say, with jingoistic pride, that they live in the
‘football country’?
If football is the world’s most popular sport, and if Brazil
is football’s most successful nation, then the consequences
of such a reputation must be far-reaching and unique. No
other country is branded by a single sport, I believe, to the
extent that Brazil is by football.
The research took me a year. I flew, within the country’s
borders, the equivalent of the circumference of the world. I
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interviewed hundreds of people. First, the usual suspects:
current and former players, club bosses, referees, scouts,
journalists, historians and fans. Then, when I really wanted
to get under the country’s skin: priests, politicians, trans-
vestites, musicians, judges, anthropologists, indian tribes and
beauty queens. I also interviewed a man who makes a living
performing keepie-uppies with ball bearings, rodeo stars who
play football with bulls, a fan who is so peculiar-looking
that he sells advertising space on his shirt; and I discovered
a secret plot involving Sócrates and Libya’s Colonel Muammar
I was not interested in ‘facts’, like results or team line ups.
Brazil is not big on facts anyway; it is a country built on
stories, myths and Chinese whispers. The written word is
not – yet – as trusted as the spoken one. (One of the coun-
try’s more infuriating customs, especially if you are a
journalist.) I was interested in people’s lives and the tales
they told.
The result, I hope, is a contemporary portrait of Latin
America’s largest country seen through its passion for
foot ball.
Brazil is the country where funeral directors offer coffins
with club crests, where offshore oil rigs are equipped with
five-a-side pitches and where a football club can get you
elected to parliament.
I started my research in mid-2000, exactly half a century
after the World Cup was held in Brazil and thirty years after
Brazil won, so spectacularly, the title for the third time. It
was a convenient starting point for reflection on the legacy
of ‘futebol-arte’.
I claim no responsibility, but within weeks Brazilian foot-
ball was plunging into its most serious crisis ever. The
national team lost a sequence of matches and Congress began
two wide-ranging investigations into the sport.
The situation got worse and worse. Brazil kept on losing
and Congressmen were shedding light upon a nasty and
corrupt underworld. For a moment the unthinkable – that
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4 f ut ebol
Brazil would fail to qualify for the 2002 World Cup – was
a real possibility.
I understand the crisis as a reflection of more general
tensions. Since the 1950s, when Pelé started playing, Brazil
has gone from an overwhelmingly rural and illiterate country
to an urban and literate one. It has passed through two
decades of dictatorship and is learning, sometimes uncom-
fortably, about how to create a new society.
Meanwhile, the world is different. Football is also different.
The only constant seems to be the magic we still invest in
Brazil’s golden yellow shirts.
I followed the parliamentary investigations closely. I flew
to Brasília to see the hearings. I was there when Ronaldo
was called to give evidence. He was being asked to explain
to Congressmen why Brazil were only second best in the
1998 World Cup.
‘There are many truths,’ the footballer told his inter-
rogators. He said he would give ‘his truth’, and that he hoped
it pleased them. But whether or not it was the ‘true truth’
– well, that was up to them.
I immediately scribbled this down in my notebook. I
thought it was the most unintentionally observant comment
any footballer has ever made.
Brazil has many ‘truths’. This book is my search for the
‘true truth’ of Brazilian football. I hope it pleases you.
Alex Bellos
Rio de Janeiro
November 2001
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