Mediocrity and the Beast
Brazil won the Copa América but their triumph was hijacked by Jair Bolsonaro
Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva stood on the roof of the steelworkers union in São Paulo and spoke to the crowd. It was April 2018 and his words were likely too submissive for the masses below.
They wanted the rhetoric of war and defiance.
He’d a better idea of how to progress his movement and message, even if it meant martyrdom. “We now have a delicate job to do,” he said. “They ordered my arrest. And let me tell you something – I’m going to obey this order of theirs. I’m going to do so because I want to transfer responsibility. They think everything that’s going on in this country is because of me. If I didn’t believe in justice, I wouldn’t have founded a political party. I would’ve proposed a revolution in this country. But I believe in justice. There’s no use trying to stop my ideas because they’re in the air and you cannot imprison them. There’s no use trying to stop my dreams because when I stop dreaming, I’ll be dreaming through your minds and dreams. There’s no point in thinking that everything is going to stop the day Lula has a heart attack. That’s nonsense because my heart will be beating through yours, and there are millions of hearts. The powerful can kill one, two or a hundred roses. But they’ll never stop the arrival of spring and our fight is in search of spring.”
It’s now 14 June 2019. The depths of the winter in Brazil.
According to the calendar. But also according to the metaphor that Lula used last year. Turns out he shouldn’t have believed in justice here.
The gloriously classical Estádio Morumbi is across the endless sprawl of São Paulo from where he gave that speech. The former president was taken away by police soon after and has been in jail ever since with prosecutors accusing him of corruption involving an apartment he was given. Their key evidence is that they don’t actually have any evidence, with the logic being that because his name isn’t on any paperwork this is proof he was hiding his ownership of a gift. Thus he’s guilty.
Of course the real reason was to stop him running for president late last year. Polls suggest he’d have cruised home. Instead the winner was Jair Bolsonaro. He’s sitting in the VIP area for this opening Copa América game between his Brazil and Bolivia and this is very much his church.
Despite the host nation wearing white for the first time since the 1950 World Cup final – in a move from Nike to push shirt sales while hiding their rationale behind the veil of history – most in the crowd wear the famous yellow shirt, squeezed down over a hoodie to keep out the cold.
This is significant. Or at least it’s become hugely significant in recent times in the country. That’s because the jersey and the flag and the anthem and this team have been hijacked by supporters of Bolsonaro and his far-right mission to drag Brazil back into a military-heavy past in which the white, male elites can prosper and carve up a land of plenty among themselves a little finer, served by black slaves kept in poverty and kept from education and kept from a way out.
The left and those who followed Lula and his socialist party have been left to wear red. Occasions like this game can serve as a reminder their country has been stolen from under them.
What you wear is important beyond a projection of your political ideology for it can get dangerous too, although that’s hardly surprising in a bloodbath nation in which there were 65,000 murders last year. Tensions were such that not long ago a child was bullied in school for wearing a T-shirt showing the Switzerland flag, a story emerged in the media of a woman in a bar in São Paulo being harassed and intimidated for wearing a red dress, while on streets beatings are handed out.
There’s no red in the Morumbi though. This is an occasion for official Brazil. Rich Brazil. Straight and white and conservative Brazil. And there’s little in the way of liberalism from the stands.
The first half? Brazil may be playing well, with a solid approach that’s a long way from the edge-of-your-seat manic and unstable efforts that allowed Belgium to pick them apart via structured counter- attacks at the last World Cup, but they haven’t scored and there’s a restlessness. Few understand that sometimes 0-0 can be more impressive than 2-0 so they turn their attention to the Bolivian goalkeeper Carlos Lampe with base homophobia. “Gay, gay,” they scream.
By the second half they are largely back to celebrating the football as Philippe Coutinho shows glances of his old self before Barcelona destroyed his flightiness and his confidence. Twice he finds the net. Everton, who plays in the country’s top flight, adds a third. The result is secured.
A few turn their attention back to Lampe. “Gay, gay,” they scream.
Bolsonaro smiles. Maybe at the result. Maybe at their words.
For Lula’s vision of this society, even with all its and his flaws, has been buried in the ground.
It’s so long ago now that the year. and even the teams have drifted from memory. It might have been the 1991 Copa América and it might have been Uruguay-Bolivia. Anyway, my mate Jeff had Sky Sports a few doors down and all week we’d marvelled at the ads for such an exotic and far-away tournament so we came up with a plan. I’d stay in his house and we’d stay up half the night to watch. We got about 10 minutes in when his mother demanded that we went to bed.
It was only a brief sliver of the passion and emotion and raw and earthy differences from football in our part of the world, but that memory lasted a lifetime.
I wanted in.
So it’s 16 June 2019 and I’m outside the Estádio Mineirão in the most wonderful and welcoming city of Belo Horizonte. It’s a place I’ve stood 100 times before as it’s also where my club Cruzeiro play but this is very different and not in a good way. Usually this is a spot filled with rows of food trucks, where the smell of barbecue fills the nostrils while the screams of locals shifting cheap beer from ice baths fills the ears. It’s an assault on the senses, giving a unique feel of here.
None of that is here now though. Ecuador play Uruguay in a couple of hours and the surrounds are barren and cold. There’s no food. No beer. Restaurants are closed. There’s a perimeter that extends way off into the distance excluding those without tickets and despite terrible sales you cannot buy entry here. Instead you’ve to go across town to an upmarket shopping centre and queue to hand over an exorbitant amount of money in a place with 13 per cent unemployment.
It’s unwelcoming too. A woman going into the stand has a ball-point pen taken from her bag and thrown in a bin. “Security threat,” is the rationale. Heading for the media area a banana is promised a similar end to its journey if not eaten before the x-ray machine. “Security threat.”
Inside at least Uruguay look good. So good that the thought crosses the mind that if anyone is to stop Brazil in the coming weeks, it’ll be these guys. They win 4-0 but it’s not so much the result as the method. That mean-spirited defence, that organisation in midfield, and while Luis Suárez’s movement is worth watching, Edison Cavani is better. Heading out and looking for a beer to digest it all and to shoot the breeze with others about it, there’s still none to be found.
This isn’t the tournament Jeff and I planned to pull an all-nighter watching all those years ago.
It’s stale. It’s sanitised. It’s corporate.
Games come and go, allowing us to slip into a nightly habit of popping along or tuning in and while the standard is more like the second tier of the Nations League in Europe, there are highlights. These are often elevated further by the disappointment of a tournament in which tickets are handed out behind the scenes to the families of those who made it possible, not out of decency or reward but for optics. Still, you take whatever you can get.
There’s a night watching Lionel Messi against Paraguay when the orchestra is off in its timing and tempo but the ballet is still a joy to behold. With him come the best football fans in the world, who camp and sleep rough and are enthralled to the point they make those who attended Woodstock a little dry and a little conservative looking. At the World Cup here in 2014 the authorities had to close the border with Argentina before the final as so many were coming across. It’s not quite at that scale across this Copa América but they give a badly needed lift to it all.
There’s a day looking for Venezuela fans to chatter about their country and this team. I wanted to know if people had got the narrative wrong, as they did with the Syria side that nearly qualified for the World Cup which was held up as hopeful when for many suffering in the country they were a representation of a murderous regime. I find one guy and instantly regret it but it’s a story to tell. I ask where he lives and he describes himself as a “nomad” who travels making YouTube videos before finally admitting he lives off Miami Beach. As I try to get away, he claws me back with that odious lie that “sport and politics don’t mix”.
There’s the colour of Colombia and Chile and those Peruvian jerseys that inspire more than any other garment the game has known. There’s the child-like collection of plastic mugs with flags that come with a beer and the effort to complete a set that only amounts to 11 as Qatar felt having their name on such a vessel would be inappropriate.
Ultimately, the lack of jeopardy and the lack of quality means it’s mostly flat though through the group stages. The quarter-finals raise spirits. Brazil- Paraguay is the most fun 0-0 you can imagine and goes to penalties. Little Peru finally match mindset to talent and Uruguay are gone. Chile rage, rage against the dying of the light and refuse to let go of their title despite their age.
And then there’s the game everyone wanted.
Even for those of us who cheer the underdog, we hoped for Argentina- Brazil. In international sport arguably only India-Pakistan in cricket provides a greater spectacle.
Just the thought causes tingles. How little we knew.
Brazil-Argentina hasn’t let down.
It’s 2 July 2019 and while both might be relatively pale imitations of themselves when at their zenith, from the outset their presence in the same building was enough to make hairs stand to attention.
The hosts have scored early through Gabriel Jesus, who is making this tournament his own having moved from centre-forward to the right. The feeling was they’d kick on if they could get ahead. But while the rest of the world sees Argentina as the younger brother in this relationship, they always have a smugness and an arrogance when it comes to their more noisy neighbours.
In life. In football too.
So they dig in and we’re busy discussing and dissecting what might happen after the interval when the atmosphere changes. The noise amplifies. It feels like the angry intensity those of us who have lived here through the political transition and tyranny are used to out on the streets.
Then it makes sense.
Jair Bolsonaro has left his VIP area in Belo Horizonte and taken to the field.
Five years ago in this very stadium those of us present thought we’d witnessed the most shocking and incredible scenes sport could provide during the 7-1 destruction of the hosts by Germany.
This feels more shocking.
And certainly more important.
Soon the president is lifted onto the shoulders of an associate and the crowd of perfect-teeth, blonde-hair, fake-breasted white girls with their rich daddies or even richer sugar-daddies are waving frantically and cheering. He flourishes a national flag above his head. They scream out in adoration as if all that matters in this moment is for him to notice their existence and support.
The very first thought is Adolf Hitler at the Berlin Olympics.
It creates a rage and a sickness that goes to the very pit of my stomach that I’ve never felt before.
If you don’t know about Bolsonaro, you should. Described as the Trump of the Tropics in the run up to the election that Lula was locked away for, it probably did Donald a disservice. This guy is arguably more stupid (he recently gave a speech about how men need to wash their penises to stave off amputation) and arguably more hardline.
Take a brief dive into the rap sheet across a 27-year career as a senator: he has twice told a woman in parliament she wasn’t deserving of his rape due to being too ugly; he has long praised and admired Augusto Pinochet and yearned for a return to Brazil’s dictatorship, one whose big mistake he said was killing 30,000 too few; he said immigrants are scum and indigenous people are leeches; he said gay children should be whipped straight and if his son was gay he’d be better off dead; he said black people are fat and lazy, and black activists should be in zoos.
To see him using this tournament for his self-gain and to push his ethics and ideology is disgusting in a visceral way.
The second half takes place but even if it is Argentina-Brazil, it doesn’t seem to matter any more. Roberto Firmino scores a second and Argentina are denied a penalty and soon are complaining that Bolsonaro’s secret service are jamming the referee’s access to the VAR box.
It’s just background noise though. Sport cannot compete with this. It shouldn’t even try.
Going straight home in a rage, I consider Lula’s speech from the rooftop and then pull up a Bolsonaro address to the people from October last year. “We will build a new nation... Only now the cleansing will be much wider. Either they [the opposition] leave or go to jail. These red outcasts will be banished from our homeland. And Lula Da Silva, you’re going to rot in jail. Wait for Haddad [his opponent last year] to go there too since you love each other so much. You are going to rot in jail, you are never going to have a chance in our homeland because I am going to cut off all of your privileges... It will be a cleansing never before seen in Brazilian history.”
What if that spring never comes?
What if sport allows itself to be used by this?
What if this is the course we’ve chosen and there’s no going back?
Those in Brazil ought to know better than most the damage that sport can do.
After all, they’ve had the Olympics and World Cup come into town this decade as the vehicle to transfer public money and land into private hands, all under the guise of chirpy games with their cheesy theme music about the children and the future and about the need for love and respect.
Rio de Janeiro doesn’t feel loving or respectful.
It’s perhaps the best example of the collapse of Brazil.
Violent. Poor. Filthy. Sad.
It’s July 7 and landing off an overnight bus for the final, groggy and sore, it’s only 7am.
Outside the battered old terminal is the tram system, built around the Olympics as justification for billions being wasted. Now it looks like a Monorail sold to them by Lyle Lanley. The glass is smashed on the barriers. The logos are peeling off where they haven’t yet peeled off. The ticket machines are mostly out of order and the two in use involve an hour and 20 minute queue to get one and they don’t take credit cards. There are no other options for escaping this place. Finally boarding, the tram snakes slowly through once grand neighbourhoods in disrepair. A microcosm of Brazil.
The local politics reflect what’s been going on nationwide too. In the summer of 2018, the local congresswoman and gay rights activist Marielle Franco was murdered in the lead-up to elections. Her accused killers were later found to have shared a condo building with Bolsonaro, one was photographed with Bolsonaro’s arm around him, one of Bolsonaro’s sons had dated the daughter of the other suspect, while not long after two members from his party smashed a street sign bearing her name and stood over the remnants smiling for snaps.
This morning there’s other news emanating from the city and the Bolsonaro clan.
The son of the president, Carlos, is busy on social media asking, “When it’s hot, possible global warming is always blamed, so what is it called when it’s colder than normal?”
Meanwhile over at Conmebol his father is causing concern. Turns out that the Argentina semi-final gave him a taste for hijacking all of this and later today he wants to run around the field carrying the trophy.
Tragically this is what the showpiece has become about.
Not Brazil. Not Peru.
Not Tite and Allison and Dani Alves.
Not Ricardo Gareca and Paulo Guerrero.
It’s similar looking back. For given what has taken place and might take place a little later on, how immoral and how terrible a sense of priorities would it be to focus in on the struggles of the Asian imports, or on Colombia and Uruguay promising but ultimately failing, or on this arriving too soon for Venezuela, or on Paraguay coming so close but paying the cruellest of penalties after the bravest of performances, or on how Messi couldn’t lift his country from the mire.
The name of the president echoes and rattles around in the head despite all else going on.
At the Maracanã, at least the Peruvian fans are in great spirits. One rides around on a huge unicycle whipping his country-folk into a frenzy. They didn’t expect to be here and neither did anyone else and their heroes are soon out warming up when Bolsonaro arrives in the stadium.
He’s accompanied by Sérgio Moro, a shameless judge who promised to clean up the corruption in Brazil and was such a self-publicist that not long ago almost every book in airport shops seemed adorned with his face as he spent his time giving speeches in United States universities. Lately though it emerged he’d been feeding the prosecution in the Lula case hints and help in order to put him away, and when Bolsonaro won the election he became Minister for Justice.
You join the dots. Doing that here can be dangerous.
Back out on the pitch the game starts. Brazil are better. Everton scores. Paulo Guerrero equalises before half-time but there’s still time for a mix-up and a slip in the Peruvian defence and for Gabriel Jesus to put the hosts back in front. The visitors give it a go after the break, and Jesus is sent off and undoes a wonderful tournament’s worth of work by going full-on tantrum and punching the dug- out and trying to shove the VAR monitor to the ground and breaking down. He’s still in a rage when Richarlison converts a last-gasp penalty and it’s 3-1 and over.
Of course it’s really just beginning, as now we wonder “what next?”.
Bolsonaro emerges as part of the medal presentation team and embraces the players from the races and classes and backgrounds he hates. He can still use them, though. So next he’s over to the team huddle, front and centre, his hand clasping the trophy. Afterwards Tite shows up at the press conference and I ask him how it feels for his team to be used by a man with these morals. The Conmebol officer there tries to jump to his rescue by saying this is about the football but it’s long stopped being about the football. Some local journalists demand an answer. Tite awkwardly mutters and mumbles nonsense about his ethics being about football and no more than that.
It’s like graffiti on a masterpiece. It’s been ruined.
A few days later and back home in Belo Horizonte, walking the dog one afternoon, I pass by a family not far from my apartment. The father is sweating, busy washing cars on the side of the road. The mother is a cleaner in a stunning house not for her kind and is getting ready to go there. Meanwhile the son is kicking ball on the street and imagining that he’s Gabriel Jesus.
Funny how this tournament can inspire and depress all at once as suddenly this game so brutally used by the far right is likely his only way out of a rat trap created by that very same far right.
When I arrived in Brazil for the first time a decade back it was a place pregnant with hope. This Copa América was one more unwanted reminder that it has since been stillborn.