The Return of Research
How Tite ended the myth of superiority and brought thinking back to Brazilian football
“In our narrow and crass objectivity, we have the mania of seeing football in technical and tactical terms,” wrote Nelson Rodrigues more than 60 years ago. “However, even an informal kickabout offers an immense margin of mystery, magic and super-natural.”
It is a dramatic approach, which came from a dramatist. By profession Rodrigues was a writer of plays – one of Brazil’s finest. He is also perhaps the most important football writer that his country has ever produced. His way of seeing the game, and his country, proved seductively influential. He has shaped the entire discourse about the game in Brazil, and, many times without realising the source, foreign writers have also been guided by his thinking. It is a remarkable achievement, one which, nearly four decades after his death, would make Rodrigues very proud.
“The journalist who makes a cult of the fact is a professional failure,” he wrote in 1956. “The fact in itself has little or no worth. What gives it authority is the addition of imagination.” He goes on to tell the story of a reporter who witnesses a small and insignificant fire, and goes on to cause a commotion with an article on the event that pays homage to an invented little canary, caught in the flames, who sung all the way to its death. “The entire city, from one end to the other, was crying about the irreparable loss of the animal… Without the little bird, journalism is not possible.”
Rodrigues, then, carries you into his own world, creating an aviary of little birds of his own. His articles on football are full of mythic references to Mata Hari, Abraham Lincoln, the Queen of Sheba, Emperor Nero, Cleopatra, Napoleon and Cecil B DeMille. It is all beautifully done. Among my favourites is a little aside regretting that these days Nero has become a name for a dog. Like most good writers, his voice, and his idiosyncratic world view, stay with you after the book is closed. It is hard to forget his view of the Brazilian goalkeeper Jaguaré, who came back from France and died in poverty because, according to Nelson, he was fed up of not being able to swear in his own language. Or his tribute to the corrupt referee, and his lamentation that “nowadays the referees possess a monotonous and foolish honesty. Virtue can be very pretty, but it exhales a murderous tedium and, what is more, brings on immortal ulcers.”
Delightfully done as this is, the question remains; how did such self-conscious myth-making become so important? Here, the answer lies in the timing.
Rodrigues was the chronicler of a football culture on the rise. Two years before the 1958 World Cup, when no one saw Brazil among the favourites, Rodrigues was already shouting it from the rooftops. “We are the best in the world at football,” he wrote in August 1956, and repeated it again and again until the facts came to the aid of his fertile imagination. It is frequently said now that his vision was very poor and his view of what actually happened on the field was limited. Perhaps. But he saw enough to identify many of the players who went on to be world champions in Sweden. The midfield maestro Didi, for example, was the type of player seen by many as a lazy luxury. “Everyone panics because, in the heat of the battle, he seems to be reading a comic while the others are killing each other. And when the hatred of Didi reaches undreamed of proportions, despite all of his boredom, he comes up with a move which changes the course of the battle and brings victory to his side.” The centre-back and captain Bellini was his “unconquerable fortress.” He was quick to identify Garrincha as the best right-winger in the world – and he was even quicker with Pelé.
Less than a year after the 1958 World Cup win, Rodrigues wrote that “Pelé belongs much more to the mythology of football than he does to football itself”. But way back in 1957 he was already declaring that Pelé, still 16, was a genius. In March 1958 he wrote that “Pelé feels like a king from his head to his toes. His greatest virtue is precisely his total lack of modesty… He puts himself above everyone, and ends up even intimidating the ball, which comes to his feet with the docility of a little dog…. With Pelé, and others like him, in the team, no one will go to Sweden with the soul of a mongrel. The others will tremble before us.”
This observation gets to the heart of Nelson’s world view. The whole game could be reduced to a question of mental approach. Brazil had lost to Uruguay in 1950 and Hungary in 1954 not because they had been outwitted in tactical or technical terms. They lost because of a lack of faith. “Only a Freud can explain the defeat of Brazil against Hungary, or of Brazil against Uruguay, and any Brazilian defeat in football or elsewhere… When the Brazil team really believes in itself,” he wrote in 1956, “it becomes unbeatable.”
But this self-belief was so hard to obtain! “The Brazilian loves ignoring his own virtues and exalting his own defects. We are a Narcissus in reverse, who spits at his own reflection.” It is a theme he returned to time and time again, most famously on the eve of the 1958 World Cup.
“The pure truth is this; any Brazilian player, when he sheds his inhibitions and puts himself in a state of grace, is unique, in terms of fantasy, improvisation and invention. To sum up – we have an excess of gifts. There is just one thing which holds back and, at times, invalidates our qualities. I would like to allude to what I might call a ‘mongrel complex’ – which I understand as the inferiority with which the Brazilian, voluntarily, places himself in front of the rest of the world. This happens in all sectors and, above all, in football.”
The idea of the ‘mongrel complex’ immediately caught on and is still in massive use today. This is because it resonated powerfully with the forces which were creating Brazil’s sense of its own identity.
The building blocks of the ‘mongrel complex’ were apparent in a piece Rodrigues wrote about the visit of Cambridge University’s rowing team. “Tradition! This is a word we use here with a fantastic lack of responsibility and conscience. Any family of crooks becomes traditional. Watching Cambridge, however, we are immediately struck by how they are propelled by the force of authentic tradition. Behind every one of their strokes, there is a transmission, visible to the naked eye, of a hundred years or more. Every one of us feels pity and humiliation for not having the same hundred years, for not also carrying on our backs a full and hard lived century.”
In the thinking of Rodrigues, then, the ‘mongrel complex’ was based on a Brazilian lack of tradition in comparison with Europe. “How to explain this instinctive, this uncontrollable tendency to self-denial?” he pondered. “Could it be colonial servitude also operating in football?” The truth of course, especially at the time he was writing, is that large numbers of Brazilians had only recently arrived from Europe, where, in some form or other, they had been part of the very tradition of western civilisation. Where on earth did he think that a surname like ‘Rodrigues’ came from? There would appear to be little indigenous American in his bloodline. Indeed, DNA research is now highlighting that Brazil is much more European than the country’s own self-image would suggest. It is hard to find a phrase more ludicrous than “we were colonised by…”. But such a declaration is a normal, uncontroversial part of the daily discourse in Brazil. The descendants of colonisers are forever seeing themselves as the victims of colonisation.
This extraordinary feat of mental gymnastics is the product of mid-twentieth century Brazilian fascism. Here it is necessary to pause and define terms. There is clearly a major difference between Nazi Germany, on the one hand, and the various forms of mid-century fascism on the other. Germany industrialised quickly and then fell into depression – hence the Nazis’ mixture of cutting-edge science and medieval gobbledegook. The later fascist countries, meanwhile, were all on the periphery of the global economy, facing the challenge posed by the possibility of industrialisation and the fear that such a process would lead to communism or at the very least shake up established hierarchies.
Some fascist regimes essentially tried to stop the clock – Portugal, for example, which cut the education budget with the slogan that “ignorance is the price of social peace”. Others were more developmental – and Brazil certainly falls into this second category.
The collapse of the external market for its raw materials in the wake of the crash of 1929 forced Brazil to look forward, to industrialise and produce some of the things it had been importing. The avuncular Getúlio Vargas ruled between 1930 and his suicide in 54 (with an interruption from 1946 to 50) as both elected president and fascist dictator. There was none of the swaggering braggadocio and militarism of Mussolini. But much of his legislation was taken from the Italian Duce. And the spirit was the same – develop the country without altering the quasi-feudal social structure. A common national agenda. Industrialisation without class conflict.
In order to bind things together, such a process inevitably needs an external enemy, even if only in the field of ideas. At this point, ‘Brazil’ as a concept was born, with the idea of ‘the Brazilian people, os brasileiros’. They are in opposition to the rest of the world, the exploiters, the colonisers. And so the ‘brasileiros’ (the suffix ‘eiro’ is of a colonial profession – literally, those who exploit Brazil wood) are at a stroke turned into the victims of colonisation. In 1938, Vargas referred to the population as “a racial unit”. The new, glamorous medium of radio was used remorselessly to pump out the message.
There was, then, no racism, and everything was harmonious. This, of course, in the country described by Eric Hobsbawm as “world champion of economic inequality,” and which had abolished slavery as recently as 1888. The writing of Nelson Rodrigues is permeated with this spirit. It is full of references to ‘the Brazilian’, in the singular. “The Brazilian is like this, the Brazilian is like that” – as if the sons of slaves and the sons of slave owners, the dirt poor and the pampered rich had exactly the same characteristics and experiences. An example is a column written in 1957 about the debts of the Flamengo club. Nelson was in favour. “I am an eternal admirer of those who owe, be they people or clubs. Look at our national territory, in all its extension. It is hard to find a Brazilian without debts. I insist – a Brazilian without debts is utopian, strange and, I think, undesirable. Which person or club can throw the first stone at Flamengo? No one. We live and get by based on debts we run up with a spontaneity that is so affectionate and so Brazilian.”
Funny? Perhaps. But, in a country of domestic servants and squalid hierarchies, also silly. It is far better at raising a smile than at explaining reality – and much the same applies to much of his writing about football.
Because in the vision of Nelson Rodrigues, everything depends on whether the Brazilian can believe in himself and place himself in a state of grace. These conditions fulfilled, victory, or at least supremacy, is assured. For no other reason than the fact that they are Brazilians.
What is lost here is any kind of process, any reference to historical context. Since their qualities are innately Brazilian, they have not been learned or acquired. There is no recognition of a truth that should be unmissable – that Brazilian football developed in a South American context. It was not born great. For many years it was a third force, behind Uruguay and Argentina, and made huge strides by importing coaches and learning from these countries. Indeed, Nelson’s descriptions of Brazil in 1958 (which he was soon trumpeting as “the best football ever contemplated by mortal eyes”) could just as easily apply to the Uruguayan Olympic gold medal winners of 1924, who so astonished the European onlookers .
There is no reference to the impressive work done in the field of physical preparation. Or, crucially, the fact that the team had a tactical lead; Hungarian coaches, coupled with the painful experience of 1950, had helped Brazil develop the back four, a system which gave them extra defensive cover and allowed them to get full value from every piece of individual attacking genius.
But Nelson’s nationalist arguments proved so popular that, until the present day, they have framed the terms of the debate. They have influenced the thinking of many inside the game, and dominated football talk from the round-table radio debate to the newspaper headline, from the row in the bar room to the chat at the bus stop. Buoyed by victory, he wrote in response to the 1958 World Cup win, “no one is still ashamed of his nationality. The people no longer judge themselves as mongrels. The Brazilian has a new image of himself; now he sees himself in the generous totality of his immense virtues.” The 1958 team “taught that the Brazilian, whether he wants it or not, is the best.” It is hardly surprising that a culture previously seen as a Narcissus in reverse went too far the other way. And got lazy. If it was all innate, if it was merely a case of entering into a state of grace, then why bother learning?
One of the best and most lyrical of those football writers who developed in the shadow of Nelson Rodrigues was Armando Nogueira. He wrote about Pelé against Peñarol of Uruguay in the early 1960s. The Uruguayans took the field ready to stop Pelé by any means possible, legal or otherwise. “Game underway, Pelé marked, Pelé marked tightly, Pelé marked very tightly, Pelé surrounded, Pelé grabbed, Pelé brought down, Pelé suffocated.
“Ball in the area, goal by Pelé.”
That supernatural force had revealed itself once more. Against that innate Brazilian genius, the opposition were powerless. But what happens when those goals, one after the other, go into the Brazilian net, propelled by a German foot? When the Germans, those supposedly thick-waisted, dull-witted, plodding northern Europeans, manoeuvre the ball around the pitch with much more dexterity and aplomb than the Brazilians? And do it with a greater sense of joy than the Brazilians? Even worse, when it happens on a Brazilian pitch!
In the wake of that astonishing 7-1 semi-final defeat in 2014, the old myths no longer apply. Nelson Rodrigues was the chronicler of the rise of Brazilian football. His work tells us little about the current age. And the view of ‘the Brazilian’ living in harmony with his compatriots, which underpinned his thinking, has also taken a huge blow – starting with those astonishing, surprising street demonstrations during the 2013 Confederations Cup.
With the benefit of hindsight, it now seems clear that what happened then was the beginning of the breakdown of the project of Lula’s PT (Workers Party). While China was growing there was hunger for Brazilian raw materials. As soon as it slowed down, Brazil was in trouble. State transfers had helped millions out of poverty. But state services – health, education, security, left much to be desired. An embryonic Welfare State requires a cross-class alliance. In this case, those who were paying for it did not feel they were receiving value for money. The signs had been there in previous elections but the 2014 campaign proved extraordinarily bitter, with much of the fault line falling along class lines. The idea of racial democracy no longer has great credibility, and the vision of a society of harmonious class relations also requires a rethink.
As does Brazilian football. At least in this area of human activity, the national coach Tite has shown a way forward. The key phrase of his remarkable reign has been “I have learned how to learn.” He took time off to study top-class European football. Rather than take selfies with Pep Guardiola, he was looking in depth at how the best teams managed to achieve numerical superiority in midfield and he has brought the benefit of his thinking to the national team. It is a return to the genuine, non-mythologised roots of Brazilian football – striving to be the best by learning from the best.
The day-to-day discourse about the game is also in a state of flux. True, a generation of journalists have gone beyond the old myths and are proficient in explaining the game in tactical terms. But no one appears to have emerged capable of doing both this and capturing the game’s human drama in the way that Nelson Rodrigues was so proficient. There is still a need for someone able to wrestle with the conflicts and dilemmas of football in the way, for example, that Nelson dealt with the problem of the then-Vasco da Gama coach Martim Francisco. “Martim has a truly grave and unforgivable defect,” commented Rodrigues in 1957, ”– he is intelligent. He can be forgiven anything, apart from this. The individual who displays a little bit of intelligence has to be a mistreated loner. An idiot is always accompanied by other idiots.”
Nelson Rodrigues trod his own path and was very far from being an idiot. The quality of his writing on football makes it still well worth reading all these years later – even if his way of thinking now has little relevance to reality.
The great Tostão, consistently the wisest voice in Brazilian football, argued this November that “there are clichés that need to be forgotten, such as the idea that Brazilian teams are poor because they are copying the Europeans, or that young Brazilians go to Europe and lose their improvisation and ability.”
In effect, Tostão was announcing the end of the era of Nelson Rodrigues.