Passion of the People? Football in South America
By Tony Mason, Verso, London
Soccer has European mother. She has fostered the child well. To be honest, she had nurtured her son to the best of her abilities. She had provided the child with the best possible infrastructure, best-possible schooling. She wanted her child to be disciplined, well-mannered. Her son followed her wish at the first place. Later, he was driven by the coaches his mother had hired for him. He was a Mama’s boy, then became a coach’s boy. Thus he grew up under constant care and his football sums up this whole process of being systematical.
Soccer has a step-mother in Latin America, too! Here, the mother is poor. Her hands are too full with too many responsibilities, including her husband. But she had too few pennies to fulfill those basic requirements. So, she had no other option but to let her child free. The child grew up in the small dark lanes, poor neighbourhoods. His boyhood found the only joy of his life when he had a rounded ball made of clothes or pampered papers. His dream was to play with the leather form and show his uninhibited skill to the whole world. Because of the early sufferings, he has a crusade to win. And he fights it gallantly on the field aided by his extraordinary talent and exceptional unpolished skills.
Soccer prospered because of the duel between these two styles. It added more flavor, more vigour to the game already destined to be the most popular on earth. While the Europeans helped it reach beyond every boundary of the earthly world, it is the Latin Americans who added the most important factor – beauty – to the game. They touched our hearts, our imagination. We cried with them, laughed aloud. Their tricks made us feel contented. Football flourished from France to Fiji to Faridabad!
“There are two types of football, prose and poetry. European teams are prose, tough, premeditated, systematic, collective. Latin American ones are poetry, ductile, spontaneous, individual, erotic.”
When you open a book and encounter these two lines first, you have no other choice left but to go through the pages in a speed normally you would like to finish a thriller. Indeed, it is one of those fascinating journeys through the 157 pages of this book that portrayed Latin American football in its totality. As exciting as beholding any Latin American team on the football field, at the same time, the effort is as laborious as something you normally associate with any North European country’s football-gharana. In short, a European, well-documented, researched approach to the most unpredictable but the most beautiful form of football the world has ever seen, made this book, “Passion of the People?” a great read.
Chapters are self-explanatory. Origins, English Lessons, International Triumphs, Professionals, Futbol and Politics, The Reign of Pele, Passion of the People?, Meaning and Modern Times, World Cup USA and Postscript.
How football originated in those parts of the world? What were the roles the British played in spreading the game over the large continent? Readers would love going through the research work of the writer, Tony Mason.
The best thing about the book is, it is an honest attempt to discover the style, the gharana of football the South American super powers play. Although at this juncture of time, there are many takers of the view that the ‘gharanas’ are non-existing, rather, it is an amalgamation of the styles with the easy import of Latin American footballers to the European markets. It is true that the Latin American footballers can easily be lured by the big-spending European clubs and on the very first opportunity they offer their passports to be stamped for the first time in one of the immigration offices of any of the European countries, especially in Spain or Italy. In 2008, The Economist reported that 4.8 percent of Brazil’s GDP was earned through the transfer of 1,086 Brazilian footballers to the World market! Certainly this flow of footballers from the best-football playing nation had helped the Europeans to learn a few tricks from the Brazilians. But ‘gharanas’ in football are more important because of their differences, like it is in Indian classical music. The difference in styles is the icing on the cake for soccer to prosper in every part of the world so distinctively.
The effort is sincere to find how the Southern part of America found its own style of playing football. Yes, we often generalize it by saying “Latin American style”. But football in Brazil is not at all the same as in Argentina or Uruguay. Where are the differences? How were they formed? What made them so successful? Tony Mason tried to look into the historical evidences to find a satisfactory answer.
Like in page 25, Mason found out a very interesting document on Argentina’s style of play from 1912 -
“When a team of Argentinians visited Brazil in 1912 O Estado de Sao Paulo much preferred their style of play to that of the Corinthians:
“In striking contrast to our players the Argentines were always simply marvelous. What magnificent combination, what marksmanship; how resourceful, how tenacious, how splendid the defence, how brilliant the attack. Yet all without charging – always gentle and polite! The play of the Argentines was better than the best we have ever witnessed. Even the Corinthians were inferior. They may have been more vigorous but they have been less brilliant.”
Now that is more interesting since we find Mascheranos and Zanettis to marshall the Argentine midfield and there is no dearth of vigorous play, is not it? So, how does this transformation take place ie, from being “always gentle and polite” how come the Argentines become so “charging”? Mason has an answer to it, too. About the much-discussed 1930 World cup final, between the two Latin super-powers Argentina and Uruguay (Brazil was yet to pull their weights as the giant of Latin America then!), Mason wrote:
“… But the largest crowd to witness a football match in South America up to that time – about 80,000 – were there. They saw an exciting match in which Uruguay went ahead, but by the half time Argentina led 2-1. Uruguay equalized early in the second half, after which the Argentine forward Varallo was injured and limped badly for the rest of the game. Uruguay were now on top with the Argentine half-backs unable to win possession. Constant pressure on the Argentine defence eventually produced goals for Iriarte after seventy-five minutes and Castro three minutes from the end. By that time the Argentine goalkeeper had hurt an arm.” (p – 41)
The reaction of the defeat in the Argentine press was of disbelief. Frustration of losing the battle for the best football playing nation in South America got to the Argentine media.
“La Prensa claimed the Uruguayns had won by excessively rough play and criticized the Argentinians for failing to adopt similar tactics –
“Argentine teams sent abroad to represent the prestige of the country in any form of sport should not be composed of men who have anything to matter with them … We don’t need men who fall at the first blow, who are in danger of fainting at the first onslaught even if they are clever in their footwork…These ‘lady players’ should be eliminated …we must also get rid of those leaders who manage, speculate, and deal in football as if it were purely a commercial affair…” (p-42)
Uruguay continued their tradition of playing rough even now. But, “Lady players” for Argentina? That’s a revealation, definitely. The history of world cup after the Second World War, does not suggest something like this. We are aware of the Argentine footballers who were as skillful as Diego Armando Maradona and at the same time, as prone to picking yellow cards as Javier Mascherano. Even Maradona had no hesitation to describe that there was no harm in being “destructive” in terms of gaining back the possession of the ball. We were searching for the root of this change in attitude. Mason provided us with that information.
Normally, a book on soccer, do not have a chapter named “Football and Politics”. But, when you are discussing football in South America, you cannot have the luxury to do so. Politicians had made the most out of the Joga Bonito – the beautiful game – in every South American country.
Like the famous 1978 world cup victory for Argentina when the nation was going through probably the worst phase. The Peronist Government ‘overwhelmed by inflation and apparently on the brink of civil war’ did nothing when FIFA announced in 1975 that the next world cup would be held in Argentina. In March 1976, the government was overthrown by the military and General Jorge Videla became president. Immediately after that, in July 1976, the world cup was declared an issue of “National interest and an organizing committee was set up. EAM78 – Ente Autarquico Mundial ’78 – got off to a bad start when its first President, General Actis, was assassinated…
“From February 1978 EAM and its Coca Cola allies moved into a propaganda offensive aimed at their opponents both at home and abroad. European civil rights groups were among the most important of the latter. At home radio, television, advertisements, newspapers and posters bombarded the population with patriotic slogans such as ‘twenty-five million Argentines will play in the World cup’. The opening ceremony on Sunday 1 June, went without a hitch – without the traditional difficulties of a football Sunday – in front of a President Videla dressed in his Civilian suit. El Grafico summed up the excitement and satisfaction that not only the organizers felt:
“For those on the outside, for all the journalists, the insidious and badly intentioned journalists who for months have been organizing a campaign of lies about Argentina, this tournament is showing the world the reality of our country and its capacity to do things with responsibility and to do important thing well.
“For those inside, for those who do not believe that we have in our own house … after so many hard experiences … enormous possibilities and this has nothing to do with the football results. Argentina has already won the world cup.” (p -71-72)
However, the government-sponsored media and the dictators could not ensure a “fair” world cup where Argentina had to beat Peru by a margin of six goals to qualify for the knockout stage, beating Brazil, and they just did so in a match where the ghost of fixation loomed large. Allegedly 50 million pounds were transferred to Peru account to “help” the country fight poverty. And that’s not the end of it, FIFA had decided to host all the last matches in a group on same day, same time, to avoid more controversies regarding it. Surprisingly, Mason did not utter a single word to this incident. Johan Cruyff, the best-ever Dutch footballer produced, decided to boycott the World cup after helping his country to qualify for the main draw, in protest of the dictatorship prevailing in Argentina then. Mason could have touched the issue, too.
But the involvement of Government clearly showed what the dictators wanted to show the world - the legitimacy of their regime. It was a dilemma to the common people of Argentina, which was echoed brilliantly by playwright Ricardo Halac:
“The military men wanted to use the Mundial but they also wanted us to come out champions. Many Argentines who celebrated did not like the military, but we also wanted to be champions. What could we do? Not dance? Boycott the Mundial? Do dictatorships pass away, do Cups remain? We went, we won and we danced” (p-74)
Eight years earlier, almost the same thing happened in Brazil. Some Brazilian intellectuals openly wanted Brazil to lose the world cup in Mexico, 1970, in order to prevent the exploitations of victory by the military government. But Brazil won and the event was expertly exploited by the then Brazilian government. The president, Medici, made a special speech to the nation immediately after the victory in Mexico that earned the Brazilians the right to keep the Jules Rimet trophy forever. He said:
“I feel profound happiness at seeing the joy of our people in this highest form of patriotism. I identify this victory won in the brotherhood of good sportsmanship with the rise of faith in our fight for national development. I identify the success of our (national team) with … intelligence and bravery, perseverance and serenity in our technical ability, in physical preparation and moral being. Above all, our players won because they know how to …play for collective good.” (p-64)
Football forms an integral part in the life of South Americans. They revolve round the game. It earns them a decent living, but more than that, it is the way of emancipation from the daily distress the common man has to go through there. The social implication of the game can never be easy to compare with that of the Europeans where soccer is just one way of earning your wages and a decent living. The beauty of the book is in its effort to distinguish these two completely different social aspects and try to find the proper reason behind the South American domination in the world of football. The writer had a European mind to dissect the Latin American style and that had made the book a must to read for the soccer-buffs.
Thanks to Tony Mason for this superbly written book – “Passion of the People? Football in South America”. While ‘caution’ is the boldly-written theme of the European football teams, ‘passion’, truly, is the force that drives the South Americans to display their dazzling skills on a football field. And it is lovely to follow them, as well as the book, passionately, indeed!
- ‘90 Minutes’ – A soccer journal published from Kolkata, Vol-4