Playing against 'the beautiful game'

Posted by ap507 at Nov 13, 2017 10:55 AM |
John Williams from our School of Media, Communications and Sociology, discusses tomorrow's England V Brazil match and the waning attraction of international football

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England play Brazil in a friendly international at Wembley tomorrow (14 November). Cue the samba beat.  The mass withdrawal of players from the home squad signals both the power of Premier League clubs but also, perhaps, the waning attraction of this previously gold standard international contest. Brazil’s 7-1 humiliation by Germany in its home World Cup in 2014 may have convinced some critics that the yellow-and-light blue have lately slipped into a decadent mode – David Luiz anyone?  But for many people, the historic reputation of the Brazilians as purveyors of ‘the beautiful game’ remains.  Wembley will be full, or close to it, on Tuesday night.

So how did the Brazilian football team come to quite so invade our sporting psyche?

Back in 1826, the British Foreign Secretary, George Canning, famously recognised the newly independent states of ‘Spanish America’ with the words: ‘I call into existence the New World to redress the balance of the old.’   One hundred and fifty years later it was South America’s football, rather than its politics, which would sweep across Europe to bring fresh sporting life to an old continent.  Two inter-connected factors helped: the new popularity of the football World Cup, established without the Home nations in 1930; and the increasing power of the mass media, especially as it was expressed in the post-war rise in the popularity of televised football. But establishing cordial post-war relations through football between the British and South American nations was not an entirely easy project.

The British exported modern football to South America, of course, but historically the Foreign Office was suspicious about professional clubs from these shores playing fixtures across the South Atlantic. In 1929 Chelsea FC, reported problems to The FA on its tour of South American countries, including Bazil. These included 'non-observance of the laws of the game', 'very bad refereeing', 'badly controlled crowds' and manifestations of the 'Latin temperament' which 'hindered real football'.  One Chelsea player was allegedly punched by a spectator, while crowd trouble in Buenos Aires curtailed the match and provoked serious damage to the team's motor coach. All this confirmed the worst fears of the British establishment: that internationalising the game carried real risks for diplomatic disaster and for undermining core English ideas about ‘fair play’ in sport.

But Brazil hankered after more football contact with England. In August 1945 the Brazilian football authorities asked the British embassy in Rio de Janeiro organize a football tour, premised on the understanding that the locals would adhere strictly in their play and behaviour to the British amateur code of ‘fair play and good sport.’ The Brazilians hired English coaches, championed the use of British-made football equipment and even insisted, for a time, that all club and league correspondence in Brazil preserve specifically English sporting terminology.  But the Foreign Office remained suspicious. Could it trust British professional players abroad especially, in the words of one diplomat of the time, ‘after long sea voyages rich in alcoholic indulgence’?  

England was finally coaxed to Brazil to play in the World Cup finals of 1950. It did not go well. Later World Cup winning manager, Alf Ramsey, wrote patronisingly at the time as a senior player about local ‘negroes’ on Copacabana Beach who ‘went out of their way to give as wonderful an exhibition of ball play and acrobatics as ever you’ll see outside a circus ring.’  Despite the warm welcome offered by the locals to the European ‘Kings of Football’ who wore their scientifically designed and specially made light-weight ‘Rio boots’, England lost to the USA, and then to Spain. This humiliation and elimination was relatively underplayed back home. The Times failed even to send a reporter to the World Cup, prioritising instead the national summer sport of cricket.

Hosts Brazil reached the final in 1950, only to lose to southern neighbours Uruguay.  But the balance of power in the world game was clearly shifting. Billy Wright, the England captain noted the superior facilities for playing football in Brazil compared to the limited ‘waste land’ pitches back home. He also flagged up the threat posed by the popularity of the cinema to the leisure time of young street footballers in Britain. For the Brazilians, in turn, this sorry affair had finally lifted the veil on the sport’s originators.  By 1956, when Brazil began a tour of Europe at Wembley, the match report conceded that, ‘the British know very little about Brazilian football, beyond the fact that the South Americans are now amongst the world masters of the game.’

For the first time, in 1958, the BBC devoted twenty hours of live television to the World Cup finals, hosted by Sweden.  Even The Times published two special features on the tournament. This coincided with the emergence of a marvellous Brazilian team and the World Cup debut at 17 years age of their greatest ever player, Pele.  Brazil destroyed the hosts in the final and the mythologised version of ‘the beautiful game’ was born. ‘In the first final between the New World and the Old…it was the lordly representatives of the New which… which dazzled’, stated The Times, adding, ‘here were dark expressive sportsmen of a distant continent.’

Brazil seemed untouchable. They retained the trophy in Chile in 1962, beating England en route, and by the time the World Cup finals were eventually held in England in 1966, The Times had begun to extoll the world game as no less than a global civilising project: ‘a common language that links peoples of many creeds and colours, a game that has overstepped political iron curtains and helped to emancipate the South American Negro.’ There were few elite black players in English professional football in the early 1960s, of course, and it would be some time before a fusion of ‘race’ and nationality was even remotely considered a possibility in Britain. Nevertheless, the British public seemed fascinated that ‘their’ game could be played so differently by such exotic and ethically-mixed teams in this international setting, and with such athleticism, freedom and skill on show. In the performances of the great Brazilian forwards, Pelé and Garrincha, prevailing stereotypes here about black embodiment and performance in sport were both revealed and confirmed.  

But Brazil – and Pele – were kicked out of the 1966 finals by brutal treatment from European opponents on the dank fields of north-west England. And England’s eventual World Cup win in 1966 was seen by some commentators as a triumph for functional, dour organisation and work rate more than for flair and skill. Some even blamed it for preventing the modernisation that the game in England so desperately required. The desolate sight of the hunched, shirtless figure of Pele, limping off the pitch at Goodison Park, Liverpool under a trainer’s raincoat seemed to signal an inglorious end to Brazil’s reign as the world greatest footballers.

The England team did not advance much in the next 50 years, but the story was far from over for Brazil. The countries met again in Mexico in World Cup 1970 as holders and favourites, respectively, with Pele reborn. English resolve met Brazilian brilliance in a high quality encounter, notable for an impossible save made by the England goalkeeper Banks and a post-match shirt swapping episode involving England captain Bobby Moore and the great Pele. This moment was packaged as an iconic global image of good sportsmanship and racial harmony in sport, chosen by FIFA for the cover of its official history.  Brazil won this encounter, 1-0, on the way to another Jules Rimet World Cup trophy – this time to keep.

Brazil has won further World Cups – in 1994 in the USA and 2002 in Japan – without ever coming close to replicating the style and majesty of that legendary 1970s’ team. The names of that Mexico group lingered long in the national memory in Britain. In 1982 a Mrs Lynette George from South Wales even divorced her husband after she discovered that he had named their daughter, ‘Pelé, Jairzinho, Rivelino, Carlos Alberto, Paulo Cesar’ - instead of Jennifer. For Britain’s own African-Caribbean footballers, the sight of a black players ‘teaching the (white) teachers’ in 1970 was very powerful. As one player for the first black football club formed in multi-cultural Leicester recalled: ‘We saw Brazil in the 1970 World Cup and they were our greatest inspiration. We said we want to form a team and we want to play like Brazilians’.

Wanting to ‘play like Brazilians’ still has an identifiable meaning in world football today, even in an era when that country has lost its casual air of invincibility, South American players are no longer the delightful mystery they were in the 50s and 60s, and national styles have been weakened as the European club market snaps up the world’s best players. But those green-trimmed yellow shirts, pale blue shorts and white socks will always be emblematic somehow of the ‘beautiful game.’ Which is why seeing Brazil play at Wembley in 2017 remains for many fans and journalists a very special occasion indeed, no matter what those ‘injured’ England players and their agents might argue.


Professor Richard Holt, International Centre for Sports History and Culture, De Montfort University  

John Williams, Associate Professor, School of Media, Communications & Sociology, University of Leicester 

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