Thursday, June 12, 2014 – The Beautiful Game
The Beautiful Game
by Sinclair Noe
DOW – 109 = 16,734
SPX – 13 = 1930
NAS – 34 = 4297
10 YR YLD – .05 = 2.59%
OIL + 2.51 = 106.91
GOLD + 12.70 = 1274.30
SILV + .34 = 19.63
This is a big day for sports fans. In the US, many fans are thinking about the NBA playoffs or the start of the US Open golf championship, but those games are small potatoes compared to the World Cup. Over the next month, the World Cup will attract about 4 billion television viewers, maybe more when we consider all the digital devices that can replay the games; that’s more than the 3.6 billion viewers who watched the Beijing Olympic games; more than the 3.2 billion that watched the 2010 World Cup. By comparison, the Seahawks-Broncos Super Bowl managed a record 111 million viewers. The cumulative viewership for all the matches over the next month might top 35 billion. It’s a corporate marketing bonanza.
Over the next month, there will be countries across the globe that will quite literally shut down for 90 minutes intervals. Courts will delay hearing cases, hospitals will not schedule surgeries, offices and retail outlets and factories will shut down, the crime rate will drop, the streets will empty with almost zero traffic, planes stop flying, and trains stop running. I’ve seen it happen; and because I am blessed to be married to a lovely Brazilian woman, I have been caught up in the madness.
If you are still unclear, and most Americans are unclear on this subject, I’m talking about the beautiful game, futebol, or what we call soccer and the rest of the world calls futebol. The World Cup is the global championship in soccer and this year it is being played in Brazil, which is the greatest soccer team in the history of the World Cup. The first game was just a little earlier today, Brazil beat Croatia 3-1.
The whole thing was once strange to me as well, but I have a friend, Charles Oelfke, the Honorary Brazilian Consulate in Arizona; he is also an American married to a Brazilian, and when I talked with him about this World Cup thing, he pulled out an article he wrote back in 1994; that was the year the US hosted the World Cup; that was also the year Brazil won its fourth championship.
Here’s what I learned from Charles’ Gringo’s-eye view of the World Cup Extravaganza. Because of my marital affiliation, I will be required to watch all games involving my adopted country every four years. It’s a cultural thing. I will be required to record every game. I will be required to call Brazil immediately after each game to discuss why, for example, a 0-0 tie was such an exciting, logical, tactical display, clearly proving Brazil’s world dominance in the sport. I will be required to replay each game at least 3 times that same night, then twice weekly for the next four years. And apparently it also involves turning the TV room into a green and yellow shrine to Brazilian futebol.
I still don’t really understand the game and the rules, but Charlie explained that there is a certain methodology of the 22 men in plastic shorts and long hair who run around like decapitated chickens for 90 minutes making life miserable for the goleiros (the goalkeepers) who wear oversized sticky gloves while flying horizontally through the air. The goleiros can’t win games, but they’re so often blamed for losing them that volunteers for this position on the team are scarce and they are often hired from other countries.
Next question: just how large is a soccer field? I’ve learned from experts (of which Brazil now has more than 200 million) that it’s… oh…maybe… uh 70 or 80 meters wide by about maybe…, 100 meters… uh.. maybe 110 meters long; something like that. The regulation probably reads “the dimensions of which depend upon space available.” You have to respect the degree of precision in the world’s most popular sport.
My own travels in Brazil reveal that futebol, at least on the amateur level, can be played on almost any stretch of open field, or a street without too much traffic, or the beach, or even on a volleyball court. The only requirement is a ball, or something that looks like a ball.
I asked about the 1994 World Cup, which was in the US but for some reason I have almost no personal recollection of it. It was supposed to be the games that introduced soccer to the US, and the US to World soccer; but mainly it proved that we weren’t quite ready, with the possible exception of our ability to grow and mow grass.
And then I asked about the actual final, the championship game from ’94. Charlie explained that back then he and his wife Josefa had been inviting friends to watch the TV broadcasts at their home, and this usually involved a lot of yelling and screaming and copious overeating (and I’m guessing quite a few cervezas and caipairinhas), but the numbers grew too fast, and they ran out of chairs for everybody, and they had to set up in a restaurant (a steak house, of course) for the final game. About 300 Brazilians showed up, and about 3 very foolhardy Italians; and there was a lot of cheering and dancing and singing. It’s a cultural thing, he explained.
And about that final game in 1994, he said: “It was Brazil’s destiny. Everyone agrees, Brazil was the best team and I believe that, but…” the final of 52 games, of an every four year event, the showcase, the championship of the world’s most popular sport, between two tri-champion teams, the most important athletic competition in the universe with billions of spectators around the world ended in a 0-0 tie. And after 30 minutes of overtime, still a 0-0 tie.
So then it was decided by penalties, a shoot-out, a lottery. Why not just give the goleiros a last cigarette, put a blindfold on them? And … 4 years of preparation and 52 games and it all came down to individual luck. The experts called it a great game, a real cliff hanger, and justified the Brazil win because Brazil had 22 shots on goal compared to Italy’s 8. That’s like saying Michael Jordan had a great game because he shot 22 air balls. Still, it will go down in history as Brazil Campeao 3-2 over Italy. It was also the first championship to be decided by penalty kicks. Something that still upsets Charlie 20 years later.
Brazil is the undisputed greatest national team in the history of futebol. They have 5 championships; their closest rivals have 3. And this year, Brazil, the most futebol crazy country in the world, is the host country for the World Cup; and most of the experts are picking Brazil as the favorite to win a sixth championship. This would seem to be a perfect, futebol dream come true. Not so fast.
Many Brazilians are angry about how much was spent preparing for the Cup and how the country still struggled to be ready. Anger about broken promises and the ballooning cost of soccer venues contributed to widespread protests that drew over a million Brazilians into the streets last year. Detractors say the World Cup has done more harm than good by taking funds away from social programs and investment projects. The Brazilian government has spent an estimated $11 billion on the World Cup, while protesters say the money should have gone to low income housing, hospitals, better roads, and better schools.
And as the games start today, Brazil is ill-prepared, with many projects over budget and behind schedule. The government spent nearly $300 million for a stadium in Manaus, a city that doesn’t have a major league soccer team, and is deep in the jungle along the Amazon River. It’s expected that after the World Cup, the stadium will sit empty for the most part. Building materials were shipped in by boat because you can’t drive to Manaus.
And to add insult to injury, the ticket prices for most games will price average Brazilians out of the stadiums, and the profits from the games don’t go to Brazil, they go to FIFA. And part of FIFA’s deal is complete tax exemption on all profits. Toss in some charges of bribery and FIFA is being compared to the mafia.
Part of the preparations for the World Cup involved what is known as pacification plans for the favelas, the massive shantytowns that are home to tens of millions of the urban poor. The police move in and after they enforce order, they are supposed to upgrade hospitals and schools. So far, it has been a police invasion without the benefits.
Last year, Brazil hosted the Confederation Cup, a trial run for the World Cup; that led to riots, and protests that drew hundreds of thousands to the streets. The protests continued today, with subway workers on strike in Sao Paolo, and protest camps set up just out of sight from the stadiums. Two days ago, Joseph Blatter, the President of FIFA, the international football association that arranges the World Cup, kicked things off in Sao Paulo. Brazilian celebrities including President Dilma Rousseff as well as the governor of the state of Sao Paulo and the mayor of the megacity stayed away from the event. They didn’t want a repeat of last year, when Blatter and Rousseff were booed off the stage. Blatter’s solo performance in Sao Paulo speaks volumes about the mood in the country. The World Cup may be a fiasco, but if Brazil loses the World Cup Championship it could be a disaster for the government.
Brazil is the 5th largest country in the world; it has the 6th largest economy; Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro are major cosmopolitan cities with massive favelas; it is the 17th worst country when it comes to inequality. When millions live in poverty, and corruption is rampant, and basic public services are denied, a sports extravaganza seems inappropriate, even if it is futebol on Brazilian soil. And so they play. Maybe this is Brazil’s destiny.