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It’s all about the football, sí?

Netherlands’ Robin van Persie heads the ball to score during the group B World Cup soccer match between Spain and the Netherlands at the Arena Ponte Nova in Salvador, Brazil.
By David Smith
For the Herald

Despite political and social unrest in Brazil the sporting spectacle is what stands out

RIO DE JANEIRO — If you are a genuine fan (and trust me there are tens of thousands of them here, only a few hooligans), then something rather reassuring has happened in the first few days of this World Cup.

Amid all the fears of a Brazil paralyzed by protest, in the face of the obvious rush to have the stadiums ready on time, despite the country’s transport crisis, the narrative of this championship so far has to be the quality of the soccer.

One of my favourite Latin American writers, Eduardo Galeano, once observed of himself: “I am a beggar for good soccer, I go about the world, my hand outstretched, and in the stadiums I plead. A pretty move, for the love of God. And when I see good soccer, I give thanks, and I don’t give a damn about which team or country produced it.”

Well, we’ve seen plenty of pretty goals, and I’m with Galeano about not caring who provides the gems. Robin Van Persie of Holland, with his extraordinary swallow dive of a header against Spain.

Leo Messi’s mesmerizing dribble and sweet finish against Bosnia. Joel Campbell’s thunderous strike for Costa Rica, the goal that stunned Uruguay. Pretty moves, indeed.

And what sub-text there has been behind the scorelines. Think about the back-story of Spain versus Holland the other day. Revenge for Holland against the team that beat them in the last World Cup Final. Revenge for Dutch striker Arjen Robben, never taken seriously when he played at Real Madrid, and the way he humiliated Spanish goalkeeper Iker Casillas for one of his goals spoke to me of obvious payback.

But internal rivalry between Robben and Van Persie, never the best of friends yet joint leading goal-scorers of the tournament until yesterday.

Then consider the plot of Costa Rica versus Uruguay. Two countries of similar size, and population, both zealous defenders of their independence and tranquility. Yet on the pitch a fierce battle for supremacy, stemming from the last World Cup, when a bitterly disputed late goal in Montevideo sent Uruguay to the finals in South Africa via a playoff. No wonder the Ticos celebrated so passionately in Fortaleza over the weekend.

Sitting in the magnificent Maracanã on Sunday evening, it was hard not to ponder the rare provenance of Bosnia-Herzogovina, in their first World Cup against mighty Argentina. A country born out of a terrifying war just 20 years ago, a state that was almost throttled at birth by neighbours who were enemies, a number of their players then children of Sarajevo, a city where going out to buy bread could mean death by sniper’s bullet.

“Do you have any idea what this means for our country?” remarked Safet Susic, their coach, as he looked out at the small pockets of the stadium sporting Bosnia’s yellow and blue.

“Being here is such a statement of our nationhood.”

On the other side, of course, the legions of Argentina. Whatever the problems back home, they had travelled here, from Salta, and Mendoza, and Rosario, and from Viedma, and Madariaga, and Villa Urquiza, their banners unfurled the minute the stadium gates opened. I thought of the line I heard the other day from Diego Simeone, once a pillar of the national team, now a superstar coach : “The World Cup means so much to Argentina because it reminds the world that we are still alive.”

Alive, and vibrantly so, as they stood in their thousands to pay homage to the Messiah Messi after his wondrous goal, such a pretty move that even the Uruguayan Eduardo Galeano would have celebrated too. Argentina alive, despite inflation, despite insecurity, despite the latest scandals, despite everything.

And the same might be said of Brazil. Yes, there is obvious tension here, the sight of paramilitary police patrolling the streets 24/7, guns at the ready, speaks to the fact that broad swathes of the population do not consider the government’s 12-billion-dollar investment in this World Cup money well spent.

The beautiful game

So far, however, the authorities have clamped down on protest without being seen to do so, with the national media giving little attention to opposition rallies, and devoting non-stop air time to the beautiful game. The media outlets that have paid so handsomely for the right to show the World Cup have no interest in highlighting street protests — a clinical decision, realpolitik certainly, but effective strategy from the government’s perspective.

“Remember a real protest in Brazil can means half a million of us on the streets,” remarked Markus, a middle-aged accountant from Rio seated next to us in the Maracanã on Sunday night.

“That’s not going to happen in this World Cup, the Government is too smart for that. But the problem is that the crisis, of health, education, unemployment, won’t go away just because we hold the World Cup.”

My mind went back to 1992, and reporting from Brazil when hundreds of thousands did take to the streets to bring down a president accused of corruption, one Fernando Collor de Mello. Brazil’s journey since then has been a remarkable one : the visionary leadership of Fernando Henrique Cardoso, the savvy, pragmatic period of Lula and now the many challenges faced by Dilma Rouseff as the years of growth translate into wealth for some, but certainly not for all.

In that context, as we watched small groups of hinchas from Argentina engage in some unpleasant fights with Brazilian fans the other night, I found myself pondering a Brazil-Argentina final, a recurring topic now that the games have begun.

Two countries with such a passionate, semi-religious dedication to victory in this global arena. Two governments that seek to make the national team’s success come down to their leadership, part of the national political process. Two teams who approach each other like heavyweights in the ring.

I’m not sure it would be pretty, as Eduardo Galeano would have it. But, step away for a second, aren’t most of us beggars, for good soccer? A pretty move, for the love of God? It’s all about the Football, sí? Please, let’s leave it there over the next month, and savour our world enjoying the game that seems more global than ever.

David Smith was director of the United Nations Information Centre here until last March.

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