The Brazilians’ victory in this year’s World Cup in soccer was their fifth, well ahead of any other national team. In view of the tremendous competition associated with the world’s favorite sport, Brazil’s success is spectacular. The country’ preeminence in the sport is similar to the achievements of the New York Yankees baseball team in the 1950s and the Chicago Bulls basketball squad in the 1990s.
Brazil’s soccer prowess is no surprise. Children in every Brazilian neighborhood learn to perform extraordinary athletic feats on sandlots, grassy fields and beaches. The entire nation seems infatuated with the game.
Interestingly, the Brazilians’ passion for soccer often appears to be much stronger than their enthusiasm for politics. In the twentieth century, radical causes that excited many Europeans and Latin Americans, such as socialism and communism, failed to draw a significant following in Brazil. Even modern-day liberal and conservative ideas elicit little more than a “ho-hum” from much of the population.
Some critics of Brazilian society complain about the people’s passion for soccer and lack of enthusiasm for politics. Cheering for soccer teams and stars, say the critics, has long served as a substitute for serious involvement with political parties and leaders. This pattern became especially evident in the time of military dictatorship (1964-1985) when many forms of political expression were illegal. In those days, national leaders promoted soccer as a healthy diversion for the masses.
Brazilians continue to be less politically conscious than citizens of the United States and Europe, but blame for this condition cannot be placed solely on the interest in soccer. Political indifference springs especially from the people’s disgust with a flawed political system. Problems with corrupt leaders and an ineffective multiparty system leave voters cynical. Many Brazilians find emotional commitment to soccer teams and stars more personally fulfilling than engagement with disappointing political parties and leaders (although their patience was tested this year when scandal tainted some soccer administrators as well).
Soccer serves an important social function in Brazil. The game brings together spectators from many different economic and social backgrounds. Rich and poor, coastal urbanites and interior agrarians, Afro-Brazilians and Euro-Brazilians — all rally around the banner of the national team. The shared obsession with soccer helps to give the diverse population a common bond.
Soccer does not make Brazil paradise, of course. Poverty remains a serious problem in the society, and crime, which springs from poverty and other causes, is widespread. Nor is soccer the only factor that links Brazilians together emotionally. Still, the people’s love of the sport helps greatly to diminish the economic and social distances between them.
Our violence-prone world may draw a lesson from the Brazilian people’s passion for the game. During recent decades of soccer mania, Brazilians have not been divided by the us-versus-them mentality that troubles many nations. They have not been torn by internal hostilities such as those that ripped through Northern Ireland, Bosnia, or Rwanda, nor have they acted as bellicose troublemakers in international relations.
For good or bad, much of the Brazilians’ competitive energy is channeled into international soccer competition. In recent weeks the Brazilians have eagerly pursued fights with the Belgians, English, Turks and Germans. Their battlefield of choice was a long chalked field framed by netted goals.
Can the fast-spreading worldwide enthusiasm for soccer help to create more peaceful and cooperative relations between peoples in years to come? Can citizens of countries such as Sudan and Sri Lanka, who have been killing each other for years in bloody conflicts, find unity by cheering for a national team? Will the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea become a safer place if the Korean peoples’ aggression toward each other is redirected into soccer competition?
The infatuation with soccer can, of course, prove harmful in Brazil and other countries if it draws the people’s attention away from important issues related to economic growth and social inequality. However, the view of sport serving as a brake on reform is a favorite complaint of old-fashioned ideologues that have devised a modern-day version of Karl Marx’s historic criticism of religion as the opiate of the masses. A realistic view of soccer’s impact suggests that passion for the game does not inherently water down politics. It is just as difficult to argue that the American people are less politically sophisticated because they enjoy baseball, football, and basketball.
The international soccer championships may someday serve as a partial answer to the quest of modern-day Freudians who have long sought a safe channeling of the aggressive instincts that often lead to wars. If soccer is to prove helpful to societies seeking cooperation and unity through the joy of victory, however, the national teams of those countries will need to find ways to beat the Brazilians.
Robert Brent Toplin, professor of history at the University of North Carolina, Wilmington, has published books on popular culture and politics, and is a writer for the History News Service.