Non-fiction review: Futebol Nation: A footballing history of Brazil by David Goldblatt
If Ireland was in the tropics, with a population approaching that of the United States', it might look a lot like Brazil.
Both are post colonial nations with political and social 'baggage' – each is obsessed with sport. As hurling and football are to Ireland, so soccer is to Brazil: the game isn't merely an object of general fascination for locals – it seems to speak, in some way, to the national character. The difference is that in Brazil everything is so much more grandiose – the corruption pervasive, the poverty surpassing anything witnessed in Ireland since the early 20th century, the country's passion for pinging a ball around a field verging on a kind of mania.
The relationship between Brazil and the sport with which it is synonymous is a lot to chew on and Goldblatt is impressive at exploring the ways in which soccer and national identity have entwined, for good and ill. He begins with the arguably sweeping generalisation that, if you set sport aside, Brazil ranks among one of the globe's foremost underachievers, a state with the demographics and natural resources to rival America or China but which manages to sell its potential short again and again.
Some of the reasons for this are hinted at – despite its image as the most rainbow of nations, racism has historically bedeviled Brazilian soccer (black players, Goldblatt reports, were scapegoated for Brazil's failure in the 1950 World Cup). And then there is the culture of brown envelopes, which, he suggests, has held Brazil back on the sporting field as much as in any other area. He furthermore delves into the tin-pot juntas which derailed the country in the 60s and 70s and the often endemic violence of the large cities (for all the cliches of samba on the beach, hardcore Brazilian soccer fans are as terrifying as any in the world). The book is timely, arriving ahead of Brazilian's hosting of the World Cup. But Futebol Nation isn't really about sport – it's a pimples-and-all portrait of the world's sixth largest country and the many ways it has succeeded in shooting itself in both feet.
First published in INSIDER Magazine, exclusive to Thursday's Irish Independent