Monday 23 September 2019

Ewan MacKenna: Infantile, spoiled and indulged - everything wrong with Brazil is summed up by their obnoxious star

Neymar celebrates after the final whistle in Brazil’s win over Costa Rica (Adam Davy/Empics)
Neymar celebrates after the final whistle in Brazil’s win over Costa Rica (Adam Davy/Empics)
Ewan MacKenna

Ewan MacKenna

If you've got five minutes, there's a YouTube video you have to take in.

And if you've seen it already, then you know it doesn't lose any majesty with subsequent viewings. It's of the 1982 Brazil team at the World Cup and covers their 11 most stunning goals at that tournament in Spain.


It's simply staggering.

Conjurers. Sorcerers. Wizards. Magicians. Artists. All.

The team holds a place close to many hearts in the nation for reasons beyond that too. In the midst of their military dictatorship, many will tell you that the rulers were trying to introduce Soviet-influenced technocratic sport and this was a piece of revolution. That may not be entirely true, certainly not of their manager Telê Santana who, it goes according to some accounts, dropped Reinaldo before that tournament having complained of his links to the Workers' Party, and his friendship with future president Lula and 'other homosexuals'.

But still, such greatness allows for hyperbole and myths.

If you take the football alone though, it was more than enough, the sort that coloured an entire generation's view of the Brazilian seleçao. It made many around the globe love them and want more, and such was the style that their elimination to Italy was a defining moment for the game, as two ideologies clashed and the wall toppled the wrong way.

In a country where the joke – and often the reality - goes they don't so much like football but winning, this is the one side that got a pass for coming up short. They weren't the best, but they were the most beautiful and most beloved. Now though you wonder has there ever been a Brazil with as much ugly about them, or certainly a group from the country that has been easier to dislike.

For sure, watching that video becomes all the more glorious through a contrast with this present; but it's also tragic too, as this present is supposed to be a continuation of that legacy.

* * *

In the middle of May, Brazil came to a brutal standstill.

With unemployment at 13.4 per cent, with an unelected president spitting on the growing poor, with a far-right candidate leading the polls for October's elections, with violent death figures for 2016 released showing they'd topped 60,000, with the army on the streets, yet more fuel-hikes were a tipping point. The truckers of the country had enough and downed tools on whatever road they happened to be on, crippling a semi-continent. Soon supermarkets were rationing goods to lines that kept finding a way to get longer.

It was in the midst of all this that the national team took off for the World Cup. The main TV station Globo cut away from the violence and misery that is also the common reality, to see the squad board a customised A340 in Rio de Janeiro airport. Pictures showed the transformation of the interior into complete luxury. In essence, the team had done nothing wrong, but just as those petrol prices were a focal point for national anger, this was a lightning rod for feelings around a group that are so easy to dislike.

To understand the psyche of this current Brazil, you've to go back to long before that, however. Today we have the mighty oak that all can see, but it was in 2014 that the acorn was planted.

Consider this. In the week leading up to the famous 7-1 semi-final defeat to Germany that shook the globe, an overpass collapsed just a short walk from the Mineiráo in Belo Horizonte as construction was rushed for the tournament. Twenty-two people were injured with two killed. Meanwhile the day before that game, the great Alfredo di Stefano passed away. Yet when Thiago Silva and then-coach Felipe Scolari popped into the pre-game press conference at the ground, they couldn't so much attribute a single word to any of them.

Instead their thoughts and talk were dominated by praying for Neymar and playing for Neymar.

Of course there's a level of detachment, selfishness and focus required, but there's also the need to be clued-in and respectful, to the point it was hard not to smile as they fell apart. Perhaps such arrogance can be forgiven through pressure and immaturity once. The problem is that with the passing and lessons of time, it cannot be overlooked again. So much has changed in the world and the world of football in four years yet, it seems, they have remained much the same.

Make no mistake, Wednesday was the mask held up as even they realised that at times in this tournament they'd gone too far. Before kick-off against Serbia, Neymar told local media that his focus would be on football rather than referees, this after days of shots of him and his teammates spraying water bottles at each other and tossing each others hair and whatever other stereotypical act constitutes horsing around, all clearly for the cameras. It gave off the whiff of lads so desperate to have the craic that they'd forgotten what craic is. It gave off the stench of false fun and worrisome insecurity, like a Kardashian fawning humility and interest.

It's when pressure comes on though that the mask tends to slips and that pressure is coming. Just you wait.

That same pressure and panic were there in the first game. For sure, Neymar was kicked but he also dived and every time he got the ball it was head down, as if each sequence had to end with him shooting or falling or being felled. But beyond him, that 1-1 draw with Switzerland gave an insight into their psyche. In the immediate aftermath, the CBF wrote to FIFA to complain about the use of the video-assisted referee despite the technology being explained in advance and despite it still being subjective around all but off-sides.

It reeked of an inability to take responsibility for the goal conceded and the chances missed and their own failings to turn the screw via superiority. And this is a trait that plagues Brazil. Rather than owning mistakes and using them to improve, it's easier to blame. Why better yourself when you can excuse yourself?

Worse was to come though, as against Costa Rica we got a throwback to that same uncontrolled, odious - and what ultimately becomes destructive -  emotion of 2014. In a World Cup of much diving and bullying, that was the stand-out, the altar to ugly chaos and cheating.

We hate coming back to Neymar, for in this billboard era of marketed football, it is customers rather than fans who just see one famous face and whittle a team game down to him. It's the reality TV world impinging on sport, but how can you not talk about Brazil without talking about him? It's not about the flashes of good, or even the bad, in terms of greed and stunting the speed and flow of their attack.

Instead it's about the downright ugliness of his attitude.

That day, he completely lost it. On seven occasions against Costa Rica he told Dutch referee Björn Kuipers, to use the literal translation from Portuguese, to 'get f**ked in the ass'. That can be toned down as a defence but that's the only defence. Still, it didn't end there. He moaned, he rolled, from start to finish he made it about him, at one point he turned on his own captain Thiago Silva for giving the ball back to the opposition after an injury with Silva saying afterwards, 'He made me very sad'. And then when it was over he kept on going. After that game he cried for in the centre-circle, and told Brazilians in an interview that 'they need to respect their idol'.

Infantile. Spoiled. Entitled. Indulged. Obnoxious. Paranoid. They all came to mind.

The problem is: what do you do with what he is, given who he is?

We might have known what was coming as soon as he left Barcelona for Paris-Saint Germain as the move instantly screamed of a player looking to maximise his bank balance rather than his huge potential. And if we didn't realise it with the transfer, we did soon after, via the tantrums and bully-boy character and toys flung from the pram over penalties and party life-style and entourage leading him down all the wrong paths and away from what once seemed his destiny.

It's not about the arguable regression in skill, and that was a debate to be had before injury, but about the regression of his behaviour. That there's a conversation to be had about this Brazil being better without him is a huge indictment of what he's become.

Not even Tite, a man with the nation in the palm of his hands, can control it.

When it came to this World Cup, many expected to see a new mindset and much of that was supposed to come from on high. In the wonderful madness and anger of their national league, the coach had been a beacon of calm and cohesion at no less a club that Corinthians. Arguably the biggest side in the land, theirs is a fandom that in recent years have entered the training ground with bars and bats after bad performances with the aim of getting a go at Alexandre Pato's legs, actually getting at Paolo Guerrero's neck, before deciding to get a go at Emerson Sheikh for a photo of him kissing a male friend.

In the midst of that lunacy, and in a league where a couple of bad results wipes out the past and gets you sacked, he didn't just survive but thrived with two titles, as well as a Copa Libertadores and a Club World Cup. Yet he hasn't controlled Neymar, in fact he hasn't even checked him, to the point that his personality has overwhelmed them all. And Tite hasn't exactly controlled himself either. The run and tumble after a winner in a group game against a dire Costa Rica doesn't scream the outlook and perspective of champions.

As is so often the case in Brazilian football and in general life, such badness and madness spreads and this epidemic starts at the top. Indeed since the last World Cup, the CBF have lost three presidents to corruption. Marco Polo Del Nero couldn't go to the Copa America in the USA for fear he'd be locked up; Ricardo Teixeira did the opposite, living out in his Florida condo after all of his dodgy deals; and Jose Maria Marin, a man caught on camera pocketing a youth player's medal at a presentation once, was arrested.

Even before a ball was kicked in Moscow, new president Antonio Carlos Nunes voted for Morocco to host in 2026 having promised the opposite, and when quizzed placed the blame on transparency. That trickles on down the chain to what we see before us, to this team.

Of course they have talent. Bundles. Philippe Coutinho has starred through a rare humility and Willian can still come good and Gabriel Jesus might yet become free and flighty if he can shirk what seems a perpetual and brutal weight on his back. But for all the arguments about players and potential and even the tactical set-up with a forward-loaded system leaving them so vulnerable to the counter, if anything cuts them off at the knees it will be the mentality.

In 2014 when they ought to have seen that only adults win a World Cup, they saw little other than themselves. And now there's been no sign of any lessons learned in the interim either, as so far we've still seen nothing more than children.

Online Editors

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