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1994: Fatherhood, Hope & The World Cup in America

July 13, 2018
Bebeto

Bebeto celebrates his goal against the Dutch by “rocking his newborn son”

The 1994 FIFA World Cup in the USA was, in many ways, a tournament about hope for hopeful times.

The planet was still somewhat politically giddy following the fall of the Berlin wall; Germany – the defending Champions – were now a united team; Bill Clinton’s presidency was still in its infancy, and he promised to fix both Ireland and the Middle East (and we all believed him); Jurassic Park had recently come out and completely redefined our cinematic expectations regarding computer generated special effects, as well as ushering in a whole generation of kids vowing to become paleontologists; Friends was about to make sitcom history; Nelson Mandela was elected President of South Africa in May (“Never, never again will this beautiful land experience the oppression of one by another”); The Lion King came out and made Hamlet pop again; and, of course, both Yahoo and Amazon were founded in 1994, and the Internet suddenly ‘became real’…a new frontier, promising golden opportunities for people to connect with each other on a truly global level.

And, let’s face it: what is more beautifully hopeful than to stage the biggest soccer event on the planet in the one country that refuses to embrace the sport?

Alas, having just turned 11 by the time the World Cup started in June, I was blissfully unaware of these world changing events of 1994. I was too busy living a very simple life in a town of 25,000 people in Midwestern Brazil. I had no home computer, no cable television and no fancy video-game systems; I was, instead, addicted to corny sci-fi books, Asterix comics, films of all sorts (1994 was also when I first saw Blade Runner: to this date, my favourite film of all time) and used to spend most of my time riding my bicycle back-and-forth between my mom’s and dad’s places – they had been divorced for 3 years by the time the World Cup rolled in.

Watching the tournament with my father that year remains one of my strongest memories of time spent with him; indeed, it was the formative, key event that triggered within me a sense of relationship between us; a sense of bond that tore through notions of authority and obedience; a sense of friendship.

I felt my cherished memories and sensations of 1994 creeping up more prominently than ever this year because this, the 2018 World Cup, was my very first World Cup as a father myself. And, what’s even more astonishing, I am now the age my father was when he watched the games with me in 1994.

Indeed, parenthood is a theme richly explored in World Cup folklore. The greatest player of all time, Pele, famously vowed to win the World Cup for Brazil after watching his father cry for the first time, when the country lost to Uruguay at the 1950 final. “Don’t worry dad, don’t cry, I will win a World Cup for you”, said a 10-year-old Pele.

8 years later, he did.

There’s something that happens to boys around the age of 10 that they start to notice their dads aren’t entirely made of that seemingly impenetrable wall of authoritative certainty – there are nuances.

That was certainly the case for both me and Pele. During our World Cup experiences, we both saw our dads laugh and jump in ways we didn’t think adults could. And then, of course, we also saw our dads cry – such a powerful thing for the 10-year-old mind; particularly in a conservative, intensely macho society like Brazil.

When I close my eyes and think of 1994, I picture dad’s living room…mildly Spartan: a boxy, olive-green couch facing a small TV stand, with a 20” television set atop – Phillips; black and also boxy in design. To the left of the living room, a rack of VHS tapes (his favourite films, including Jeremiah Johnson, Ben-Hur and Seven Samurai). To the right: an armchair (part of the olive-green boxy set), and a beige, button-paneled corded phone on a little side-table next to it.

That’s where most of the 1994 World Cup happened for me.

That’s where Bulgaria’s Stoichkov sent Germany home (“WHAT?!”, exclaimed Dad, the son of German immigrants); that’s where Bebeto scored for Brazil against the Dutch at the quarter-finals, and in his celebration he mime-rocked an imaginary child, in honour of his newborn son – what then became the go-to celebration for new-parent footballers everywhere; that’s where Branco scored that completely preposterous free-kick and immediately bursted into tears (men crying…you indeed see them at the World Cup); that’s where Romario became the world’s greatest player; that’s where USA’s Alexi Lalas featured his eye-catching red beard, and impressive long hairs, resembling more a goat or a tennis player from the 1970s than a footballer; that’s where Diego Maradona scored his very last World Cup goal, and then was caught in a doping scandal; there’s where Hagi became a Romanian superstar; that’s where Salenko scored FIVE goals for Russia against Cameroon…it all happened in Dad’s living room.

Speaking of Cameroon, my absolutely favourite memory of that tournament was listening to Brazil’s 3-0 win over Cameroon on the radio in Dad’s car – a violent storm caused a city-wide blackout, with power going out half-way through the match. We didn’t even think twice about it. We went outside, as rain and thunder punished the world mercilessly, walked to the driveway and got in the car, and immediately turned on the radio.

At that moment, I was experiencing the World Cup as Pele did when he was a boy: through the radio waves, sitting right next to Dad, transfixed by the breathless, rapid-fire Portuguese narration – which communicated a far more exciting and bewildering account of the event in comparison to its visual intake.

Unfortunately, not everything happened in Dad’s living room. Brazil’s two most crucial matches (the semi-final against Sweden, and the final against Italy) happened somewhere else – at Mom’s.

As it turns out, in retrospect, Dad’s absence during those two events proved to be just as crucial and impactful as his warm presence in the previous matches.

1994 was also when my Dad met his second wife. Her family used to live in a town nearby, and that’s where Dad watched Brazil’s last two matches, at his girlfriend’s with her family.

I have no recollection of us discussing him being away during that time, nor can I entirely trust the memory of my 11-year-old self. But I do remember feeling…well, ditched. I remember feeling how exciting it was to watch my Dad get involved, enraptured, possessed by the games, and how watching the matches with Mom wouldn’t feel nearly as much fun.

Mom was never much of a soccer fan, but to her credit – or maybe it was just the contagious effect of a World Cup seminal – she became incredibly involved in that match against Sweden. I’m still not sure if she did that in order to make me feel better about not having Dad there, or if indeed the game had simply intoxicated her too. Whatever it was, it worked!

That evening it was just Mom and I; strangely, since our home was usually incredibly loud and busy. I have no recollection of my 5 year old sister, or my 3 year old brother, being around us then…

What I remember is that the game started at dusk. I remember Brazil wearing blue. I remember Sweden wearing white. I remember Mom saying “these Swedes are so much taller than our boys”. I remember becoming involved in the match with her. I remember a tense first half stuck at 0 x 0. I remember Sweden’s keeper, Ravelli, performing exceptionally well. But what I remember most vividly is Romario’s goal in the second half. A tiny man, in fact, in Portuguese, Romario’s nickname was “o baixinho”: ‘shorty’. I remember Mom and I leaping up from the sofa with Romario, as he soared as though propelled by one of those fancy rockets designed by Elon Musk. Shorty takes off in between two Swedish skyscrapers, and scores a header. A header!

Brazil win 1-0 and are in the final of the World Cup for the first time since 1970.

The final was, as per tradition, on a Sunday. Mom’s friends, Mario and Marisa, came over to watch the match with us. Brazil Vs Italy, the two most successful soccer nations in history: 3 World titles each; whoever won the match would achieve something no other team had: 4 World Cup titles.

A match to savour.

This time the place was full. Lorenzo and Marcela, my siblings, were there too. It was noisy. It was sunny. I can still feel the texture of the sofa in my Mom’s TV room. A tad rough, but not uncomfortably so; ornate with stitched patters, angular shapes; peachy-purple in perfect 90s style…

I was excited. It was a World Cup final after all. But I couldn’t help remembering Dad. What was he feeling? Who was he watching the match with? How was he taking it all in? What would he have told me to focus on, had we been together for that momentous occasion? What sort of funny sounds and grunts and curse words was he throwing at the television…?

The game kicks off and things grow tense very quickly. It is a choppy affair. Balls hit the post. Keepers catch every chance. Strikers can’t find the target. Inspired by a contagious, stubborn sense of hope, both sides take the game into extra-time, and then into a penalty shootout.

The very first World Cup in history to be decided in a shootout.

By nature, penalty shootouts are rather hopeful, I find. They may feel dreadful, as the pressure to score can be overwhelming. However, it is essentially an arbitrary way to pick a winner – the balance is restored and both sides have equal chances, as chance itself often determines if a keeper will choose to jump left or right.

Let’s face it: it is a bit of a crapshoot.

But it makes for great, great drama.

Frankly, I have zero memory of the penalties being taken. Nil. Except for Baggio’s at the very end, of course. I could easily go on YouTube and access them all. And I have. But right now I’ve forgotten them again.

What I still remember so clearly, so painfully accurate, though, is my heart pounding in my chest ferociously, me standing on the sofa, and the rough sensation of the stitches on the couch against the soles of my bare feet.

I remember Roberto Baggio, at the time the world’s greatest footballer, walking up to the penalty spot to take Italy’s final shot – his little rat-tail dangling in the air. I remember the commentator, Galvao Bueno, repeating over and over “if he misses we win, if he misses we win, if he misses we win…”. I remember the suspension of collective breath that had taken place in Mom’s living room; the vacuum that had filled the environment with anticipation. Every single one of us standing.

…what is Dad doing…

Baggio runs up, kicks the ball mightily…and it flies over the crossbar. He misses.

The memory I have of instantaneously bursting into tears and developing a complete inability to use language is, to this date, one of the most powerful out of body experiences I’ve ever had.

I experienced something so primal – so tremendously pure in its psycho-physical connection – that I believe it accessed some metaphysical, tribal area of my brain, which then got re-wired, and I became forever addicted to the totally irrational and magical joy and release that Sports can provide.

Mom grabbed me and hugged me tightly. I sobbed and sobbed in her arms. And laughed and laughed. We all jumped for several minutes. We were World Champions.

Later that evening, Mom helped us paint an extra star on our Brazil shirts with green markers. 4 stars. The only country in the world to win 4 World Cups…

What madness.

What is it about this beautiful game that has the power to allure us into believing that we are all, indeed, connected?

What is it about its very nature that allows us to believe something great is always about to happen, just around the corner? Is it its hopeful design, as in: the clock counts up, instead of down? Is it because, like life, it is mostly uneventful, boring even, until one person makes one decision that has the power to affect a whole collective so fundamentally, so profoundly, as to change an entire narrative we thought was set just seconds ago?

I wonder if Dad has the answer…

My son will be 10 years old when the 2026 World Cup comes home to us, to Canada – where I’ve been living since 2001.

Since moving to this country, I watched Brazil win yet another World Cup, in 2002 – but it didn’t feel the same. Joy, madness, euphoria, pride…sure, I felt all that. But by then I was 18, and was already very familiar with what kind of adults Mom and Dad were – and I was alone in Canada, far away from them.

1994 was when I met Mom and Dad for the very first time – beyond their roles as parents.

It was when I fell in love with them; not because they were perfect, on the contrary: because they were humans trying their best – which they continue to do; listening to games on the radio during a storm, or painting a star on a shirt…

The 1994 World Cup taught me much about the ebb and flow of the dynamics of a family that has been through a divorce. It is all messy, defined by uncertainties and often times a crapshoot – much like a penalty shootout. But as long as everyone feels loved, and clearly cares about one another’s well-being, overcoming challenges becomes inevitable – Romario took flight in between two gigantic Swedes!

I wonder what my son’s 2026 World Cup experience will be like. I will try my best to look at him through the eyes of the boy I was in 1994.

I hope he can see that boy in me, looking at him in complete awe.

I think they’ll have fun watching games together.

I hope they become best friends.

 

RB.

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Waiting for the 2018 World Cup…

November 9, 2017

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Oh my giddy aunt, am I excited for the World Cup or what?!

Mostly because, miraculously, against all odds, coach Tite was able to rebuild Brazil and it looks like we may have a chance at winning the bloody thing after all!

So that’s basically all I’m doing on the footy front at the moment: waiting, and reading, and waiting…

Busy with the acting and daddin’ right now, but rest assured: as soon as 2018 rolls in, expect this place to become packed with incredibly inane and enthusiastic thoughts on the beautiful game.

Until then…

RB.

The Shambolic State of Brazilian Football Today

July 7, 2015

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I woke up today, for one reason or another, rather depressed about the state of my footballing nation (well, there are many reasons for one to feel horribly depressed about Brazil these days, really, but that I became ferociously depressed upon the first thought of the words ‘soccer’ and ‘Brazil’ was a bit of a shock).

My dejected state of being took a turn for the worse as I went through my Twitter feed in bed, whilst gathering strength to fight another day.The social media engine was filled with gloomy posts about tomorrow’s anniversary of that apocalyptic 7-1 German blitz. The media in Brazil has been treating the first anniversary of the tragedy with a journalistic tone usually reserved for events such as September 11 or earthquakes in Nepal – it is all simultaneously endearing, disturbing and profoundly pathetic.

Surely, football is just a game, no!? Clearly, not in Brazil.

And not even today’s celebration of the 58th anniversary of Pele’s first match in the Brazilian yellow shirt served as consolation – folks are hungry for doom these days, and doom is what they have been fed, truthfully.

Furthermore, to add more fuel to the all consuming fire, Barcelona’s Dani Alves revealed today during an interview with ESPN Brasil that the world’s most stylish and beloved football manager, Spain’s Pep Guardiola, tried to get a gig as Brazil’s coach ahead of the 2014 World Cup, and was turned down simply because he wasn’t Brazilian-born.

Doom, indeed.

And what’s even more pathetic than the fatalistic online “celebrations” of the 7-1 bombing are the attempts by the Brazilian FA (CBF) to restore the prestige of Brazil’s football. This week they announced the setting up of a truly ‘Jurassic’ committee including the likes of Zagallo and Parreira, whose purpose is to analyse the current state of Brazil’s national team, in order to come up with solutions to lift morale and restore its place at the top of the pyramid.

However, at the committee’s first press conference yesterday, the geriatric four-time World Champion Zagallo bluntly stated that “Brazil don’t owe anything to anybody, and we don’t even need to worry about qualifying for 2018, we will be there. We just need to worry about winning that World Cup”.

Sigh…

That grumpypants Dunga has been re-hired as the team’s manager, and that such a comical old men’s club has been set up, only proves how utterly devoid of ideas CBF really are – and how they are infected by pathological denial and self-deception.

And to think that CBF’s former president, Jose Maria Marin, is still under arrest in Europe following the FBI investigation on the rampaging corruption that’s become endemic at FIFA; to remind myself of how equally corrupt their current frontman, Marco Polo Del Nero, truly is; to look back on the embarrassingly poor performances at this last Copa America; to think of today’s utterly abysmal socio-economical state of Brazil as a nation (whose President is on the verge of being deposed)…all of that catastrophic pile of sheer darkness and broken dreams only makes me feel sick to my stomach, and completely hopeless about the future.

Indeed, Brazil’s football – in its inefficiencies and deep-rooted imperfections in management both on and off the field – is perfectly reflected in the current political climate of the country.

The whole thing is a thick shitcake.

How does one clean up the mess?

Who are the right people able to properly un-shitify this cake which once looked so deliciously promising?

How can a country so abundant in natural resources be so corrupt?

How can a country so abundant in talent be now so crap at a sport they once magically re-defined?

The true reason for my profound depression has to do with the complex notion of identity – in this case, more precisely, cultural identity; which Brazil is on the verge of completely losing.

It’s a concept I have personally struggled with myself, as a Brazilian-born child who’s grown into a Canadian adult.

Historically, as the brilliant scholar David Goldblatt points out in his engrossing book “Futebol Nation: a footballing history of Brazil”, the sport is the country’s defining cultural element – football has shaped Brazil’s idea of its cultural identity both to themselves as well as to the rest of the world. There are, after all, more Brazilian footballers living abroad than there are diplomats representing the country.

For all intents and purposes, the game has become Brazil’s true source of artistic and social expression, and it has inspired all aspects of cultural manifestations – be it dance, theatre, music or whatever.

But now it’s all over. It is, truly, done. The dream is done. That 7-1 smack on the face was a bitter wake up call. Brazil must reinvent itself. It must innovate. It must embrace new and fresh ideas, instead of displaying nostalgia and bravado through delusional old men.

And, more importantly, they must let go of this mentality that they must win, at all costs.

The truth of the matter is that the country is no longer a global economic competitor as it was reported to have become during Lula’s reign as President; and its current ruling party must accept that development is now incredibly sluggish, and that nothing will move forward unless true leadership and collaboration between opposing groups – AND the obliteration of systematic political corruption – take place effectively.

Equally, the management of football in Brazil needs re-visioning. Forget Pele. Forget the 5 World Cup titles. Forget Neymar and his abysmal haircuts. Forget anything Brazil has ever done that has “worked” or was seen as awesome or fantastic…it’s all irrelevant – shallow superlatives.

There is only the now.

The first step in solving a problem is recognizing there is one.

Brazil is not the greatest football country anymore.

RB.

7 Matches Undefeated Since World Cup Horror Show

March 26, 2015

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I take back every bad thing I have ever said about Dunga…well, maybe not everything.

But, you know what I mean.

His second spell in charge of the Selecao has been tremendously successful. Brazil have displayed ease and efficacy, winning all 7 matches since Dunga took over, following that limp 3-0 defeat against the Dutch at the World Cup.

And my new favourite player is Willian (above). Such speed, such slick passing. He was deadly against France!

And, beautifully, China-based Diego Tardelli wasn’t featured as Brazil’s sole striker. Instead, Dunga used Firmino as a false number 9 – a bold, relatively new tactical move. Gladly, it paid off.

Brazil still lack proper attacking power, but the mid-field issues have been addressed, and the team now looks like an actual team: cohesive, and muscularly together.

And boy, does it ever feel good to beat arch-rivals France. Brazil have now scored 6 goals in the last two meetings against the French, winning both matches, naturally.

Viva Dunga! Screw it: Brazil’s best manager since Tele Santana! Woo-hoo!

RB.

Brazil’s Starting Striker Plays in…China

March 24, 2015

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As the kids say these days: I can’t even.

I can’t even write about it. I can’t even.

I can’t even bring myself to properly lament the loss of Diego Costa, who’s currently killing it (as the kids say) at Chelsea, having turned down his right to wear the amarelinha shirt, choosing Spanish citizenship instead.

Dunga has, historically, called up players whom he feels comfortable taming, who are agreeable and willing to work hard. Dunga has no time for individual talent. Never has, and never will.

And that’s why Brazil’s starter striker is Diego Tardelli. Of China. A nice chap.

Brazil Vs France on Thursday 26th. Followed by Brazil Vs Chile on Sunday 29th.

I can’t.

RB.

Miroslav Klose Prepares For 2018 World Cup

February 9, 2015
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5-time World Champs Win 5th Consecutive Match…

November 13, 2014
Dunga's boys: the faces of a new era.

Dunga’s boys: the faces of a new era with a taste of the vintage as they beat Turkey 4-0.

Well well, Dunga’s 5th consecutive win, and 5th straight clean-sheet in charge of Brazil.

Not bad.

Impressive, one might say.

And with a squad that plays like a well-oiled machine, smoothly and attractively – and full of confidence. A total reversal of the anxiety-driven football we saw at the World Cup.

It seems that, indeed, Dunga did learn a few things during his 4 years of exile from football – the necessary break between his two spells in charge of the Selecao. The cranky commander went from being the symbol of pragmatism to becoming the emblematic figure of a more solid, cohesive team. And the key word here truly is team.

Brazil hadn’t played like a team in ages. They had forgotten how. It’s quite surprising that Dunga, a famous contrarian and proponent of “futebol de resultados”, is the sargent in charge of this effectively attractive revolution that is bringing back the vintage Brazilian way of playing. And I don’t mean that purely in a nostalgic way: Dunga is bringing back the vintage effectively – not just for show. He is winning matches by playing properly slick football…who would have thought?!

Let’s hope it sticks.

But, for now: not bad.

Not bad at all, Mr Dunga.

 

RB.