20 June 2014

The Bull Dies

Watching Spain in this World Cup was like going to a bullfight without knowing that the bull always dies. Early 21st century Spanish football revolutionized the game in the most functional sense of the word, moving the game forward into an unexplored dimension. Before opposing tactical systems were designed to cope with and in that dimension, the elegant, lethal force of the bull was irresistible. But once Spain had won everything several times over, their competitive edge was blunted even further by age and the counter-revolution (conjured, perhaps, by the dark arts of Mourinho). This is not to say football has regressed, but the Spanish revolution in football is now in the dustbin of history. This was as inevitable as it was retroactively predictable.

As many other more qualified commentators have noted, the continual evolution of football tactics is accompanied by an across the globe leap in technical quality (just look at all the freestylers out there) and a quantitative surge in player fitness. The spatial science of player positioning and movement must combine with the potential for long term energy output, resilience to physiological damage and intense psychological conditioning. It seems nearly impossible for a side to manage this combination for seven games, yet one team will have to do just that.  

This raises the inevitable question of what is going to happen in the Holland  x Chile match that will decide who goes through to meet Brazil in the round of 16. With both on six points a draw will put Holland top on goal differential. If Chile can put together another performance like today´s they might very well win but could have nothing in the tank for Croatia or Mexico. If they rest and play for a draw, or not be too upset by losing, there is Brazil to play. I don´t know if this is Occam´s Razor, a Nicomachean conundrum, or a Nerudian sonnet.

This is the first World Cup in Latin America since 1986. That is a long time ago. International travel has expanded dramatically and the middle classes have grown. There were at least 70,000 Argentines in Rio for their match against Bosnia. Dozens of them jumped over the walls of the Maracanã. Some of the 40,000 Chileans did the same thing tonight. South of the Rio Bravo del Norte, we are used to this kind of thing and the police reaction it brings. When I see the excessive amount of military police lining the approaches to the Maracanã, it doesn´t seem that out of place because that is how every game is. It´s absurd but normal.

What isn´t normal is the kind of atmosphere that has been produced inside and outside the stadiums.

In the Maracanã, Minerão, Castelão, Verdão, etc, of old there was no clock just a crappy scoreboard with broken lightbulbs. Everyone knew to look at their watches or listen to the radio or ask someone with either one. Many of the best known, most loved stadiums in Latin America are minimalist structures designed to hold tens of thousands of people for two hours as they jump up and down, light fireworks and tumble over each other. Sure, they may not be the most comfortable places but they are actual places. Stands are for standing, if they weren´t they would be called something else. The new stadiums are more comfortable, but they are non-places.

After the Spain Chile match, I walked over and sat in the same place that I sat when the last game was played at the old Maracanã. In 2010, the lights went off within 30 minutes after the game and the cleaning crew came in. There was a profound, rattling silence. There was no television screen and no security guards came by to move me along.

After the game tonight I was assaulted by piercingly loud advertisements. The televisions screamed “BUY THIS SHIT NOW!” while Chileans tried to celebrate their historic moment. The sound was so deafening that it made me want to leave as soon as possible. I resisted. Twenty minutes later, most of the fans had left and the advertisements stopped. In their place some decent Brazilian music wafted about as the stewards kept angry eyes on the partying Chileans and the all-black cleaning crews readied their brooms.

On the way out, the Chileans were in good voice and I sat to give an interview on a metal bench at the Coca-Cola stand. Describing the scene around me was pretty sad as I saw no beer vendors, nowhere for people to congregate and thousands of police. Looking past an Itaú bank stand where I could have gotten instant credit, my eye was caught by a fancy new Hyundai, the official FIFA fan shop and a Johnson and Johnson stand which advertised a “Caring Stadium”.

All of this global corporatism was placed directly in front of the Museu do Indio, Brazil´s oldest indigenous museum. The indigenous community that occupied the building between 2006 and 2013 was violently removed to prepare the city for the World Cup. The justification was that the building would have to be destroyed so that fans could more easily exit the stadium. Now, fans have to walk through an obstacle course where Fuleco and Brazuca block the path to the metro. Expelled from the stadium, we are ushered into a sanitized zone of corporate feudalism where the violence of dispossession is hidden behind the shields of riot police and dulled by the happy buzz of a spectacle well-consumed.  This is what is out of place at the Brazilian World Cup.

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