18 February 2014

Curmudgeonly feats of observation

For the first time in a long time, I sat down to watch some football on a Sunday afternoon, Vasco x Flamengo. I have gradually distanced myself from both Vasco and football after the death of a youth footballer at a Vasco training ground in 2012 and from Brazilian football in particular because it is so irresolutely corrupt that it´s hard to enjoy. There is also the really low quality of the games, meaningless competitions and insanely high ticket prices to go to stadiums where the threat of police violence is on a par with the lack of institutional concern for the paying fan. Watching games on tv forces one to listen to the kind of lowest common denominator commentary that actively kills brain cells and corrodes whatever capacity for tactical analysis that I once had. In short, the more I have come to know about and experience Brazilian football the less I care. This is a profoundly difficult existential condition and one that I thought I could rectify on a Sunday afternoon on the couch, watching one of the world´s famous clássicos.

The game was at the Xaracanã and was played at a breakneck pace. The Brazilian championship used to be much slower, but now the ball pings around the midfield randomly until someone gets control for long enough to get hacked down. There is no space left on Brazilian football pitches. In this latest deform the Maracanã playing area was reduced by 16%. Once of monumental proportions, the Maracanã´s pitch would only be the 8th biggest pitch in England. Not incidentally, the field size reduction was mirrored by a 16% capacity reduction (89,000 to 76,525). Not that it matters: there were only 13,000 paying customers in a metropolitan area of 13 million on a Sunday afternoon. Those present were treated to a very emotional game that had a very little technical or tactical quality, but generated some hugely troubling moments during and after.

In the first half, Vasco´s octogenarian signing Douglas curled a lovely free kick that bounced off the underside of the bar and into the goal and then out again. The linesman, trained and paid to stand on the line to see that ball enter, didn´t see it and the goal wasn´t given. Fine, people make mistakes, the game continues. A bit later, Vasco scores, one nil. A few minutes after, Flamengo´s Elano curls a lovely free kick that could have entered the goal or not, but this time the goal was given by the linesman. One one at half time. This was not the correct score, but whatever, these things happen in football. The major problem was the violence with which the Vasco players took up the issue with the six man referee crew. There was so much pushing and shoving and yelling and real, vibrant anger that the Military Police rushed in to protect the refs. This was no surprise to anyone. Yelling and screaming and threatening are normal ways of dealing with things one does not like. Of course it is not just Vasco that does this, but it should be hugely embarrassing behavior for professional athletes to engage in. But in a country where UFC / MMA is the fastest growing sport, what does one expect?

The day after the non-event, in a tournament that means almost nothing, the referee (who teaches physical education in the public school system) is receiving death threats, has had his children´s names and photos published on fayce, his address revealed and is having his second job limited. The violence of Brazilian society appears to be growing every day and is taking its worst toll on the most vulnerable people. This referee can be made fun of, can be put into a lesser division, can have his eyesight examined, but death threats? He´s a working class public school teacher, not a mensalero!  If Vasco hadn´t lost the game through their own lack of tactical nous would there have been as much recrimination from the supposed Vasco fans? Is a person´s life and well-being really worth points in the Campeonato Carioca? The CBF hasn´t offered to keep the goal line technology installed for the Confederations Cup and FIFA doesn´t have much interest in putting chips in footballs, so the threats to human life for not seeing what should have been seen will continue.

Today, February 18, may be a turning point in Brazilian history. We will find out if the Curitiba World Cup stadium has the chance of being ready (my guess is that the hassle of reorganization will overcome construction delays). We will also likely find out the extent of the damage of the fire at the Cuiabá stadium. The former we can attribute to a lack of managerial capacity on the part of Atlético Paranaense. The latter story is more sinister as it may be the case that the construction firm, the World Cup secretariat of Matto Grosso state and a few other officials, knew of but did not publish a report that a fire set by a disgruntled employee in October had caused structural damage to one of the stands. The official report, obtained by Brian Winter of Reuters last week, claims that there was extensive structural damage to the supporting pillars.  The contractor and government officials deny this. One can imagine the scenario: big fire, massive damage, tight deadline. The organizers don´t want to admit that the damage is more than they could repair and even though the lives of 10,000 people in the stands might be at risk, the risk of not having the Cup would be even greater, so let´s just pretend that report doesn´t exist. This is the kind of violence that eats at the core of Brazilian society. If it is indeed true that this report was buried so that capitalist expediency could again take precedence over human life, it is then fair to assume that this is not an isolated incident in Brazil´s World Cup preparations.

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