It was 1994 when Tim Vickery took the plunge, just after the World Cup. Brazil had scraped past Italy, courtesy of a skied Roberto Baggio penalty in the final in Pasadena that July, and had begun to cement themselves in the European consciousness. Brazil’s first World Cup for 24 years was the opportunity of a lifetime for the current BBC South American football correspondent: “I realised especially then how little we knew about the place and some of the things we thought we knew we really didn’t. I just felt that football was in the process of globalising, and maybe there would be opportunities. I moved over and got a job teaching English, and it was the best thing I could have done – I learned so much about the language, the mentality and so on. That was a really good introduction.”
Three years of teaching English to native Portuguese speakers eventually yielded to a career in football writing, a transition that Vickery ascribes to a quite unlikely source: “The game changer for me was Nike,” he explains, “in the old days, Brazil was something which only ever figured once every four years, during a World Cup. Nike got involved in 1996 and 1997. Brazil was everyone’s second team, so they sponsored Brazil. Suddenly the profile of the national team went right through the window."
“You were part of that first wave that Nike caught,” he explains, referring to the fact that I was just seven years old when Brazil were beaten 3-0 by France in the 1998 final, “and that 1998 World Cup, all of the Brazil team were suddenly known back in England. There was such an increase in interest and the team were able to ride that wave. I’ve been riding it since 1997.”
I ask what he means when he refers to the things we think we know about Brazil but really don’t. Are there any clichés of Brazilian football that just aren’t true? “Yes, first of all, that they don’t care about defence, it’s all happy-go-lucky samba stuff. This is the country that invented the back four. The first time they used it, it was the World Cup in 1958, they didn’t concede a goal until the semi-final.”
In fact, Brazil’s pioneering new system helped them to thrash World Cup hosts Sweden 5-2 in that year’s final. “If you aren’t giving goals away, you’re getting full value for what you do at the other end. The idea also that in Brazil football is all about expressing yourself…just couldn’t possibly be further wrong. I do a weekly TV show over here on Brazilian TV, and as the presenter always says, our national sport isn’t football, our national sport is applauding the winners.”
One of Brazil’s most visible clichés is that football is born in the favela, where young boys hone their craft as an escape from poverty, and a tough life. I ask how accurate this really is. Vickery replies: “Most footballers in Rio come from the working class suburbs, not necessarily the favelas. The whole poverty thing clearly is a powerful incentive.”
“In that sense, it’s true that football is a dream out of poverty. It’s not just a Brazilian narrative, but it probably is more present in Brazil. Though you do get middle class footballers, even upper-middle class footballers in Brazil. Kaká is upper-middle class; Sócrates, he was a doctor. But a lot of it is an escape from poverty, and that means that the great triumph that Brazil has in its youth development is [not] necessarily [due to] any kind of coaching methods or anything like that, it’s just the sheer number of kids who are prepared to give anything to the chance of making it.”
For many, the sport is not just a route out of poverty, but a route out of Brazil. Only five members of Brazil’s 23-man 2015 Copa América squad represented clubs in the Brazilian league. Vickery says: “the best example of the European exodus are Ecuador. They’re top of World Cup qualification at the moment. Part of that is having their players in the Premier League. It’s removed any inferiority complex they used to have. It’s given them exposure to top class experience, and that’s been a real benefit to their national team.”
Brazil faces the paradox that its weak league system might be a key reason for the strength of its national team. This might have been bolstered by a World Cup many argued the country could scarcely afford: :There has been some positive effect of the World Cup. Despite the fact that last year the Brazilian economy slipped from boom to depression, average crowds in the Brazilian first division went up. That’s a good sign, and part of that has to be down to the new facilities, even if it doesn’t justify the investments made.:
I want to know whether the link between Brazilian politics and sport is what Vickery finds the most compelling. His response is emphatic. “Yes, that fascinates me. The simplicity of football hides a real complexity because the player on the ball has so many options, and one of the factors in how you choose that option is cultural. I’ve always seen English football as a product of the first country to have an industrial revolution, which means low-technology, high-muscle power. It means that down the mine or on the factory floor, you need to be physically strong, and you need to be dependable. Traditionally those are the values that have been so highly prized in English football – physical strength and reliability."
Brazilian culture has shaped the national sport in a completely different way, as he goes on to explain: "We tend to mistrust the flair players, whereas South American football is clearly a vehicle for individual ascension. It’s where the boy from the wrong side of the tracks applies the street smartness that he needs to survive."
To demonstrate, he picks an example emblazoned in the memory of every England fan old enough to remember: "The day Diego Maradona became a god was when he scored two goals against England in ’86. Part of that is because it’s against the old imperial power, and that’s what you’re always measuring yourself against. The hand of God is a goal that proves that the Argentines are smarter. The second goal, where he just dribbles around them, proves that the Argentines are better. He lived out the Argentine fantasy. You can very clearly see cultural traits in the way these countries play football."