Any football fan thirsting for a taste of soccer during the annual summer drought and tuning in to the otherwise pointless Confederations Cup on TV last month can’t have missed that the people of Brazil are themselves thirsting – for social justice. For once, instead of being distracted from their purpose by the time-honoured technique of ‘bread and circuses’, they have used football as the catalyst for mass demonstrations and riots.
But that’s not the point of my story. I’ll leave that until later. The crisis I’m talking about is in the names of the footballers.
When I was three, I got my first memory of football – Brazil winning the 1970 World Cup. And what I mostly remember are the names Pele and Jairzinho.
The word Pele summed up that whole era for me. Sights, sounds, smells, tastes and fashions all come flooding back when I hear it, even if – as legend has it – Pele means ‘small boy’ in Gaelic and was bestowed on the great man by an Irish missionary. Jairzinho is another great word – half spaceman and half member of the Jackson 5.
By 1974, Pele had gone but Rivelino had replaced him. Say his name and you can almost hear the ball swerve, just as he made it do to find the gap in the East German wall. (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TIcw8EFbNZM)
Later in the decade we had Zico (another name from space) closely followed by Falcão (bird of prey) and Socrates (balding Greek philosopher). Delving back into history, you had Didi and Vava (probably bandidos from Zorro’s gang) and the most poetic name of all, Garrincha, for the supernaturally skilful winger named after the wren.
For me, the names echoed the magic and artistry of the players, so it was no surprise that the years that gave us Romario (Pilgrim to Rome), Bebeto (Little Baby) and Dunga (unknown, but at least it’s not Kaka) were among Brazil’s most dull footballistically-speaking.
But I can’t make sense of what’s going on now.
As Brazil thrashed World Champions Spain 3-0 in the Confederations Cup Final on the last day of June, the triumphant Brazil team included players called Fred, Jo, Oscar and Hulk.
I suspect that while I was growing up on exotic Brazilian footballers, the parents of these players were gorging themselves on Saturday morning TV.
Fred (apparently pronounced ‘Fredgy’ in Brazil) is obviously the product of a mother who swooned over the blonde, neckerchief-wearing driver of Scooby Doo’s Mystery Machine; Oscar’s parents clearly wanted to live in a trashcan; and Hulk’s mother and father couldn’t even be bothered to get up on Saturday morning to watch television, but by teatime were glued to their sets for a helping of Bill Bixby and Lou Ferrigno wandering the USA and challenging people not to make them/him angry.
The current Brazil goalie is called Julius Caesar, so I can only deduce there must have been a kids’ ‘made-for-TV’ serial about the Roman Empire broadcast sometime in 1973. What else could account for it?
(I can hear you all saying ‘Ah, but what about Jo?’ Well, you have to trust me when I reveal that around 1971 or so there was an educational animated programme on the BBC’s ‘Watch with Mother’ strand about a little boy with a pudding basin haircut whose mother was perpetually about to have a ‘bayboy’. His name was Joe. Not to mention Dr Who’s assistant, Jo Grant. Or Joe 90.)
And yet, in spite of what can only be described as ‘having silly names’, Brazilian football seems to be back to its 1970 pinnacle – skilful players in every position, trick shots and fancy flicks all over the place, and each player looking like he wants to score every time he gets the ball – and that includes the goalkeeper.
In the 12 months leading up to the FIFA World Cup in Brazil in summer 2014, they could – and I fully expect they will – call up to the national squad players with the names Fleagle, Marine Boy and Penelope Pitstop. And they’ll still beat everybody.
But I did say I would get back to the serious stuff.
The last time Brazil hosted the World Cup was in 1950, and they were taking things very seriously then. So much so that when they lost the final in front of an estimated 200,000 fans in the Maracaná Stadium, there was national outrage. Two fans committed suicide by throwing themselves off the stand, and in the aftermath, Brazil vowed never to play in their white strip again.
The Maracaná is now rebuilt for the 2014 finals, but maybe things are not so serious this time round. If you can cheer on a player called Fred, Jo, Oscar, Bernard or even Hulk, then you might well be a country that is growing more comfortable with its own self-image – at least on the pitch, so why not off it?
Let’s see if by next summer Brazil can manage some social reforms to bring the sparkle and vim of their samba soccer to the darker, harder parts of the streets and favelas.