Beautiful Game, Ugly Context

Monday, August 12, 2013

An article that touches on some of the cultural influences that have shaped the Brazilian style of soccer reminds me a little of Ayn Rand's 1972 "Open Letter to Boris Spassky", in which she argues that the Russian chess master was using the game as an escape from the conditions of his totalitarian society.

This she did by means of a series of questions, such as:

Would you be able to play if you had to play by teamwork--i.e., if you were forbidden to think or act alone and had to play not with a group of advisers, but with a team that determined your every move by vote? Since, as champion, you would be the best mind among them, how much time and effort would you have to spend persuading the team that your strategy is the best? Would you be likely to succeed? And what would you do if some pragmatist, range-of-the-moment mentalities voted to grab an opponent's knight at the price of a checkmate to you three moves later? You would not be able to continue? Yet in the living world, this is the theoretical ideal of your country, and this is the method by which it proposes to deal (someday) with scientific research, industrial production, and every other kind of activity required for man's survival. (The Ayn Rand Letter, Vol. 1, No. 25)
Later, she makes the following point:
If--for any number of reasons, psychological or existential--a man comes to believe that the living world is closed to him, that he has nothing to seek or to achieve, that no action is possible, then chess becomes his antidote, the means of drugging his own rebellious mind that refuses fully to believe it and to stand still. This, Comrade, is the reason why chess has always been so popular in your country, before and since its present regime--and why there have not been many American masters. You see, in this country, men are still free to act. (Ibid.)
Most reminiscent of Rand's piece was this bit about how racial segregation and a "semi-feudal" social structure affected the game.
... When soccer first took hold, teams were racially segregated and, if a black player ever made contact with a white player - no matter the circumstances - he would be immediately penalized. And so Afro-Brazilian players developed techniques where through feints, shimmies, and extreme control, it was possible to fluidly move past a white opponent without ever making physical contact.


What's more, it could be that Brazil's emphasis on individual tricks actually embodies a fantasy of social equality in a society which has traditionally been anything but: "[I]n a semi-feudal setting, football is a powerful mechanism for subverting traditional hierarchies," Tim Vickery writes, "And when [a player] does a little shimmy and an opponent clumsily falls to the ground, the roar from the crowd can be almost as loud as a goal. Even if the opponent is quickly back on his feet and doggedly performing his marking duties, he has been publicly humiliated for that split second -- a hugely significant moment."
Unfortunately, despite the author's perspicacity regarding soccer as a psychological outlet, the similarity ends there. In particular, he uses the term "equality" ambiguously to mean both (1) equality before the law, as the term usually meant early in United States history, and (2) equality of outcome (which can only be achieved by a government improperly coercing it), as altruist/collectivist egalitarians use it today in the U.S. and Brazil. (This ambiguity also shows up in his regard of "inequality", regardless of how it arises (e.g., feudalistically or by merit) as bad.)

Seeing Brazil's recent unrest as having a "noble goal" -- a perspective I do not share -- he mistakenly believes that it reflects a fundamental cultural change. He correctly sees that conformity would kill Brazil's style of play if imposed, say, by a coach. However, the author fails to realize that, should Brazil's "revolution" achieve success, it will have the opposite effect on the national level: Whatever opportunities there are under whatever modicum of capitalism there is in Brazil will disappear, and soccer will, like chess, represent one of the few ways  men will have to display creativity and innovation.

I don't think Brazil's style of play is in any danger from its "revolution". Sadly, life entails much more than a game played on a rectangle of grass.

-- CAV

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