The impressive win by Brazil's young team over the United States at the Meadowlands Tuesday was a victory for futebol culture over soccer culture and its NFL-style marketing. It was also a reminder that the international governing body of football, FIFA, which boasts more members than the UN, has the power to tell the world how to play and what to think about the beautiful game.
While sports media buzz up new coach Mano Manezes for bringing the samba back to futebol Brazil's big makeover also reflects the hand of FIFA president Sepp Blatter. Thanks to FIFA and leaders of its key member federations, economic growth generated at the intersection of sports marketing and gaming approaches the action on Wall Street and along Silicon Valley's Sand Hill Road.
But in an era where globalization of professional sports is being driven by American, Russian and Latin American investors who treat star players as human capital rather than human beings, FIFA's notion that football can make the world a better place finds Blatter on a tightrope trying to accommodate free market democracies and restless nations like Libya, whose leader Muammar Qaddafi has accused the Zurich-based organization of running a corrupt slave market that promotes unwholesome values among the world's youth. Meanwhile persistent allegations of improper activity from British sports journalist Christopher Jennings show that Blatter can take the fall and get up and back into the fray.
Campaigning for a fourth term as FIFA president, the 77-year-old Blatter singled out Brazil's professional football culture for reforms and is using his office as a bully pulpit to make it happen. And since Blatter prefers quiet diplomacy, the sports press in Brazil creates the impression that all the changes are coming from within.
Although many football stadiums in Brazil feature signage suggesting the beautiful game promotes cultura da paz (a culture of non-violence), the world's largest exporter of football talent has been producing stars like Bruno the former Flamengo captain who drifted from prime time to crime time and is now up on murder charges in the brutal Japanese-style chop killing of his girlfriend. Videotapes of another former Flamengo star, Vagner Love, hanging out with of high profile drug kingpins surrounded by heavily armed bodyguards did not please Blatter, or his key World Cup sponsors, many of whom are major players at the World Economic Forum in Davos.
Blatter and the FIFA public relations machine prefers an image of football as a simple game available to anyone that promotes "character counts" values among the world's youth through role models like Argentina's Leo Messi, who wears the UNICEF jersey for FC Barcelona and Kaka, who likes to wear a t-shirt under his team jersey promoting evangelical christian values.
Earlier this year when young Santos stars Ganso, Andre and Neymar started celebrating their goal scoring with American-style hip-hop dances, Blatter suggested that the demonstrations were immature acts that sully the image of the game. Players in Brazil and elsewhere shrugged off the critique as the fulminations of an old man. But after Blatter's critiques Dunga did not select any of the popular Santos trio for the South Africa squad. With Kaka playing hurt, each player could have been the difference maker that got Brazil to the World Cup finals. As reported here on HuffPo, the Belgian doctor who performed knee surgery on Kaka after the World Cup said the star risked his career by playing on Dunga's team.
Mano Manezes included the Santos trio in his new selecion and they were the difference makers at the Meadowlands. The new coach comes to Brazil's national team from Corinthians, the Sao Paulo team he led to the Copa do Brasil last year. Corinthians, with its working class fan base, just happens to be president Lula's favorite team, so much in fact that his son is an assistant coach there. And Brazil Football Confederation President Ricardo Texiera is pleased that his new coach has brought the Corinthians tradition of outstanding media relations to the national team since many journalists regarded his predecessor Dunga as being closed, rude and unfriendly.
Brazil has also accommodated another of Blatter's concerns. The FIFA president said he would like to see fewer Brazilian stars playing abroad. More than 90 percent of Dunga's squad played in leagues outside Brazil. Manezes has already reduced that number by a third.
Blatter's views on foreign players has drawn strong criticism from notables including Manchester United Manager Alex Ferguson. But Blatter's formula pays off. Spain's team featured only four stars who earn a living playing football outside their homeland. That's the number Blatter and his minions are on the record saying they like to see, and Spain, which at the start of the South Africa World Cup was installed the odds on favorite by English betting shops to win, did exactly that.
In his first two weeks, Mano Manezes has turned around Brazil's football fortunes. But with Brazil hosting the 2014 World Cup, there's a lot of work that needs to be done to make football culture less violent and more peaceful for the nation's emerging youth.
Allan Turnowski, the director of the policia civil for the city of Rio de Janeiro emphasizes that players (like Bruno and Adriano) who grew up in neighborhoods where drugs and gangs are the common denominator are faced with a tough challenge. "We know their roots, the friendships they have," he told the Guardian recently. "But it is hard for us as parents to explain to our kids, who see the players as idols, that their idols are hanging around with armed people, people who kill, rob and traffic drugs, people who do everything we try and advise our kids not to do." This considered, it's understandable that Blatter got involved.