World Cup 2014 panel

Futebol-arte, the soul of the game: a tribute to Garrincha

Mané Garrincha (1933–1983) became known as the greatest dribbler of all time and is one the major icons of Brazilian football-art (futebol-arte). He never saw his legs – he was sometimes known as the “Angel with Bent Legs”, with his right leg pointing inwards and his left leg pointing outwards – as a problem.

As Argentinean writer Jorge Luis Borges said, a man needs to accept that:

… whatever happens to him is an instrument given for an end - this is even stronger in the case of the artist.

Garrincha used his crooked legs as an inventive tool to take advantage of his opponents, who could never foresee which direction he was going to run with the ball. It was nearly impossible to stop Garrincha’s dribbling.

Garrincha is an important symbol of futebol-arte. By winning two World Cups in a row (1958 in Sweden and 1962 in Chile) with Brazil’s national team, the Seleção, he not only achieved outstanding international results but also left a real artistic impression on world football with his beautiful aesthetic playing style and constant improvisations.

Garrincha is the evidence that futebol-arte is more than simply a tactic. It is a destiny – a destiny of joy, hence Garrincha also being known as the “Joy of the People”.

There are famous anecdotes of the lead-up to the 1958 final. The Seleção coach used a blackboard to identify the Sweden team, its moves, and what Brazil should do to beat them. Garrincha asked his coach if he had already agreed with the other team that they would be playing like this, demonstrating Garrincha’s understanding of the game as a field for improvisation rather than well-planned strategies.

Garrincha’s question and style were the synthesis of football and art, the improvisation that produces unforgettable artistic football moments. Futebol-arte is beyond what was described in The Conversation by Steve Georgakis as “a battle between aesthetics and results”. Futebol-arte is the soul of the football game – or at least of the version developed in South America.

The roots of the idea of futebol-arte can be found in Gilberto Freyre’s concept of Brazilian “racial democracy”. Freyre (1900-1987) was one of the leading sociologists in Brazil in the 20th century. The author of Masters and Slaves, Freyre considered whether people from different “races” lived well together in Brazil.

Most importantly for Freyre, the miscegenation of the country’s black and white people would create a different form of culture and civilisation, the “mulattos”. Freyre’s thoughts also spread towards football, and its importance in development of the national uniqueness.

According to Freyre, the “football-mulatto” played in Brazil as a result of racial miscegenation was opposed to the game played by Europeans. Freyre believed that the football played in Brazil had its own rhythm, a result of the cultural mix under way in the country. Brazilian football was a sort of dance where the real Brazil, the mulatto, would scintillate. On the contrary, European football was excessively mechanical, with no room for creativity.

While European style was Apollonian and acknowledged hard work and collectivism, the Brazilian style was Dionysian, a celebration of individual spontaneity. Freyre’s football-mulatto claims that the Brazilian style was poetry, while the European style could be described as prose. As the great poet John B. Wain says:

… poetry is to prose as dancing is to walking.

Improvisation and individual spontaneity are the foundations of futebol-arte and can be found in different historical moments of the Brazilian team. The 1958 and the 1962 Brazilian teams were full of futebol-arte, and the 1970 Seleção was one of the finest teams in the futebol-arte’s history.

But after that, Brazil went off track by trying to mimic the European Apollonian style. Brazil became dominated by the military, and that promoted an anti-democratic and autocratic atmosphere in the national football team. The creativity associated with futebol-arte cannot flourish in an authoritarian atmosphere as it needs liberty. It doesn’t come from outside or from above – it comes from the heart.

It was only under coach Tele Santana that Brazil recovered his famous futebol-arte style. Even if they didn’t win a World Cup, Zico, Socrates and their teammates in the 1982 team will always be revered by Brazilians as true representatives of futebol-arte. The pleasure and the art they put in everything they did was clear.

As with Garrincha, Socrates had a physical issue: his feet were too small for his stature, so he couldn’t turn his body as fast as he wanted. Yet instead of complaining, Socrates developed a unique heel-kick which is one of the most acclaimed futebol-arte tricks ever.

Brazil hasn’t produced an inspirational footballing generation like the 1982 one ever since. The 1994 team which won that year’s World Cup was coached by Carlos Alberto Parreira, who, when asked why he played a defensive style that did not pay tribute to the Brazilian traditions, declared that:

… magic and dreams are finished in football. We have to combine technique and efficiency.

Even if Brazilian players continue to shine on the international stage, we are still to see the true futebol-arte coming back.

The most recent style of play to capture global imagination is the Spanish “tiki-taka”, a highly successful model which emphasised possession of the ball and fast passing between three or more players until a defensive gap is found.

Tiki-taka produced great successes and magnificent aesthetic footballing moments, yet it’s anything but improvisation and poetry. Tiki-taka is a well-calculated tactical system repeated to exhaustion, which is exactly what Parreira described when he talked about magic and dreams being overrun by a new combination of skill and productivity.

Tiki-taka is unusual in that it does not represent the aesthetical side of football in opposition to the “football of results”. It actually combines aesthetics with results in an incredibly well-trained machine with no room for improvisation. Tiki-taka is a beautiful machine, but it’s still prose.

Futebol-arte goes further than this combination: it takes football to another level. Futebol-arte goes to the stands and to the world from the pitch. It is a way of life.

The bext example of futebol-arte that we have seen so far in the 2014 World Cup was the Netherlands’ Robin van Persie’s goal against Spain. Like a bird, he flies to be happy, with no fear, crafting real poetry in the air. Van Persie’s goal is a tribute to Garrincha, a nickname that means “little bird”.

Perhaps this is what futebol-arte will be confined to in this competition: a few moments of pure imagination and poetry lost amongst the intense commodification of the game and the villainy of its owners. Futebol-arte needs freedom to flourish once more.

Yet there are some Brazilians still dreaming that the Seleção will take inspiration from past generations and once more revitalise futebol-arte. Will this World Cup and all the thoughts of social upheaval that it has catalysed and provoked be sufficient to redeem and liberate the game again? Will the “best World Cup ever” revive futebol-arte and install a new order in the football world?

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