Argument

The Curse of the Plastic Players

The Curse of the Plastic Players

RIO DE JANEIRO — "If I score, no Brazilian can see that as a betrayal against the country in which I was born." Those were the words of Anderson Luis de Souza (better known as Deco) two months before the 2010 World Cup match between his homeland, Brazil, and Portugal, the country that adopted him in 2002 after a five-year football explosion at Porto. He didn’t score, so the point was moot — but what if Eduardo da Silva does?

The Rio-born and Croatia-adopted da Silva seems to have his doubts. A week before the tournament-opening match between Brazil and Croatia, da Silva, a onetime Arsenal striker who has evolved into an attacking midfielder at Shakhtar Donetsk, promised to sing both anthems before the match and said he was receiving as many entreaties from Croatian people to score the decisive goal as requests from Brazilian blood brothers not to. "It will be difficult to get some sleep," he acknowledged.

Likewise, it’s impossible not to imagine the possible consequences that a goal by Diego Costa during an hypothetical final between Brazil and Spain next month at the Maracanã Stadium might have for the future Chelsea striker’s family property in Lagarto, a town of 100,000 people in Brazil’s eastern state of Sergipe. It might not be the worst place to put a few police officers, although they’d be probably busy already keeping the streets calm.

And yet, the timing is good for Brazilian expat players. If this World Cup had taken place a decade ago, Lagarto would have been in the headlines of all the world’s major sports media outlets. But 40 percent of Brazilians oppose the amount of money devoted to costly stadiums, and 72 percent are dissatisfied with the way things are going in their country.

Indeed, the process of desacralizing football in the land of football implies a mental transformation that can only be fuelled by the degree of dissatisfaction and frustration compatible with celebrating a goal against your own country while it hosts the Copa das Copas — a softened version of opening a bottle of champagne to toast the death of your own country’s dictator. João, a Carioca taxi driver, does a fine job of condensing the feelings that have led 22 percent of Rio’s population to express a desire to see Brazil’s early demise in the World Cup: "I don’t want the president [Dilma Rousseff] to spend days on television celebrating that we are the champions of football and promising that we’ll now be the champions of justice and equality."

Rousseff addressed the nation this week in a heartfelt speech where she summed up the Cup’s benefits for the country and proudly stated that "the Seleção represents our nationality." It also included a fairly obvious remark: "The Brazil that receives this World Cup is a very different country than the one that hosted its first one in 1950."

It is true, however, that the reform of the South American giant’s football mentality seems to be moving faster than ever. Next month, Moacir Barbosa, the legendary goalkeeper who was (disproportionately) blamed for 1950’s "Maracanazo" defeat against Uruguay and endured nearly 50 years of misery and ostracism until his death in 1997, will be honored by the Santos football club with a life-size statue depicting one of his classic saves. In fact, it seems unlikely that anyone will have to carry such a burden again, even if Brazil lose this time as well. The strenuous modernization of the country has demanded the placement of other aspirations above football.

So da Silva and Costa can probably sleep soundly. The latter reports being treated "very well" by Brazilian fans after spending two days in Curitiba with the rest of the Spanish squad. Only time — and the back of the net — will tell.