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Brazilian soccer is no Carnaval

A dose of conjunctivitis didn't help, and this year's Rio de Janeiro Carnaval passed me by, which I regret. I'm a fan -- especially of the showpiece occasion, the parade of the samba schools. I find it an uplifting spectacle of joy, creativity and culture, great to watch, even better to participate.

I've paraded twice, both times in the second division (yes, it's competitive, with complex judging criteria and a whole hierarchy of different divisions). The first time my school narrowly avoided relegation to the third division, the second time there was no escape. But it's an activity where the losers have as much fun as the winners. Much though I love the thing, I'm aware that I'm participating in a giant myth.

There are carnivals all over South America. Barranquilla's in Colombia is supposed to be something special. In Uruguay, the Montevideo carnival has its advocates. What makes the Rio Carnaval seem to outshine them all?

Simple answer: politics.

From the mid-1930s, the event was relentlessly used by the government of the day to divulge the image, inside Brazil and abroad, of the country as being full of all-singing, all-dancing , happy citizens.

With one interruption (1945-50), Getúlio Vargas ruled Brazil from 1930 until 1954. He was brought to power by the Wall Street crash and Great Depression, which destroyed the market for Brazil's export crops. Up until this point, Brazil was largely agricultural. The elite feared industrialization because they saw it as leading to socialism. But hard times forced a rethink. The country had to develop, and this was Vargas' project -- modernizing Brazil without too much alteration to the social structure.

Many of the contradictions of contemporary Brazil can be laid at his door -- the co-existence of up-to-date industry and semi-feudal social relations, with house servants and tradesmen's entrances, for example. One area where Vargas was undoubtedly successful was in forging a national identity for this country of immigrants. To do so, he made massive use of radio, the new and glamorous mass medium of the 1930s. And, in a masterstroke, some Afro-Brazilian cultural manifestations were placed right at the centre of this new identity.

Up to this point, the rhythm of samba had frequently been looked down upon and persecuted. And the new parading samba schools were frequently seen as a threat to law and order. Now it all became a soundtrack to the nation, an expression of Brazilian-ness -- but there was a price to pay.

Vargas was heavily influenced by Benito Mussolini, but he had none of the Italian dictator's bluster and bragadoccio, and none of his military aggression. Instead, Vargas cultivated the image of the benign father figure, a cynical little smirk revealing his belief that every man has his price. The samba singers could have their time on the radio -- but the government controlled the radio, and in return they would have to throw away those lyrics about the indignities of labor. No more would they sing of how the working man was a sucker. Instead they would celebrate the virtues of an orderly life, the happily-married worker content with his lot.

The samba schools had their importance recognized and started receiving money from the government, enabling the parade to become bigger and more spectacular. In return, the theme had to be Brazil (a restriction that was only recently removed as the schools were running out of subject matter) -- and, it was understood, the parade had to paint the country in the most glowing terms possible.

For an authoritarian government (Vargas began and ended as an elected leader, but for the bulk of his time in power ruled as a dictator), there were clear propaganda advantages in creating and cultivating this image of a contented population. Vargas knew the "happy happy" image was a myth -- historian Robert Levine quotes him as describing his own compatriots as "weakened by poverty, malnutritioned, indolent and without initiative."

A culture that places high value on moments of happiness is not necessarily one with a happy frame of mind. One of the most progressive voices in Brazilian soccer, former Sports Ministry official José Luís Portella has even written that "the traditional roots of our upbringing prevent us from being happy, and prefer to see us as a country of 'poor little things.'"

So what has all this got to do with soccer? Plenty. Vargas was quick to understand the power of the game, and he set a precedent followed by later governments for using it to foster national unity. Afterward, when Brazil started winning World Cups, soccer joined Carnaval, by now celebrated by the tourist industry, as twin ambassadors for the country.

Now, there is nothing mythological about the greatness of Brazilian soccer and the many superb players it has produced. But what has no place in fact is the popular view of the top level Brazilian game being a kind of Carnaval in soccer boots, the players dancing around on the field in a collective reckless disregard for defense, happy to concede six as long as they can score seven. This isn't true now, nor was it ever true.

Check the records. Brazil and Germany have both played the same number of World Cup matches. The major difference between them is that Brazil has conceded fewer goals (201-84 against Germany's 184-115).

This often comes a shock because over the years even Brazilian soccer writers have supplied a narrative of their country's game as a sporting Carnaval, full of unfathomable geniuses who win the match in a flash when inspiration strikes -- a view that ties in nicely with the Vargas propaganda line of the native creative joyfulness of the Brazilian citizen.

This was essentially a "top down" project. The masses were told by the regime that they were happy. The blacks were told that they lived in a racial paradise (I have yet to meet a Brazilian black who shares this view). Some sportswriters were in on the project -- they shared the nationalistic worldview of the Vargas regime. Part of their interest in soccer was as a means of Brazilian self-affirmation.

The problem with the "Brazilian soccer as Carnaval" approach is that it doesn't tell the whole story, and does a disservice to many of those who have helped establish Brazil as "the country of football."

Those five World Cup wins have had moments of athletic and artistic inspiration that could have come straight from a samba dancer. But they are also the result of the application of intelligence in achieving a balance between attack and defense, a prerequisite for success in a low-scoring game like soccer.

Brazil invented the modern back four, dropping a player from midfield to provide extra defensive cover. When it was unleashed in the 1958 World Cup, Brazil did not concede a goal until the semi-final -- so in the quarterfinal against Wales, for example, one moment of magic from the teenage Pelé was enough to guarantee victory.

The early consequence of the back four was that the midfield was left light. So Brazil withdrew players from the wings to provide a midfield block. The 1970 side played a prototype of today's 4-5-1 system.

All this tactical curiosity and experimentation is a big part of the story -- as are the advances made by Brazil in the field of physical preparation, an area it was taking seriously while English players were still jogging around the field a couple of times before going off to play golf.

Brazil's preeminence, then, goes deeper than skill, joy and inspiration. Tactical and physical aspects are also important. Because while they emphasize physical expression, dancing and soccer are not the same.

In the Carnaval parade there is no opponent out there on the avenue trying to stop you from having fun.