Some Call It Ballin'

Issue 3: Fall 2014

"...but in joy create for others the house, the poem, the game of athletic beauty" — Dudley Randall

Why We Watch(ed) Brazil or Why the Score Doesn’t Always Matter 

by Roger Bonair-Agard

  David Rudder. Image by  Georgia Popplewell  via Flickr.

David Rudder. Image by Georgia Popplewell via Flickr.

Dis gyul from Bahia
Staying in Moruga
Dis lady real lucky
She bounce up wid sweet me
As a man with a plan
Well I really didn’t waste no time
I make up meh mind tonight
Dis Brazilian is mine
As de music play Lord
She started to sing
To de soca beat
She put a samba swing…

                        – David Rudder, Bahia Girl


My older cousin, Lurline, was about 21 – engaged to Keston, a smooth playboy of a footballer, with a perfect round Afro and a perfectly coiffed moustache. He was handsome, light-skinned, dougla boy; that combination of things that in the complexity of Trinidad life made him a god to many. In his high-school football career he had starred for St. Mary’s College, one of the island’s powerhouse teams, and now he played for Malvern, one of the local teams perennially at the top of the first division of the senior National football league. I was six when he first introduced me to World Cup football.

We were in my aunt’s living room when the tournament began. It was 1974 and Brazil were the reigning champs. I didn’t know it then but Brazil was not to win the title again until I was 26 years old, and living in Brooklyn, NY. In the tournaments of ‘74, ‘78, ‘82, ‘86 and ‘90 our Trinidadian hearts were to be broken again and again when Brazil failed to win the entire thing, but for now I was watching the tournament for the first time, relatively new to trying the game in the streets with my friends for the first time. I wasn’t sure what I was looking for, but Keston sipped on a tall glass of beer. I sat on a smaller chair at his side. “Who do you want to win?” I asked. It was the opening game. Brazil vs. Poland. “We backing Brazil,” he said. “Watch Number 10. That is Rivelino.” That was it. A lifelong love affair with Brazilian football, and the culture that made it, began.

That day I did as Keston said. I watched Rivelino. I looked at what he did when he had the ball and what he did when he didn’t. I noticed how they played, and how unhurried they always seemed – how they passed, trapped, shot, dribbled – everything about them entranced me. There was seldom a game of Keston’s that I missed after that too, begging to be taken along to Malvern games and from those, beginning my own personal love affair and developing my own style. I wanted to kick like Keston; to make the ball dip and swerve, and find corners of the net from 20, 30 yards out.

  *

Until age 9, I was an only child. When there weren’t neighborhood children to be found in the middle of the day on weekends or during holidays from school, I played alone in my own backyard. Armed with a vivid imagination and steel-trap memory, I played elaborate games of football and cricket. In cricket I was always the West Indies team. In football, I was always Brazil. I knew the names of the starting lineups from almost every top-flight team in the world. I could mimic their stances, how thy might run, how they might try to dribble or pass. I began to pattern different aspects of my own game on the parts of those games that I loved. As I got older, I wanted that freight train run of West Germany’s Karl-Heinz Rumenigge, I wanted that suave running and screening style all long-haired and cool like Argentina’s Mario Kempes. Later, I wanted to cross the ball off the wing like Britain’s only black player, John Barnes. I wanted the smooth lope of Brazil’s Socrates, the outside left foot of Brazil’s Eder, the beautiful, tough tackling of Brazil’s Junior, the swift overlapping wing back runs of Brazil’s Nelinho. Mostly what I wanted; what we all wanted, was Brazil’s cool – the pass that seemed to run off the foot, the unorthodox instep trap of a sixty yard pass, such that the ball stopped dead as if landed in a swamp.

Not only was Brazil my team, it seemed to be all of Trinidad’s team. It appeared everyone who was trying to play football was patterning himself after the Brazilians. When Brazil played in the World Cup, the streets emptied. It was style we were after. We were about beauty before results, and early on I knew that Brazil made the game seem like no-one else could, like there was a pattern being woven in the short crisp passes, a music in the patient back and forthing and criss-crossing of the field before the ball would appear, as if from a white gloved hand and out of a hat, dangerously suddenly in front of the opponent’s goal. We in Trinidad wanted to play like that. We wanted to look like that when we played. We wanted to look like that whether or not we won.

  *

Then she start to tremble
She give meh goose pimple
Soca in she samba
Samba in she soca…

                       – Fr Bahia Girl


Somewhere late in my teenage years I saw a video of the Brazilian national team at practice. They were only warming up, but samba was playing loudly and their warmups were choreographed moves that limbered the hips or the knees or the torso in time to the music. They moved in unison. Their brand of football began to make sense immediately. I began to understand some of what we Trinidadians gravitated to in the Brazilian game; why our brilliant team that almost made it to the 1974 World Cup Finals but for some creative officiating in Haiti, was called Little Brazil. I began to wonder what Calypso Football would look like or stick-fight football or steelband football would look like…

In those early days of my watching the competition, Africa only had two spots in the Cup. They would always be from one of the countries North of the Sahara. Algeria, Morocco, Egypt, Libya – some combination of those would be the teams from The Continent that made it there, but none from the countries that fielded players that looked more like us. The Northern African squads were fearless and scrappy, played a brand of football I often liked, but they weren’t Brazil, and they weren’t strong enough to challenge West Germany or Italy or France or Holland, perennial European powerhouses – the teams I wanted beaten by Africans and South Americans, even when I was 6 or 10 or 14 – understanding even then that I was connecting to a political sensibility around who I wanted to prevail, and understanding though not quite explicitly, that not only was this political understanding about history, but directly connected to the way in which these various teams played the game – which was most certainly about race and heartbeat, and the magic of the downbeat.

England had brought us this game. In the '70s and '80s, we watched the English Football League First Division (now the English Premier League) and former British colony we were, it was - until Italy’s Serie A and the Dutch Football League and later Spain’s La Liga took hold – the standard bearer of club football that we got to watch on Saturdays and Sundays. We all had our teams for which we rooted. Manchester United or Arsenal, Liverpool or Crystal Palace. Always a political angle in mind, I first dug Crystal Palace because they played Justin Fashanu, one of the very few black players in the First Division; and he was a star, a smooth scoring forward of Nigerian extraction. Later I loved Liverpool because of John Barnes, the brilliant left winger of Jamaican and Trinidadian extraction who was for many years the only black player on the English national team. But for many years in the 80s I loved – had to love – Tottenham Hotspur because they seemed – given the nature of the British game (the straight marches up the flanks to bomb crosses in for headers or opportunist strikes by the likes of Gary Lineker), that they had completely upended the stylistic foundations of the First Division. Garth Crooks, a black man at forward, Argentine wizards Osvaldo Ardiles and Ricky Villa, and their captain, Glenn Hoddle, himself a smooth player with wonderful dribbling talent out of the midfield, were the center of Tottenham’s attack. They played a brand of football we associated with South America, with ourselves, more than Britain.

 * 

Peter Wait, Peter Wait
Peter look Cecil Rhodes by de gate
Bun He! Bun He!
Peter look de Englshman
Who sen Cecil Rhodes to Africa lan
Bun He! Bun He!
Peter take Drake, take Raleigh
But leave Victoria to me
Bun She! Bun She!

                      – Black Stalin, Judgement Day


Trinidad and Tobago wrested Independence from the British crown in 1962, and the '60s saw most of our English speaking West Indian brethren do the same. We were part of that same global movement that gave us the Civil Rights Movement, the Black Arts Movement, Muhammad Ali, John Carlos & Tommie Smith etc etc. It was a movement that bled over into the '70s and in the English speaking West Indies the spirit of this movement that found voice in sport, was represented by a rising West Indies cricket team, which achieved levels of dominance by the '70s and '80s that had never before been seen in the sport. England’s colonies were fighting themselves from out under the crown at the same time that Black Americans were throwing off a yoke of a different kind, and the West Indian citizen’s colonial sensibility was deconstructing itself in order to reconstruct a different idea of who or what she was in this new world in the process of being built. In the crown’s most popular sport export, this was taking place too. But on a wider scale, because where cricket was played only by England’s Commonwealth subjects, football was being played by everyone, and all of Europe in the '50s and '60s was dealing with its colonies’ new arrival at self-perception.

Just in time came a brash young player who seemed to have the ball attached to his feet by string. He was a mere child, but in 1958, at age 17, he turned the Swedish World Cup on its head, by bringing the Cup home to Brazil for the first time. Edson Arantes do Nascimiento, nicknamed Pele was an Afro-Brazilian, a citizen of the largest black nation outside the continent of Africa. Born into extreme poverty, and in one of the most race-caste stratified societies on the planet, Pele came to represent what most of the world identified as Brazil, just at about the time that the idea of Black Power was beginning to gain a foothold globally.

African nations, too, were dispensing with the crown, and when Brazil won the Cup again in ‘62 and announced itself as a perennial power in the sport, it gave millions of disenfranchised people worldwide something else on which to hang their hats. As if to underscore the shift taking place, the English won the Cup in ‘66, but an Angolan virtuoso by the name of Eusebio, tall, black and brilliant, took Portugal further in the Cup final than they had been before or since. This year, for the first time since then, the otherworldly brilliant, Ronaldo, a man of color has the best opportunity since then to make his mark on the world stage for Portugal.

That we watched Brazil then, would come as no surprise. That we would pattern our game after them would be no shock either, but how to explain the ways in which our bodies were learning to shift, dribble and turn in small and tight spaces—more dance and exhibition than contest toward the goal? How to explain thatwe were more interested in how to copy Rivelino’s elastico dribble or make the ball travel impossible arcs of flight than whether or not it ended up in the net at all?

Brazilian midfielder Pelé (L) dribbles past Italian defender Tarcisio Burgnich during the World Cup final in Mexico City

This year’s World Cup features five teams from the African continent. They are all Sub-Saharan but for 1, Algeria. And the rest are all West African. Ghana, Cote d’Ivoire, Nigeria and Cameroun have all been there before. Ghana, Nigeria and Cameroun have all got as far as the quarter-finals in past Cups, and Cote d’Ivoire has the still dangerous Didier Drogba, and a host of players well-blooded in international play. South Africa hosted the last Cup. No African nation is sneaking up on anyone anymore. In the last two Cups Ghana has come up against the United States in knockout stages of the tournament. I waved the red, yellow, black and green in rooms crammed to the gills with patriotic American supporters. The young Ghanian squad knocked out the U.S. both times, a country with wealth and resources that outstrips it galactically. Both times, I was rooting for the African continent and for a style in which I saw myself, that style that takes what is imposed and makes a way with it by improvising and re-designing. I was supporting jazz and blues and hip hop and reggae and of course – calypso and samba.

Let’s go back to the future and the '80s. All of us who supported Brazil were ready for the team of 1982 to win the Cup. Save for a couple of the Dutch teams of the '90s, the Brazil ’82 squad is, to my mind, the most talented squad to have not won. It boasted Junior in defense, Falcao and Eder in the midfield and the brilliant Zico up front with the mercurial Serginho and the renaissance man to end all Renaissance men, their captain, Socrates.

Socrates was everything we understood ourselves (read: wanted) to be, even before we boys could articulate it. He was a doctor of both medicine and philosophy, a hard-drinking, handsome, playboy who also spoke passionately on the side of the Brazilians most disenfranchised – the black and the poor. And oh, his game – well over six-foot tall with shoulder length mestizo-curly hair and a full beard, it is impossible to explain this and overstate it. Socrates. Never. Hustled. When I say never hustled, I don’t mean he didn’t play hard. He played plenty hard, but he never seemed to be overexerting himself. He was a soul man, a rude-bwoy, a saga boy in our various black parlances. You imagined he could come into the sound session, take the microphone and chant like Super Cat. His free kicks and penalties were taken with only one step – a long stride that uncurled into a bullet. Every third pass it seemed was a brilliant on-target back heel, delivered without breaking stride. We just knew Socrates was going to martial these forces to victory. Instead, they lost a semi-final to Italy who would continue on to win the Cup behind Paolo Rossi’s 6 goals which earned him both the Golden Boot for most goals and Golden Ball, for Player of the Tournament. We didn’t care about Rossi. We didn’t care about Socrates’ missed penalty. We remembered only the sublime exchange between Zico and Socrates for one of the tournament’s most memorable goals. Says the man whom the Brazilians call White Pele, about that defeat to Italy: “Italy played well when it mattered but that should not have invalidated our approach to the game. The fact people still remember ours and the Dutch 1974 squads, for example, shows that there is no shame in dying while being faithful to a philosophy where the result was not an obsession…”

The Brazilians, like us, were prepared then, to live for the beautiful game more than they valued the final scoreline. Said Brazil’s most prolific poet, Carlos Drummond de Andrade “If Zico's Brazil 1982 did not win the World Cup, well, too bad for the Worldcup.”

Brazil's Socrates during a training session

Then I start to Notice
Wait – like you is a Baptist
She say darling no, no
My darling is not so
You see Trinidad & Brazil
We have the same vibration
Ile Ife Ile Ife
She make me to understand
Then the Trini people
take it to the street
From San’do to Palatouvier
Dancing to the Beat
The whole of town singing…

                      – Fr Bahia Girl


In 1974, the Trinidad and Tobago team that narrowly missed out making it to that year’s World Cup in Mexico boasted players I grew up knowing as legend. In 1990, we came tantalizingly close again. Needing only a tie with the United States in the final qualifier at home, we lost 1-0 on an average looking shot that beat our mostly brilliant goalkeeper and led to accusations of match-fixing. We finally won our chance in 2006. Some of the most internationally accomplished players in our history were in their twilight years by that time; the squad led by once Premier League lead scorer Dwight Yorke, former Newcastle standout keeper, Shaka Hislop and Scottish league sensation Russell Latapy. All were close to 40 years old by then. Some of us had played against these standouts in High School and we knew first-hand about how good they were. In particular we loved Russell.

Ask even the old old guys in the rum shops and snackettes and they’ll tell you Latapy was one of the best ever we’ve produced. This is not slight praise, our tiny 1.3 million population notwithstanding. We’ve produced players who never had the opportunity to be seen internationally, who could make magic with the football. There was Everard ‘Gally’ Cummings, the leader of that '74 squad. There was Bobby Sookram, the Brilliant Indian captain, who well past 50 - and with a belly that should have rendered him unable to tie his shoes much less kick a ball - I once saw sting the crossbar with a line drive of a kick from half-line. There was the Rastafarian schoolboy sensation Ian Clauzell, whose career was felled by the complicated politics of black post-colonial self-hate (topic for another essay).

Latapy had made himself city-wide legend, indeed North Zone legend while we still played U-14 ball. A tiny boy then whose afro seemed larger than he, he was blessed with Lebronesque field vision, and dribbling skills that made his movement into and out of tight spaces appear ghostly. Latapy had thrilled us all through our teenage years and in this long journey towards the World Cup grail we couldn’t think of anyone who deserved to see the field more than Lattas. But he was a defensive liability now as a midfielder and he was on the bench. The coach, Leo Benhakker thought the best chance for us to make a good showing was to play defensively at all times. The tiniest nation ever to make it to the World Cup Finals, we were expected to lose each of our three first round games handily and leave to embarrassment.

In the opening game against Sweden our stalwart defensive play brought the crowds to their feet again and again, as we stymied what everyone thought was the inevitability of a Swedish score. When we lost a player to a red card, and had ten players to defend with for the rest of the match, the inevitability seemed more so. Still, our goalkeeper and midfield and defenders and forwards played that most un-Trinidadian of games, and came away with a 0-0 tie. My friends who went to Germany talk about the swelling pride they felt leaving the stadium, as Trinidadians became the toast of the tournament for having held off a footballing power. When in our second game we were playing against football super power and former colonial masters, England – to whom it was predicted we would lose 6-0 – we were even more excited to find ourselves tied 0-0 at the half. 

Many of us then, wanted to see Latapy, What if The Little Magician as he was known at home and abroad could actually do the unthinkable; produce 20 minutes of offensive magic that put the English crown on the defensive? Trinidadian crowds in Germany started chanting Latapy’s name then; aching for a glimpse of the beautiful game on which we’d grown ourselves, come accustomed to see from the Brazilians, and now thought ourselves in possession of the opportunity to exhibit on the world’s largest stage. Leo Beenhakker, was a Dutchman, come of age in the world of Holland’s ‘total football’ of the brilliant 1974 squad – knew something of the making of the beautiful game, but not enough of the spirit that moved the Africa that brought Brazil and Trinidad together – the pursuit of something beautiful that was more important than the obsession with result.

We didn’t see Latapy that game. Peter Crouch pulled on a defender’s dreadlocks off a corner kick to head home a first goal, and England eventually won by 2.

In Trinidad’s swan song game, we were already down by 2. Trinidadian fans in the stands were making themselves heard on televisions around the world. Laaa-ttaaas Laaa-ttaaas Laaa-ttaaas! they shouted, and Beenhakker eventually heard. My friends say that when the trainer ran down the bench and touched Latapy on the thigh and he stood up, it was like the headliner at a rock concert could finally be seen in the wings. For Trinidadians who knew his game we were going to be beautiful at the World Cup Finally. Trinidadians cried. It was a coronation of sorts. And then here’s what happened next: I’m pretty sure my memory is messing with me here, but it seemed that a ball was passed to him seconds after he got on. He chased it down flanked by two Paraguayans. He got to the ball, and his body undulated as if to continue forward – except he didn’t. And the defenders, caught by the sudden stop, rushed by him like a river. He turned, delivered a sweet pass twenty yards away to a streaking winger. It was the first time all afternoon we had looked dangerous, like we might score at The Cup. He himself swiveled his way open to a shot minutes later, which clapped the crossbar and seemed to sing into the air. It’s beauty was unmistakable. It appeared even more beautiful for the fact that it narrowly missed – that it was beautiful football that broke our hearts.

Russell Latapy controlls the ball during the opening round Group B World Cup football match between Paraguay and Trinidad and Tobago

*

Epilogue:

As of this writing, the 2014 World Cup has begun. Three games are already on the board. Brazil has had moments of brilliance in its 3-1 victory over Croatia but mostly has looked shaky. Mexico has squeezed out a 1-0 victory over Cameroun and Spain, the defending champions playing the kind of sweet, one-touch football we love, was set upon by a Dutch team that managed to leave no chance a-begging. The Spanish goalkeeper, Casillas can arguably be said to be to blame for 3 goals. At any rate, a 5-1 beating is an utter shellacking. This year’s Brazil number 10 is being worn by the 22 year old Neymar, a man whose scoring ability is otherworldly, whose free kicks and touches seem to be the work of prayer. My friends and I gathered for the opening game. We gathered to worship – to see him drag the ball across his body too smoothly for defenders to be in lockstep, to place it in the corner of the net. We watched and cheered for Brazil with the Brazilians, because samba, because calypso, because Africa, because we were rooting once again for  the beautiful game.


ROGER BONAIR-AGARD is a native of Trinidad and Tobago, author of three collections of poems and played central defense and midfield for Hunter College. His most recent book Bury My Clothes (Haymarket Books, 2013) won the Society for Midland Authors award for poetry and was long-listed for a National Book Award. He teaches at the Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center. He lives in Chicago. He is Nina's father.