And that’s a good thing?
England is heading home early—if you’re conflating the reputation of the country’s domestic league with the resources of its national team—on time, if you’re a realist. But Roy Hodgson’s side claimed a public relations victory before its first match when a couple of players made the short trip from their base to the edge of Rochina, Rio’s largest favela. It is a deprived and troubled community of some 100,000 people, where reports of murder and torture abound—and that’s just the accusations leveled at police.
If there is a host, there must be guests. So what is the World Cup equivalent of bringing a bottle of wine to the dinner party?
In Brazil, it may be the favela photo-call: a ritualized chance to show respect, understanding, and kindness to people who have welcomed you into their home. That small measure of payback for their hospitality is the kind of etiquette that the Emily Post Institute would applaud (politely, of course).
The England players juggled balls, signed autographs, tried capoeira, and watched the locals play five-a-side (quite possibly learning something about technical, attacking soccer in the process). Then Adam Lallana put cleats in mouth. “To be around players like us may be a life-changing experience for them,” he told reporters. Sure, spending a few minutes hanging out with a Southampton midfielder is going to make all the difference to these kids. And there just aren’t enough good Brazilian players for them to idolize.
Naiviety aside, this creditable visit was the Right Thing, though it also needs to be seen in the context of English soccer’s Pavlovian response to failure: do the opposite of what you did last time. (monastic compound in 2010 to WAG-addled resort; foreign coach to English coach; optimism to pessimism.)
In 2010, the players attracted media criticism for choosing to play golf rather than visit Robben Island (unlike the culturally-aware Germany team that knocked them out). They mostly stayed out of view in a compound in remote Rustenburg, enduring the kind of please-kill-me boredom also experienced by anyone who watched them play in the group stage. It would have been easier for the average person to breach White House security and find themselves in the Oval Office talking hoops with President Obama than to catch a glimpse of Ashley Cole out for a morning stroll.
Maybe the notion that interacting with foreigners can be dangerous has been ingrained in the English psyche ever since the Bobby Moore bracelet incident almost derailed the team in 1970, shortly before food poisoning actually did.
But this summer the team based itself at a beachside Rio hotel, and the denizens of Rocinha received a financial donation from the English Football Association. “It puts everything into perspective,” Lallana also said of his visit.
While coaches certainly do not want their charges to get bored and stale, do they really want them to develop “perspective?” It is perhaps the second-most dangerous word in soccer, after “Blatter.” As the vessels of our hopes, dreams, and demands, and the symbols of our self-worth and identity, it might be better for these young men not to start wondering whether there are more important things in life than sticking a Brazuca in the back of the net.
The utter absence of perspective, the total rejection of reason, is essential to the deranged obsessiveness required for elite-level success. Otherwise, athletes wouldn’t be special. They’d be like us, which is far less fun. And there would not be mind-warping, logic-dissing surprises like the wonderful team from Costa Rica.
Truth is, every team at this tournament is in a bubble, whether they spend their free time reaching out or staying in. There is not much that visitors can do for Brazil but plenty that Brazil can do for visitors. It’s not only the barriers created by fame, security needs, genuflecting to FIFA and its international corporate cohorts, and the simple pressure to win that distance every modern World Cup from the locals.
The well-intentioned desire to make a positive impression on your host, to be the perfect guests, ends up looking insufficient and even hubristic in a tournament where players go to a favela and yet only foreigners and Brazil’s middle classes can afford to buy a ticket to enter a stadium and watch an actual match.
And the aftermath of this party, what legacy will be left? The usual, no doubt: lots of happy memories and a bit of a financial mess. Thank you so much for having us; we’ll leave you to do the cleaning up.