After 11 years living abroad, 2 weeks ago I’ve returned to Brazil to live here again.
Why? Because I love this country and its people. Life in Brazil is hard and at the same time light and joyful. In many ways, we know how to take pleasure in life’s small gifts, gifts that are often unnoticed in other cultures. This lightness is also very visible in the open way we interact with each other. Optimism and giving others the benefit of the doubt are common practices in our collective social intelligence. Having been immersed in other cultures, I can attest that this is not always the case abroad.
At the same time, never before have I seen a country in such a profound search for its identity. From last year’s riots to this Tuesday’s World Cup semifinal game against Germany (Germany won 7-1), Brazil’s self-image has never been so divided. It seems we are on a rollercoaster going through the motions, jumping from moments of intense patriotism to self-hate. We’re stuck between a newly gained conscience of our past and a desire for an undefined future.
In summary, Brazil is going through an adolescence crisis. And eventually it will have to shatter its illusions if it wants to grow. Taking the example of our national sport, let’s explore seven of our most prominent ones.
1st illusion: We need individual heroes to fix our problems.
Brazilian soccer is based on the premise of the “craque”.
From Pelé to Neymar, passing through Romario and both Ronaldos, we rely on individual heroes to magically rise to the occasion whenever things get tough. Not only it is unjust to expect them to consistently display super-human skills, it’s also a very passive approach to soccer. We’re always counting on the opponent to create us difficulty in order to motivate ourselves and in the “craque” to solve it.
But soccer is just a reflection of this belief in our collective consciousness. Politics is the same way. As citizens we give our politicians way too much power over our lives. We wait too long before we organize, start cooperatives, NGOs and organized citizen’s movements.
Our demands are diluted, unfocused and too abstract. We march against violence and against corruption, but we don’t make clear demands on how to address those issues. When? Which steps to take? Where will the money come from? What will we replace it with? We expect our leaders to know for us! And when they don’t, they become the scapegoats for everything that is wrong in our country.
Because of this lack of due diligence, our strong social movements have short lives. Because we’re not personally invested in building our future, we let the media blow away our victories with the latest news. Because we’re not committed to the sacrifices of change, we let our daily practices in business and in life maintain the problem rather than solve it. Defeated, we say “This is Brazil, that’s unfortunately how things are done here”.
2nd illusion: Brazil’s superiority is self-evident.
In soccer, we expect our opponents to shake in fear at the sight of our yellow jerseys. We have built such a tradition around our superiority in soccer that we’ve accepted as normal not to challenge it, not to bring our game up to the international level.
The same goes for our position in South America. We’re a country of continental size and a stable economy. Why should we worry about competition? We’re a big fish in a small pond. In our reverie, we make a blind eye to the lessons Argentina and Chile give us on education and welfare. Instead, we prefer to build the biggest, latest thing in Latin America.
What Brazil needs to realize is that the world is not all that interested in our self-proclaimed superiority. Each country has its own struggles, each society has its internal problems to solve. We might just make a much bigger jump when we start engaging with growth for our own sake, instead of showing others how great we are.
3rd illusion: It doesn’t matter how we win or lose. Image is everything!
Filipao’s reactions to the loss are symptomatic of a much bigger problem in Brazilian society, our obsession with image. The statistics he presented during yesterday’s press conference tell the story of raw results: victories and defeats. It doesn’t say how we got there. It ignores the number of wrong passes, unsuccessful shots to the goal, km run by our attackers, faults and yellow cards. It doesn’t compare those figures to other successful teams, because to the Brazilian collective consciousness it doesn’t really matter. If Brazil won at the last minute with a penalty, it was a victory and in a few days we’ll just forget the details. Unlike Germany’s humble and empathetic comments after the match, we brag when we win.
Our society is only concerned with superficial data. Win or lose. Did this or didn’t. And even when we didn’t, we play with words, bend the truth to make grandiose claims. We have a middle and high-class living above its means, buying and collecting things to show off. “Having” comes before “being”. Nice bodies before intelligence. It’s the victory of perception over content.
What saddens me most about the last game was not the final score, it was 2 Brazilian players blatantly diving to get false penalties right after the storm of goals. Their first concern was not about playing with dignity, it was the scoreboard.
In the aftermath, I was shocked to notice how dismissive the several commentators have been towards the goal of Oscar. While most of his colleagues were walking in the field, heads bowed, this 22 year-old single-handedly gathered all his strength in a last minute effort to reduce our shame. It wasn’t the most beautiful goal of the tournament, but it clearly took him more than we could have reasonably expected of him under those circumstances. His effort should have been rewarded, praised, even modeled. Instead, it was brushed under the rug.
4th illusion: We never really lose. There’s always an excuse or someone to blame.
In soccer, if we lost by 1 or 2 goals, it was just bad luck. If it’s by a lot, like in 98’s World Cup final, it’s because of a psychological meltdown. Either way, there’s always an excuse, a reason not to look deeply into ourselves and challenge why we do what we do.
Unfortunately, excuse-making and searching for someone to blame is also our national sport. We create CPIs with the sole purpose of finding the person at fault, not to fix the problem. We’re more engrossed with punishment than with reconstruction.
Behind these behaviors lie our culture of machismo, that still forbids a man to cry. We’re great at expressing our joy, even our anger, but we deal poorly with sadness and the pains of failure. Instead we show our anger to whoever we think is to blame, we deny our pain or we laugh it off. The problem is that all these 3 strategies of racketing our feelings are not conducive to growth. Only by genuinely experiencing and expressing our sadness, we’ll become a society that can overcome its traumas.
5th illusion: Individual talent replaces team work.
Along with the culture of “craque” and the search for someone to blame when things go wrong, we put a premium on the role of the individual talent in any collective effort. In Brazilian soccer, we use words like “team cohesion”, but the public will easily get caught up in discussions of how things would have been if the “craque” had been there or at the top of his shape. In business, we turn the spotlight over the founder, the spokesperson, often underestimating the effort of the whole collective.
Looking at Germany’s 7 goals, we see a different story. We see a collective working towards a common goal. It was not about Klose scoring his 16th goal (as opposed to our 2006 World Cup campaign for Ronaldo’s record). It was about offensive efforts made in group.
This cult of the self-made man seems more like a belief imported from the USA than a true Brazilian trait. It’s incompatible with our gregarious and collaborative nature. If we want to innovate, tackle intractable problems and take a leading position in a VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous) world, we’re better off shedding the illusion of individual talent and start giving recognition to group achievements.
6th illusion: Improvisation and “jeitinho” replace preparation and hard work.
Anyone that has worked with improvisation knows the best ones are well prepared. In Brazilian soccer, we seem to have the opposite belief that practice will destroy the magic of the sport. We like to see our players do fresh dribbling, often picking the most difficult route towards the goal. And then we get frustrated when they lose the ball or throw it off side.
In business and everyday life, we resort frequently to “jeitinho” and adhoc solutions. We use our connections to get places and undervalue education. We act before we think. We believe that “jeitinho” trumps preparation and rigorous work.
Indeed, many times it does allow us to get places faster, but our shortcuts often lead to severe mistakes, strategic flaws and a lot of rework. If Brazil wants to find a more sustainable place in the pantheon of great accomplishments, we’ll have to learn to plan strategically and put on the hours of focused work.
7th illusion: Supernatural forces are on our side.
Perhaps the strangest comments on the days preceding the match were the motivational talk surrounding Neymar’s injury. There were those who believed all the players would magically borrow his genius. Others bet on the positive energy of 200 million supporters to push the ball towards the net. Others just hoped for luck. After all, “Football is a box of surprises”.
Even seconds before the match, in front of their adversaries, some players decided it was a good occasion to start praying. When a country believes in individual heroes that save us from all our problems, what do we do when they’re not near? We turn to our faith and the belief that the gods are there to save us from heartbreak. “God is Brazilian”, we say.
Brazil’s ecumenism and religious freedom is one of the most rich aspects of its culture. It gives us strength and to overcome difficult moments. Our spirituality allows us to value not only what we can measure and explain, but also what’s unmeasurable and inexplicable. However, when we blindly turn to superstition and wishful-thinking and ignore hard work, we lose control over our destiny. We become passive spectators of our lives, we waste our chances of building a better future with our own hands.
A new start
Unlike what TV pundits claimed, the problem with our loss on Tuesday was not because the players had “too many feelings”. There’s nothing wrong with our feelings. The way Brazilians feel intensely is one of our greatest assets as a nation.
Our problem is with outdated, colonial beliefs that keep every one of us passively playing a small game in life. A game of unfocused attention to our goals, reactivity and partial commitment. A game that leads to no big rewards because there’s no real sacrifice.
It’s easy to justify our handicap by observing Germany’s technical superiority after 8 years of hard work. Much harder is to actually work that hard for 8 years!
I hope this Tuesday’s game will create some space to think. Let’s not shift our sadness towards petty electoral revenge or denial about World Cup 2018. Let’s all take this time until October to discuss and plan the future we truly want to build for our country. Let’s use all our feelings and welcome our diverse opinions.
And let’s make of soccer an example of our renewed values system.