FOOTBALL IS A GIFT to each culture that embraces the sport. Separated by thousands of miles across the Atlantic Ocean, South America and Europe have a symbiotic relationship in football so much so that although the people, languages, customs, and a plethora of other intricacies differ – football is the element that bridges the two continents.
The football relationship between South American and Europe is one of dependence, which is ironic as South American nations sought independence from European monarchies and governments during the 19th century. The influence Europe had on South America transcends football. The history the two continents share is soaked in tears, blood, and the sweat of the immigration, amalgamation, and redefinition of cultures, peoples and customs.
Those with an astute eye for football also have an astute eye for culture and recognise just how ostensibly interconnected football and culture truly are. The game is the athletic expression of the people in the most nationalistic sense. The football styles tell the history of a nation.
The Netherlands are known for playing Total Football, which has roots on the efficiency and functionality of a people from a hyper-organised and structured society existing in a floodplain; Spain has tiki-taka, a celebration of the ball and possession football and so, it makes sense that Argentina plays its game, la nuestra, with the qualities that have captivated the world for over a century – short, crisp passing interplay, evasiveness in one-on-one battles, and the cognisance to complete that one extra pass leading to the goal.
Brazil champions arte del fútbol, a style more akin to dancing than running with the ball. Uruguay captures the garra charrua, panache with direct roots to the Charrua Indians who had a reputation for being brutal in battle and ferocious in fights before being wiped out in the 19th century conquest of Uruguay; the football of Uruguay captures the fighting spirit brewed in the cauldron of the nation’s history.
An indelible fact is football’s genesis in South America is a reflection of European immigration clashing with the native ideologies and existing cultures of the continent. Some may see the connections of a country’s football with its culture as innate and ethnic in nature, which is partly true.
The reality is the South American styles of play are widely created manifestations with historical implications that were invented precisely at the same time South American countries were struggling with and for their own ethnic, racial, and class-driven ideologies amid the influx of immigration from Europe.
During the 19th century, countries in South America aimed to identify with their European colonisers so much so that as migration from Europe to South America increased, different styles of play reflected the differences in the social classes. The elite of society played a gentlemanly style of football in sharp contrast with the rough and tumble approach born in the barrios of Buenos Aires, Montevideo and São Paulo.
The European influence on South American football was initially leveraged as a way to alter the ethos of a native culture to “be more European”. The differences, however, arose as football spread and words like indignesimo (indigenous), negrismo (of African descent), and mestizaje (mixed-race) became differentiators within societies in South America. The intermixing of immigrants and native populations stratified the dissimilarities; however, in football the differences were celebrated.
The melting pot of culture that is South America has provided the world with some of the best footballers, club teams and national sides on the planet. The criollo (a social class in the caste system of the overseas colonies established by Spain in the 16th century) style of Argentina was categorised in a similar sense to a Brazilian style that celebrated the country’s African heritage. As a result, both nations began their footballing ascent against European teams. The birth of both styles is the result of open access of the sport to the poor youth, called pibes, which saw children of the street and barrios join in on the game in cities like Rosario, Montevideo, Buenos Aires, Santiago and Bogotá.
The message was clear: the poor youth could surpass the Eurocentric aristocracy playing football in South America. In 1916, the first continental championship took place and teams of Latin and South America could play one another in open competition. Journalists saw the criollo, jogo bonito and garra charrua styles – to name but a few – compete and dominate sides with more European rigidity.
As millions of Germans, Italians, Spaniards, migrated to Argentina, Colombia, Chile, and Peru along with the continued influx of Portuguese immigrants to Brazil, the relationship between European and South American cultures created a version of the game that combined emotion, flair, and nationalistic pride away from that of Europe.
By the 1930s the narrative of the game in South America resonated with the opportunity for the poor, indigenous, mixed-race people of South America to make a statement through football. The artistry of the South American game in the 1930s was cemented during the first FIFA World Cup when Uruguay captured the title, with Argentina claiming second place.
Brazil’s journey to dominance in the world game combatted issues lodged in racism and pseudoscience in the early 20th century. Claims that Brazil played a unique blend of football never before seen on European soil led to assertions that Brazil’s football was more of a dance with the ball stemming from the African influence of its people, which at the time was less of a celebration of amazing football than a narrative soaked in ignorance.
To reduce Brazil’s jogo bonito to dancing and formlessness is insulting, yet not out of the realm of possibility given that slavery existed in Brazil until 1888 before changing from a monarchy to a republic the following year. Such a political restructure increased the investment and immigration to the port cities of Brazil, and with this investment and immigration came football. The Anglo-Brazilian connection is indelible as British railroad workers and sailors are credited with bringing the game to the country.
Charles Miller, an Anglo-Brazilian, is said to have brought the game to Rio de Janeiro around 1894 from England. His ability to teach the game to his friends of the upper class of Brazilian society at the time saw the formation of the first athletic clubs in Rio and São Paulo, which in turn saw football transition from a local game to a national sporting lifestyle. The social disconnect between the rich and poor in Brazil naturally made football “the game of the people” and star players in the late-1930s like Leônidas da Silva, himself mixed race, exhibited the grace, guile and trickery Brazilian football is known for around the world.
Europe and South America share not only an amazing history in football; the rivalries extend beyond the score lines of matches between European and South American teams. Two of the most iconic players in the history of the game, Pelé and Diego Maradona, hail from South America.
Pelé, who played for the Brazilian club Santos never made the trip to play professional club football in Europe. Instead, he dominated the international scene with Brazil and amassed goal-scoring records and triumphs on South American soil. Maradona, known as El Pibe de Oro (‘The Golden Boy’), made the transition to the European stage playing for Barcelona, Napoli, and Sevilla. The impact both players left on the game is nothing short of timeless as the global presence of Pelé and Maradona paved the way for both Europe and South America to develop a dependence on one another. Whereas Europe has subjectively produced more talented players than Pelé and Maradona in Johan Cruyff, Zinedine Zidane, and Michel Platini – it is clear each continent pushes the other in terms of player development and national side performance.
Football has become more homogenised as club and international football’s best sides field players from Europe and South America. The World Cup, for example, is largely a contest between the best national sides of Europe and South America as no country from any other continent has appeared in a World Cup final. There is no denying that for a coach or player to be considered one of the best, they must go to Europe to prove themselves.
South America is the land of street football, futsal and beach football, and produces some of the best individuals the game has ever seen. Players like Alfredo Di Stéfano, Romário, Kaká, Diego Forlán, Luis Suárez, Radamel Falcao, Lionel Messi and Neymar have all landed in Europe and, as a result, landed on the FIFA Player of the Year ballot at some point in their careers.
In Europe the emphasis on tiered academies, sophisticated coaching and training philosophies, has produced some of the best national sides the world has seen both offensively and defensively in Germany, Italy and the revolutionary Netherlands sides of the 1970s. When South America celebrated the individual, Europe championed the machine-like efficiency of its national sides.
At the 2014 FIFA World Cup, 13 of the 32 teams were from Europe and Germany accomplished being the first European side to hoist the trophy on South American soil. Dynamic team football bested sides that historically celebrated the individual, evidenced by Germany’s destruction of Brazil on Brazilian soil. Such a display cemented Germany’s ‘the team is the star’ mentality, which begs the question: has Europe asserted itself as the dominate force in world football in all aspects?
Although the answer is lodged in the subjective, the pendulum is sure to continue to swing between the two continental juggernauts of world football. For the last 20 years, many of South America’s best players have spent the majority of their careers in Europe. Players who continue to hone their skills and ply their trade in the barrios and playgrounds in South America are now being plucked by European sides with money and infrastructure. It comes as little surprise that South American players dream of a move to Europe, which boasts 14 of the top 25 wealthiest countries on the International Monetary Fund rankings as of June 2014.
The relationship between Europe and South America in football is somewhat of an anomaly. In Europe lies the allure of some of the biggest leagues and club teams on the planet, the most lucrative marketing platforms and television deals, the massive wages, the footballing infrastructure and the power that appeals to players the world over. In South America lies the abundance of talent willing and able to fill the roster spots in all of Europe’s top leagues.
For example, in 2010 Argentina exported 2,204 players to Europe. Lionel Messi has been criticised for not singing the national anthem before qualifying matches and for not embracing la nuestra as arguably the world’s best player – but he is a byproduct of both continents. Some in Argentina consider him an exranjero (foreigner) as he left for Barcelona’s famed La Masia aged 12 and made his name in Europe. For a player who turned down Spanish citizenship and subsequently a spot on the Spanish youth national team in 2004, Lionel Messi is the embodiment of how interconnect each continent is on the other.
The rivalry between Europe and South America is alive and well in football and the worldwide audience is the benefactor. As the world has become a smaller place in football, the welding of cultures through football between these two continents has taken on identities that complement one another.
Spain has turned a Latin style of football in tiki-taka and placed a patent-like lock on the style. Chile exhibits the tactical discipline reminiscent of Die Nationalmannschaft. Brazil’s 1982 side, with players like Sócrates and Zico, shares the less than glamorous title with 1974 Dutch side in being considered one of the best teams never to win a World Cup. Europe and South America continue to set the standard for world football to aspire to meet, however the ball stops for no nation and so – the game endures as it always has.
By Jon Townsend. Follow @jon_townsend3