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Three Countries, Three Moments, One Sport

Author: Kenneth R. Maxwell, Nelson and David Rockefeller Senior Fellow, Council on Foreign Relations
May 27, 2002
Folha de Sao Paulo

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By coincidence this year I will be spending the next two weeks in the county of Devon, England, just in time for the World Cup and the celebration of the 50th anniversary of the accession of Queen Elizabeth II.

Not that one thing has much to do with the other. It does, though, provide an occasion for nostalgia as well as clarity about what still has resonance and what does not for those of us— many hundreds of millions— who because of migration, or displacement, or for professional reasons, live dislocated from our roots. The World Cup and the Queen’s Golden Jubilee will undoubtedly do this for me.

My soccer heroes were small town heroes. I grew up in a mainly rural region without the large cities that could sustain first-division soccer clubs. As a consequence most of our soccer was for fun and not for profit, played in wheat fields, school playgrounds, and on local beaches during the summer. The only city that aspired to first-division heights was Exeter, the county seat of Devon, an ancient town founded by the Romans. My father, who had lived there for a time, followed the Exeter City Team. My sister, who has become the family genealogist, tells me that some of our ancestors, Huguenot merchants, moved to Exeter from France. They made a better bet it seems than their co-religionists who joined Nicolas Durand de Villegaignon in the ill-fated settlement of France Antartique in the Bay of Guanabara, Rio de Janeiro. In fact, one of them became Lord Mayor of the city of Exeter in the sixteenth century.

The vagaries of the English educational system mean that boys of my generation, when they went to boarding school, only played soccer until they were about 12 to 13 years, and then had to move on to rugby (from which there was no escape). I deeply resented this fact since I much preferred soccer to rugby— and was much better at it. Soccer seemed to me to be all skill and movement, while rugby is all mud and broken bones. When I played soccer I was the goalie. My soccer team always won. My rugby team never did (that I can remember).

I know that my soccer team won because I have my diary of 1952, with little else listed in it beside the scores of soccer matches, carefully annotated for posterity, amidst horrendous spelling mistakes. It also at one point notes that "the King died today," and I do remember that we had to stop our games and stand in silence for two minutes. We won nevertheless 6 x 0. One reassuring effect of the 50th anniversary of this match, and the fact that Queen Elizabeth is still on the throne, is to make passing time seem less onerous.

But having then been forced to play rugby during the winter for six afternoons every week for seven years, in all weathers (usually bad), I became so tired of compulsory organized sports that I never wanted anything to do with them again. Until, that is, I went to live in Madrid and re-encountered soccer. While studying at the Universidad Complutense de Madrid I lived in a modest pension just off the Puerta del Sol, in a small street (Calle Correo) that faced to the Interior Ministry which rented rooms in our building, where I am sure the Francoist police conducted their interrogations.

Nevertheless the pension was fine, with eight students from all the regions of Spain living there. We all became close friends and avid fans of the Real Madrid. Between us we could only afford a weekly binge on Sundays. We systematically visited every bar in Madrid that claimed to represent a specific region of Spain, hosted by the student who came from that region. Thus one week it would be Andaluz wine and tapas, another raw cider which we drank from skins and stinking cheeses from Asturias, and so on until we started over again. There were also regular visits to sit and cheer at the very top of the then brand-new concrete stadium where the Real Madrid played and usually, it seemed to us, won (even if the score told otherwise).

But for me Brazil and soccer were sui generis. More so than I could possibly have anticipated. One of Brazil's greatest aficionados of the Marques de Pombal at the time was the industrialist, luminary of the Instituto Historico Geografico Brasileiro, and amateur historian Marcos Carneiro de Mendonca (1894-1989). For young scholars interested in the eighteenth century he was a generous mentor. The old imperial-epoch mansion of Marcos Carneiro de Mendonca and his wife Dona Ana Amélia stood off the Cosme Velho in Rio, built with its side to the street so that its long facade faced a charming garden. Cosme Velho then was a calm oasis, before the tunnels cut across it to connect the Zona Sul to the rest of Rio and the old mansion was threatened with destruction to make way for a gas station.

It was a magical house. Designed by the same architect who built the Palácio Rio Negro in Petrópolis, it was filled with colonial and imperial furniture and artifacts, precious carpeting and polychrome saints from "the interior." In the attic was located a magnificent library and document collection, where I was privileged to work for many happy hours.

But Marcos Carneiro was not only a great historian and collector of Pombaliana. He also was one of the early Brazilian football legends. He was a champion goalie for Fluminense in the Copa Roca (Brazil x Argentina) of 1914, launching the Era Tricolor de Grandes Goleiros (Great Goalies), and South American champion in 1919. He was said to have been the best goalie of his epoch, playing in the Brazilian National Team fifteen times. Ana Amelia, a Brazilian poet of renown, had fallen in love with the soccer star after seeing him play. She published a poem about him in the local paper the next day and they were married soon after.

Once a month, Marcos Carneiro would dress up on his immaculate white Fluminense uniform, a surprising sight for someone not used to seeing an old man so attired in the middle of his colonial treasures! But since most of my Brazilian friends then seemed to me mildly eccentric, I took all this to be part of the culture.

Brazilian author and journalist Nélson Rodrigues wrote about my fellow 'Pombalista': "He was my hero of soccer shorts and shoes. While war filled Europe with those killed in their prime, Marcos de Mendonca filled my youth."

I much enjoyed my conversations with Dr. Marcos. In addition to expecting me to know everything about his hero, the Marques de Pombal, he also expected me to be equally well informed about Manchester United, then at the height of its fame. This was no easy task. Before the age of the Internet letters from England took more than two months to reach Rio de Janeiro (if they arrived at all). How odd that I did not know then that his debut for the Brazilian National Team was against the Exeter City Team in 1914. Brazil won 2 x 0. About this my father could indeed have been a reliable informant.

Soccer in Brazil in Marcos Carneiro de Mendonca’s early days was an aristocratic sport played by aristocrats like himself. He was teased even then for his elegance and unwillingness to soil his splendid white uniform. Like me, he would not have liked the mud and violence of rugby. Yet he was a true pioneer, a man I am very proud to have known. And he helped naturalize this aristocratic sport in Brazil, so that now it can be played by the people and for the people gloriously and democratically and with, let us hope, the same success this time around that he enjoyed in the early days of the past century.

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