Why the soul no longer stirs to the Samba beat

For almost 50 years BBC’s Grandstand show defined Saturday afternoons in the UK and it came to do something similar here in Ireland for many of us once the signal for the British channels began to be picked up beyond the east coast.

Me, I never took to it all that much. In its latter years it leaned far too heavily on rugby league and such like. Football Focus and even Saint and Greavsie guaranteed more of a hit for us junkies whose exposure to footage of English football’s top flight was rationed according to a consensus among the power brokers at the time that you actually could have too much of a good thing.

On TV, anyway.

That’s why Sportsnight was always such a comfort. Wednesday nights. Halfway through another week of drudgery in school or work and then came that thrillingly urgent introductory score by Tony Hatch and the face of Steve Rider or Des Lynam. More often than not they would be promising footage of a First Division league game, an FA Cup replay or highlights from Wembley on international week.

Some programmes stand out more than others: Lynam announcing the death of Bobby Moore in 1993; the first sight of Liam Brady in West Ham colours; Bryan Robson dislocating his collar bone at Upton Park. The fondest of them all was the year they ran a series of clips on the History of the World Cup in the lead-up to the 1990 tournament.

For 13 weeks they tantalised and teased, tracing diligently through each tournament from 1930 on. The opening montage was manna from heaven: clips of Cryuff’s dummies, Pele’s genius and Tardelli’s manic celebration in 1982 all spliced together to the classic Smiths riff What Difference Does It Make? from which Morrissey’s morbid voice was thankfully removed.

It is impossible to explain to a younger generation — and Lord knows many of us have tried — just how big a deal this stuff was.

Anticipation is something that has been siphoned from modern life and its culture of instant gratification, but those programmes were recorded with a religious fervour and the tapes played and played again long after the old VHS should have been consigned to the bin.

The World Cup still retained its hint of exoticism at the time. World Cups allowed us glimpses of players we could marvel about only once every four years. And chief among the pleasures was the knowledge Brazil’s famous yellow strip would be appearing on our screens at least three times and probably a lot more in the space of four short but sweet weeks.

In 1986 there was the promise of renewing our devotion to the likes of Zico and Socrates. We got to drool over Careca and then there was the explosion into the collective consciousness of Josimar, the devil-may-care, goalscoring right-back.

At the time, the thought of a World Cup actually being played in Brazil would have led to sensory overload but the approaching tournament brings with it instead the collective discomfort over the spend on stadia and civil protests in a country where vast sections of the population are mired in poverty. Like the tournament, the team itself has lost its lustre of old.

Brazil will host the event as reigning Confederations Cup champions having defeated Spain in the final last year. They have won 13 of their last 14 games and are ranked as favourites to claim the famous trophy in early July.

They named a squad this week which had no need of players such as Kaka, Ronaldinho, Alexandre Pato and Lucas Moura, but they have long lost their title as the Pied Pipers of the world game.

Maybe it’s the fact hundreds of their players appear on our screens day after day year after year, maybe it was a ridiculous illusion in the first place, but the very thought of Brazil when it came to football was something to stir the very soul. Muniz Sodre, a Brazilian academic, told Simon Kuper for his book Football against the Enemy that Brazilian football was not only a sport but “a kind of stage play, a theatrical movement”.

Tim Vickery, the South American-based football writer, had an interesting take on that when he wrote an article for the BBC earlier this year in which he argued that the most successful Selecao selections had always combined flair with a “robust” defence. In 1958, for example, the side didn’t concede a single goal until the semi-finals and Mario Zagallo admitted to Vickery that his legendary 1970 side was not one to neglect its defensive duties either.

Luis Felipe Scolari, the current incumbent, has hinted at a similarly pragmatic approach. Finishing first is the priority, he has said, which is as it should be. Yet the nagging feeling persists that this Brazil squad is closer in composition to the solid but unspectacular winners of 1994 than the Rivaldo, Ronaldo, Roberto Carlos class of 2002 when Big Phil was again the man in charge.

All in all, it’s hard to get too excited about that.

Email: brendan.obrien@examiner.ie

Twitter: @Rackob

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