After a series of bland questions about fitness and intensity from the journalists of his home country, England manager Roy Hodgson was confronted Monday by his first query from a Brazilian.
“I don’t get what he’s saying,” Hodgson said loudly. Because it was in Portuguese.
Once the questioner had finished, Hodgson turned in confusion: “I can’t hear the man who’s speaking.” Though he clearly could.
The translator piped up: “Can you hear me, sir?”
“He says that England was one of the teams who most complained about coming to the World Cup in Brazil …”
Here Hodgson reared back in his chair and harrumphed, “Not true.”
“He’d like to know if it is as bad as you expected,” the translator continued.
Crisis back on! “It’s not true that we complained about Manaus [the quixotic, oppressively humid jungle city where they’ll play their first game on Saturday] or Brazil. Quite the opposite, really,” Hodgson said peevishly. “That nonsense should be put to bed straight away.”
That’s technically correct. Hodgson has never complained. He’s got too much class. Instead, the rest of England did that for him. Apparently, Brazil was listening.
Hodgson’s squad is based on the grounds of a Rio military academy, which is also the home of the country’s War College. Perhaps the optics of that decision never occurred to English.
On the road in, someone has spray-painted ‘(EXPLETIVE) FIFA’ in enormous letters on a wall. Our taxi driver slowed to make sure we saw it.
Brazilians aren’t high on the establishment at the moment. The army would be an extreme focus of that animus.
On the academy grounds, it’s a bizarre and enervating environment. There is none of the normal security. No metal detectors or credential checks. You are only forced to march meekly through a series of unsmiling, heavily manned roadblocks. By the time you get to the press centre, you’ve been eyeballed into obedience.
At one point, a journo dropped a cigarette on the ground. A soldier appeared at his side to stare steadily at him while pointing at it. After a few uncomfortable and wordless moments, the guy figured it out. He picked the butt up, then walked to a trash bin and discarded it. The soldier walked alongside him the whole way, pointing all the while.
No wonder the average do-whatever-the-hell-you-like Cariocas resent these guys.
This is an evergreen template at any World Cup – the new world versus the old; the colonizers and their colonies; the powerful and those who want to stick it to them.
Some countries get that, some don’t. If you were to draw up a list of the places most of the world unreasonably loves and unreasonably hates, there’d be a direct co-relation.
England has made the mistake here of doing two things – complaining in advance, then subtly aligning themselves with the kleptocracy that runs the country upon arrival.
The polar opposite to this approach has been taken by the only other nation based in Rio – the Netherlands. The Dutch scrimmage in the faded glamour of Flamengo’s practice facility, which lies on a choked artery moving through the middle of the city. (That is, if this city can be said to have a middle. It either does not, or it has a dozen of them.)
The Dutch have allowed public access to their practices. The English have not. The Dutch have been out and about in town. England has not.
As usual, the Dutch haven’t been very nice to one another. TV cameras surreptitiously filmed human-black-cloud Arjen Robben and a teammate trying to kick holes in each other during a weekend practice. But they’ve been remarkably solicitous to their hosts. I picture the ur-Dutch dinner guests as a couple who bring wine, sparkle conversationally, offer to do the dishes, then have a fistfight in your front yard as they wait for the cab home.
On Monday, the Dutch team went down to Copacabana Beach and joined some locals in a game of altinha – that odd, ACL-imploding Brazilian variety of volleyball using only the feet.
They went swimming in the sea (given the pounding nature of the surf, points for bravery). They went up to Christ the Redeemer and took pictures, like all the other rubes. At night, they glad-handed their way around a Rio restaurant, lighting up Brazilian social media.
Curious locals throng the Dutch team hotel day and night. The English are presumably alone in a barracks somewhere, trying to turn up the air conditioners.
The Dutch get the real point of playing at a World Cup. It isn’t winning. Who likes those one-in-32 odds every four years? It’s projecting some small part of your culture onto the world when everyone else is paying attention.
Whatever their problems, my entire notion of the Dutch mindset is formed at this event. They’re from the country that wants to enjoy itself. They’re the genial, drunken fans who have fully embraced the worst colour scheme on the global rainbow. As a result, everyone loves the Dutch. Everyone.
They approach this thing as a planetary block party. England comes here as the bad tourist – the one who goes to all the wrong places, then complains about the service.
There’s no rule saying you have to perform anywhere beyond the field. Most teams don’t care to embrace that role as spokespeople for a nation.
But as the Dutch prove again and again, what’s to be lost in trying just a little bit?
That you won’t bother sends its own sort of message, and one that resonates long after the tournament is over.