‘The Beautiful Team’ by Garry Jenkins (Review)

Everyone has a favourite World Cup, usually from their youth, and mine (as I said last week) was Italia ’90.  However, people of a certain (ahem) vintage have a different opinion, and most experts agree – when it comes to World Cups, you really can’t beat Mexico 1970.  Why?  Well, that’s because it saw the emergence of a team that many consider to be the best ever…

The Beautiful Team is writer Garry Jenkins’ attempt to relive those heady days in Mexico by tracking down the eleven superhumans who played in the final in Mexico City’s imposing Azteca Stadium.  From Felix the (crazy) cat between the posts to Gerson imposing order at the back, all the way to the lightning-fast Jairzinho on the wing.  Oh, and there’s one more man up front that I’m sure most of you will have heard of 😉

Jenkins has some issues tracking everyone down (and finding the time and money to arrange the interviews isn’t easy either), but when he does get to talk to the players, the story of one glorious month unfolds.  While the focus is on the footballing side of events, there is more to the story though.  Jenkins also has a look at what came next for the players – and the country.  As I’ve said before, sport and politics are rarely completely separate…

The Beautiful Team is an interesting look at a group of footballing legends redeeming their country’s pride and creating history in the process.  After the disaster of their 1966 title defence in England, Brazil drew up detailed plans to return to the top.  For perhaps the first time in football, a team adhered to their training and diet with military precision, giving them a physical edge they had lacked four years earlier.  These were still very different times though – a couple of the players couldn’t get by without their half-time cigarettes…

The Brazilians are all great characters, and very generous with their time.  We get to meet Gerson, the general, a commanding, colourful presence on the pitch – and off:

“In the flesh Gerson is part papagaio, part pega, a magpie.  Gold jewellery drips off him – a chunky chain hangs around his neck, two equally weighty bracelets around his wrist.  Throughout he seems intense, watchful and wary.  He has long since given up the battle with baldness.  His polished head accentuates the nobility you noticed even back in Mexico.  You look at Gerson and suspect he probably commanded Roman legions in a previous life.
p.7 (Pocket Books, 1999)

Jenkins certainly doesn’t shy away from letting his descriptive muse free 😉  We also meet such characters as Felix, the mad goalkeeper desperate to counter views that anyone could have stood between the Brazilian sticks, and Tostao, the intellectual who returned to a medical career after becoming disillusioned with the game.

Of course, the star of stars was Pele (at the time of the book, he was Special Minister for Sport), a man who exudes charisma and is adored worldwide (one of my favourite parts of the book is an anecdote of Pele being sent off in a match outside Brazil, where the crowd rioted so much that he was brought back on – and the ref was escorted from the stadium by the police instead…).  In his office in Brasilia, politicians queue up to visit him, starstruck supplicants desperate for a photo with the great man – an example of politics and sport…

And the sport was also used for politics…  As much as the book is about the team, it’s also about Brazil, a country with many issues (as the protests surrounding the current World Cup show…):

“When Le Corbusier came here in the 1930s he mapped out a community with half a dozen towers.  Six decades on there are more skyscrapers than there is sky.  If the economist Schumacher was right and small is beautiful, then Sao Paulo is the third least beautiful city on earth.  I do not ever want to see the first or second.” (p.79)

Ugly cities aren’t the biggest issue though.  After a military coup, one government focus is using the team for propaganda purposes, which involved getting the original coach fired, and attempting to influence team selection.  It seems there was a dark side to the wonderful triumph…

The Beautiful Team is a great read for football fans, but in comparison with All Played Out, it’s simply out of its league.  Davies’ writing gradually increases the tension, creating a narrative that stands up to any work of fiction, but Jenkins constantly repeats himself, ignoring a wider narrative in favour of individual interviews.  In addition, while Davies is analytical and insightful, weaving tournament, society, media and players into one absorbing story, Jenkins is more repetitive and doesn’t really do much more than say what actually happened.  I’m not sure if Jenkins ever read All Played Out, but he could have picked up a few tips if he had.

Still, it’s certainly worth a read, particularly for the insights from the players themselves.  It’s fascinating to hear them talk about the importance of the England game in the group stage and the struggle to find the best team for the later stages, the team that would become greats of the game.  The truth is that the performance of the 1970 Brazil team is the stuff of legends – all later teams are mere shadows of Pele and co.  Perhaps it was inevitable that it was Brazil that produced these legends:

“The world is full of countries in which football is enmeshed in passion, power and politics.  Nowhere else, it is nice to think, is it so inextricably linked to the concept of freedom.” (p.143)

Ah, Brazil…


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