Sports Arena

Why Brazil Lost

The beautiful game is dead.

By 7.6.10

The soccer giant favored to win its sixth World Cup has lost its touch, and Brazil's jogo bonito, that spirited and smooth choreography, is no longer the veritable samba it used to be.

Watching Pelé's deceptive dribble of the ball was like watching the passo de samba, the stationary, speedy steps of those bronzed, glittered, feathered beautiful bodies that light up the Carnaval samba school parades. Obsess for yourself:

You can even anticipate the next moves – no matter the theme of the samba school, no matter the Brazilian team -- because somehow the spirit of the action is, well, moving. Our bodies unconsciously yank about as if we are kicking that ball right into the net. 

But why is the jogo bonito so delicious to watch? Is there a seductive "moving" gene in the Brazilian DNA?

Turns out that we -- that raucous, vuvuzela-tooting crowd -- enjoy watching the action because it is all happening right inside our head. We are our own audience.

But how can this be?

When research subjects watched films of ballet or capoeira (a Brazilian martial art), scans showed that the same areas in the brain are activated as those used to execute the very movements they were watching. Our brain virtually "moves" along every step of the way, so much so that it stimulates physiological responses -- such as increased oxygen consumption, increased heart-rate -- to the point where the weak hearted might suffer a heart attack merely by watching strenuous sports.

But how does the brain do this?

Giacomo Rizzolatti and his colleagues at the University of Parma, Italy, discovered that the brain has specialized cells, aptly called mirror neurons, which mimic the actions of others. This was illustrated in "point light" experiments where people watched films of people dancing, cycling and doing other activities in a dark room with tiny lights attached to their shoulders, elbows, wrists, knees and ankles. The observers easily identified not just the actions of the "performers" but their intentions, emotions, beliefs, genders and personalities, too. Just from the point lights alone!

This is why mentally "going through the motions" is just about as good as rehearsing to improve a dancer's or a golfer's or, to the point, a soccer player's performance. To observe, then, is to dance. Or to dribble, kick, or score a goal.

This finely facilitated perception of human movement is behind our ability to read body language and to readily express our own. It's social intelligence, or a capacity to navigate our social world that allows us to figure out "where others are coming from" (are they angry or happy?), "where they are going" (are they coming to yell at me or to ask for help?) or what their next play is going to be (pass or dribble), so we know how to react accordingly.

But whether you call this social intelligence, or a mental mirroring of others, it also happens to be our ability to empathize because it uses the same mental rehearsal of the motions of others to allow us to…you guessed it…put ourselves in someone else's shoes. Some of us fail miserably, while others can truly "feel your pain."

If empathy is the great imitator and lubricant of social life it naturally plays a role in dancing. So when someone says, I can't dance, you can be sure to catch this introvert stiffly jerking about on the dance floor. I know you've seen them and, if you're half empathetic, you feel their pain to the point of cringing with embarrassment. Am I right?

But when someone says, "I've got rhythm," they will no doubt have the graceful social movements of an extrovert that translate well on the dance floor. It's why Bill Clinton can "cut a rug." And Hillary can't.

This is the Brazilians. It's not for nothing that an American Airlines ad said Brazilians are the warmest people in all of Latin America. Like a litter of puppies physically entangled with one another, Brazilians can never seem to let go. Goodbyes last forever with a thousand kisses. Even in emails. And talking to strangers? Well, there aren't any. When I buy a pair of shoes in Brazil, I don't just acquire footwear but some new good girlfriends who swoon over me with heart and, um, sole as they rang up my purchase.

All this makes Brazilians a happy bunch. And it shows. Their sprightly walk oozes the bubbly gait of someone confident of experiencing an empathic encounter at the next corner. Just as the lyrics of Jobim's "The Girl from Ipanema" say, the "sweet sway (doce balanço) is more than a poem."

Indeed, it's a dance. And in Brazil, to move is to dance and to dance is to live.

This sympathetic communication, this coordinated companionship, is the very same fluid dance behind the jogo bonito. A lively cross-communication that reads, anticipates and reacts to each other's moves not only with precision but with an underlying joie de vivre that is indistinguishable from their joie de jouer.

As Kaká said of his teammates during this World Cup, "A glance is enough to know what he's going to do."

So why did the dancing stop? Was it Coach Dunga focusing on the technical method of the Europeans? Size?… Brazil was the biggest team physically this time. In fact, taller than Brazil's 2002 team which won the World Cup, as the New York Times pointed out this week, with the Germans averaging an inch shorter. And Pelé is 5' 8".

But Pelé stood taller in character and stature because, unlike today's Brazilian players, his only goal was to chase the ball and not the dollar. As the cereal king W. K. Kellogg once said, "dollars have never been known to produce character, and character will never be produced by money".

More to the point, entering the high stakes game of playing for foreign teams turned the sweet Brazilian sway into a swagger. To be sure, the vain swagger of "over-paid prima donnas," voted the most popular phrase uttered by sportscasters, according to the BBC.

With this, movement stiffened, the dance became awkward and its life was extinguished. No more coordinated companionship, no more communal joie, no more jogo bonito.

And as John Locke, the great monetary and social thinkers said: Our incomes are like our shoes; if too small, they gall and pinch us; but if too large, they cause us to stumble and to trip.

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About the Author

Marilia Duffles is a contributor to the Financial Times and the Economist. She has also written for the Globo, Brazil's leading newspaper.