Three Monkeys Online

A Curious, Alternative Magazine

Futebol – The Euro 2004 Championships from a Brazilian Perspective

Euro 2004 has, at last, begun, and has already thrown up a few surprises. Alex Bellos is the author of Futebol: The Brazilian Way of Life (Bloomsbury), and for five years, was the South America correspondent for The Guardian and The Observer. Mark Harkin spoke to him about the current football-fest.

Since the European Championships began on 12 June, we have already witnessed an unexpected defeat for the host nation and a Bayern Munich-style injury-time reverse for England. Sweden have impressed most in their demolition of Bulgaria, while the Netherlands and Germany have slugged out another round of their ongoing grudge match. No one can say that it isn't excellent entertainment, but just how accurate a barometer is it of the health of European football?

At club level, all the best players are contracted to teams in three leagues: Italy's Serie A, Spain's La Liga, and England's Premiership. I put it to Alex Bellos that tournaments such as Euro 2004 only serve to mask the concentration of power with a small coterie of clubs. He takes a different perspective, however:

'If Euro 2004 is a success, then I don't think it matters if it masks other problems. The problem would be if Euro 2004 was not a success – that would be much sadder for football. Games between national sides have a romance that those between clubs never do. As long as that continues, I think it's good for football.'

Top footballers have been well-paid across Europe since the 1960s, making the wealth and glamour part of the appeal of the dream for aspiring young players. Over the past decade, market conditions have enabled those in the top teams of the best leagues to earn sums that are beyond the imaginings of most football fans. Doesn't this require a suspension of disbelief for those in the stands who wish to identify with those on the field of play? Again, Bellos is quick to counter:

'A millionaire can represent the identity of someone who is poor, if the identity is based around nationality. It's the same identity, after all. The European Championship is not so much about “taking the game seriously”, whatever that might be, but is a great festival of entertainment.'

Few could argue against the entertainment level of the England-France encounter: a missed penalty in a game heading for a slender 1-0 victory took on a whole new significance in the wake of the collective blunders of Emile Heskey, Steven Gerrard and David James. France's injury-time turnaround was the greatest drama seen on a football pitch since the 1999 Champions League Final. This fixture featured some of the cream of the Premiership, a league which has become increasingly lucrative and attractive to continental players. Indeed, while the domestic league prospers in England, there seems a danger that the development of young English players is being disregarded by clubs willing to splash out on foreign talent. Bellos disagrees:

'I'm not sure. It works both ways. In Italy, they have great foreign players and it seems to have helped the country have a good national side. In Spain, it's vice versa. There are lots of other factors than money. The more interest the Premiership has, the better role models young kids have, and the more they want to play football. I'd say that the real problems for England are at school level: youth sport is not structured as well it is in other countries'.

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