A Malaysian book best sums it up. In his autobiography I, KKK, celebrated historian the late Emeritus Prof Tan Sri Khoo Kay Kim writes at length about his love for football, which he used to play. Suddenly, as I read the book, the following sentences stood out: “It was also a revelation to me first watching the World Cup-winning Brazilian team of 1958. Never had I seen football played that way […]. The World Cup opened up the world to me […] Brazil, till then, was to me a country I had simply heard of in geography classes.”
That is possibly the most wonderful effect of any World Cup, the sense that we’ve become closer to countries we maybe knew little about until then, just by watching them play what is certainly the most popular of all sports. Brazil is the only country that has participated in every single World Cup since the inception of the quadrennial men’s championship in 1930. It is also the country that has won the tournament the most times, five in all: in 1958, 1962, 1970, 1994 and 2002.
It hasn’t always been a glorious journey for Brazil. On the one hand, the astounding defeat to Germany, 7-1 in the semifinals in 2014, in Belo Horizonte, when we were hosting the tournament, is probably never going to be forgotten. On the other hand, other matches lost by Brazil are taken as a reminder that sports events can be capricious. Malaysian friends often tell me that the Brazilian team of 1982, in Spain, was the best group that we’ve had in a World Cup, even though we were eliminated by Italy.
In Brazil, football has played an important role in the making of our national identity, having served as a source of collective identification for the Brazilian population, which consists of 214 million people scattered in a territory that is bigger than Europe — all the countries of the European Union could fit inside Brazil’s borders twice over. From the Iguaçu Falls in the south, to the Amazon region in the north of the country, a distance of more than 2,500km from each other, all Brazilians know the colours of the Brazilian national football team, nicknamed “Seleção Canarinho”, the “canary yellow team”, and cheer for the Seleção during the Fifa World Cups.
Brazilian football is indeed the stuff of legend. Did the fact that Pelé and his team, Santos FC, playing in Nigeria in 1969 really help promote a ceasefire in the civil war in that country? We may never know for sure. However, Santos was then one of the best clubs in the world and Brazil was already the face of the “beautiful game”. On the day of the match between Santos and the Nigerian national team, it is said, hostilities ceased so that everyone could enjoy watching “King” Pelé play. True or not, the story sounds credible because it was Pelé and Santos FC on the field.
On Aug 18, 2004, in Port-au-Prince, around 15,000 people — the maximum capacity of the stadium — watched Ronaldo, Ronaldinho Gaúcho and Roberto Carlos play the Haiti national team. That match became officially known as “the game for peace”. The main objective behind the Brazilian government’s initiative in promoting the game was to start a disarmament campaign and help restore peace in Haiti, with tickets for the match being offered in exchange for weapons. Port-au-Prince stopped to watch the game, and Haitians cheered with every goal scored by Brazil.
The Malaysian and Brazilian national football teams also share a bit of history. In the later part of May 2002, on the way to South Korea and Japan for the Fifa World Cup, the Seleção spent one week in Kuala Lumpur practising and going through important tactical exercises and physical training sessions. Before they left, the Seleção played a friendly match against the Malaysian national team. On May 25, 2002, Ronaldo, Ronaldinho, Rivaldo, Cafu, Roberto Carlos and Kaká — the same squad that would days later enchant the world and end up winning the World Cup — played at Bukit Jalil National Stadium. It was an important match that helped the Brazilian players gain the confidence and fine-tuning they needed to awe the football world. The 2002 World Cup victory, the fifth and, so far, last won by the Seleção, crowned a winning generation that inspired spectators with their beautiful playing and stunning goals.
It is in part thanks to the impact the Brazilian Seleção had in Malaysia during that week in 2002 that, up to this day, many Malaysians cheer for Brazil during the World Cup. In Malaysia, the image of the “beautiful game” is often associated with Brazil. Maybe that is the reason today, more than 10 Brazilian footballers play in the Malaysian Super League.
I hope Brazil plays well in 2022 at the World Cup in Doha. We have a particularly strong team this year, not so dependent, as in the recent past, on one or two specific talents. Win or lose, I am sure the Seleção will bring a lot of excitement and inspiration to Malaysian football fans.
Malaysia, so far, has not participated in a World Cup, but I sense that its players will also, one day, move worldwide crowds and create miracles on the field.
Ary Norton de Murat Quintella is the ambassador of Brazil to Malaysia
This article first appeared on Nov 21, 2022 in The Edge Malaysia.