Sunday, July 02, 2006

World Cup,, Motorsports, Brazil: A Wider World

In 2002, the day Brazil won the World Cup, a good number of elated Brazilians - including the consul- turned up at the Champ Car race held in Chicago that day. All of the Brazilian drivers, including one Tony Kanaan, shaved their heads Ronaldo-style, driving the Brazilians in the grandstands nuts. And to their delight, Cristiano DaMatta won the race. 4 years later, other Brazilian drivers gathered together at Tony Kanaan's motorhome in the infield of Kansas speedway to watch Brazil lose to France.
I am not the biggest Jeff Olson fan, partly because I am a die-hard Champ Car World Series fan, and he covers the Indy Racing League -whose very reason for being and leadership, I bitterly disagree with.
But this is a good piece, a meditation on the international nature of sports which many Americans don't seem to get, and which is really apparent to many of the Brazilian race car drivers in the US-based Indy Racing League, who ironically are invisible as well to the public at large.

A Wider World
Written by: Jeff Olson, RACER Magazine Kansas City, Kan. – 7/1/2006

Brazilians take their sports seriously... (LAT photo)

Tony Kanaan sees the coincidence of it. So does Helio Castroneves. Both are mesmerized by a sporting event that holds little interest in America. Meanwhile, they compete in a sporting event that holds little interest in America.

So, when Kanaan flew the green-and-gold flag of Brazil from his motorcoach Saturday afternoon from the infield of Kansas Speedway during Brazil's match against France in the World Cup, he could relate to Ronaldo and Ronaldinho and Robinho in a way only a Brazilian racer -- well-known in his homeland (but not as well-known as he'd like to be) -- could. After all, Americans take to the World Cup like fish take to air, and Kanaan has won championships and races in a country that, outside a small niche, doesn't know him from Kaka.

That same country didn't give a flying header what happened Saturday when all four Brazilian drivers in the IRL IndyCar Series gathered at Kanaan's bus to suffer through Brazil's surprising loss. In Brazil, soccer is king. In Kansas, soccer is played by kids whose moms don't want them to get hurt playing football. The kind that's played with a helmet and shoulder pads.

It's a disappointing irony that Brazilian racers understand all too well. In Brazil, life stopped Saturday. Here, life went on as if it was just another day. Kanaan and his match-watching guests weren't even be able to take the day off. They were barely finished debriefing with engineers following qualifying when the match began. Of course, just as Americans ignored the Brazil-France match, they ignored IRL qualifying at Kansas.
In Brazil, this week will be one of national mourning. Here, Americans will get lectured, as we do every four years, about the significance of soccer. We should be watching the World Cup, we're told. We're showing our ignorance, we're told. This is the most important sporting event in the world, we're told.

Still, we yawn and turn away.

Kanaan and Castroneves can relate. So can Vitor Meira and Felipe Giaffone and Thiago Medeiros and Jaime Camara and Raphael Matos. They understand and accept the differences between the country they left and the country in which they live now. Things are different here. Sometimes marvelously different, sometimes puzzlingly different. Some of the puzzle involves Americans' tendency to reject anything deemed foreign, a fact the Brazilian racers face daily.

"We're all different, yet we're all the same," Meira says. "The guy from Kentucky is different from the guy from Indianapolis; that's a barrier there, but they're both still North Americans. I'm still an American, but I'm from South America. It depends on how big the barrier is and what you want to transcend. There's always going to be a difference, but it's in our heads. I'm an American; Brazil is in America. It's not North America, but it's still America."

The differences between the countries are marked. The Brazilian economy is in shambles. One real is worth about 45 cents. Crime in larger cities is rampant. Gangs rule the ghettos of Sao Paulo and Rio. People of wealth step carefully, often not stopping at red lights for fear of carjacking. Yet it's also a country of great kindness and enthusiasm, a country of beauty and natural resources, a nation of diversity and great pride. The soccer team is Brazil's best export and best talking point, and the story plays well every four years. Everywhere but here, anyway.

Tony Kanaan - IRL (Photo: Darrell Ingham/Getty Images)

"When I first came here, nobody wanted to talk about soccer," Castroneves says. "Now people have some interest in it, but still nothing like it is around the world. I believe the popularity in it, and the reason why so many good players come from smaller countries, is because of economic issues. All you need is a ball. You don't even need shoes."
Indianapolis, like most American cities, is home to a significant population of Brazilians. Many are professionals who have left their careers and their country to come to the U.S. to work in convenience stores and restaurants. To most Americans, minimum wage is a joke. To a Brazilian, it's a fortune.

"Most people in my country have nothing, and I mean nothing," Kanaan says. "The old saying is they have to sell lunch just to buy dinner. Here, the economy is much better. This is the opportunity country. Brazilians are passionate about their team because they have nothing, and this is their opportunity to shine to the world."

In many ways, that's what makes the game we ignore so popular throughout the world. It's the one time countries put their pride and skill on display against others. Often, it's third-world against first-world. Just as often, third world is superior. In Brazil, Saturday's match was the Super Bowl, World Series, Christmas and New Year's all rolled into 90 minutes. Everything ceased until the end, and then the sadness began. Even in the infield at Kansas Speedway.

If the world were perfect, Americans wouldn't be so parochial and condescending -- not to mention cynical and bullying -- in our approach to those outside our borders. We might be open to new and different opinions and ideas. In a perfect world, we might be fascinated by that which we don't know or understand, instead of being fearful and rejecting.

That applies to racing, too. In a perfect world, open-wheel racing isn't discarded by Americans because its drivers come from all over the world. In a perfect world, Kanaan is a hero everywhere he goes. In a perfect world, Meira can't go out to dinner without being mobbed.

In a perfect world, Castroneves doesn't need a last name. He's just Helio.

Jeff Olson is a Senior Writer for RACER magazine. To learn more about RACER, click here for subscription information.