A new way to play the beautiful game

Can football be art? A show at the Southbank Centre aims to bring them together – and it works, says David Lister

One of the undoubted cultural highlights of this summer will be the three-month long festival of Brazilian culture at London's Southbank Centre. From samba to debates about gang culture, from the art of the drug-gang-controlled favelas to the mesmerising child drummers of AfroReggae and the acclaimed world music of Gilberto Gil and Maria Bethania.

But it is one of the opening events of the festival that particularly catches the eye. It is a show about football, not just about football but featuring football. Football in its most flowing, attacking, colourful and rhythmic style is synonymous with Brazil, of course. But this festival, under the artistic direction of the Southbank Centre's Jude Kelly, sees football not simply as sport, but as an art form.

Socrates, captain of the national side in the Eighties and a writer and social activist, will be talking about the beauty of the game with one of the country's leading composers, an event that makes one try to imagine John Terry or Rio Ferdinand chatting to Harrison Birtwistle at a British arts festival abroad. But more striking than a talk by Socrates is a show called Brazil! Brazil! that will be running for a month from 9 June in the Udderbelly space at the Southbank Centre. This show, opening just before the main festival, combines under the broad headings of dance and performance the music and movement of carnival, martial arts and the skills of street football. More technically, the latter is properly described as freestyle football.

I travelled with Jude Kelly to Brazil when she took a final look at some of the artists that would be appearing at the festival, and one of the real treats was to see some of the freestyle footballers who will be coming over. Their control, juggling and acrobatics with the ball conveyed both passion and romance, and though it may not have the poetry and narrative of dance, it certainly has technique and flair. As its practitioners made clear, freestyle football is not football. You can be an ace freestyler but a lousy team player, a brilliant footballer but a hopeless freestyler.

The British impresario Toby Gough, who is producing the Brazil! Brazil! show and has recruited its stars from Rio, Sao Paolo and Salvador, says: "The show will help us understand how Brazilian football is characterised by much swing and is infused with various rhythms and choreographies." It will also try to explain the secrets of Ginga, the sway of the great Brazilian footballers. Gough adds: "You can see Ginga in the way every Brazilian walks, talks, dances samba, and the way they play the game of football. More pertinently, Ronaldinho, one of the best-known Brazilian players, describes it thus: "Ginga flows with rhythm. It comes into football with dribbles, with changes of movements so you go on developing a different ginga. Everybody's got a different way to dance; dancing ginga you develop with time."

The performance will aim to prove that it's a small, if accomplished, step from the football field to the dance floor. But is sport, even at its most beautiful, art? If so, should not the spin bowling of Shane Warne or the backhand slice of Roger Federer be immortalised in an arts festival?

I'm inclined to side with the Southbank's view that the shared cultural history of Brazilian football and Brazilian dance sets it apart, if only because its practitioners and aficionados see something beyond skill and movement – something that takes it into the realms of the mystical and the territory of an artistic performance.

Perhaps it is best summed up by Gilberto Gil, not just an international world music star but a former Brazilian minister of culture. He says simply: "Every Brazilian understands the ball's soul."



Festival Brazil, sponsored by HSBC, Southbank Centre, London SE1 (0844 875 0073; Southbankcentre.co.uk/brazil), 19 June to 5 September

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