What is it about South American leaders and public gifts to President Obama? In April, we were treated to the spectacle of Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez giving a copy of Eduardo Galeano’s Open Veins to the U.S. President at the Summit of the Americas in Trinidad—a disingenuous publicity stunt that backfired and stole the headlines from other, more substantive and important issues. And now we have Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva at the G8 summit in Italy giving Obama a soccer jersey signed by all the members of the Brazilian national soccer team.
Now, as a soccer head myself, I can think of no better gift to receive from the Brazilian President than a signed jersey. I certainly hope that it is displayed properly in the White House, and even though there is no record of the First Family having any particular interest in or affinity to soccer, nonetheless this is quite a cool gift. No complaints there. Except one. It was barely a week ago that the United States and Brazil played the championship game of the Confederations Cup in South Africa, the 2010 World Cup host. This was the first time in history that the United States men’s soccer team made it to the final of an extra-regional international soccer tournament. For Brazil, this was old hat, a big yawn, which paled in comparison to their five (yes, five) World Cup Championships. But for the upstart Americans, this was a big deal.
After losing the first two games of the tournament by a combined score of 1-6, the United States was required to defeat Egypt by three goals AND to have Italy lose by three to Brazil to advance to the knock-out round. No chance; this was an impossibly high hurdle to clear. Except that they did. This then put the United States in a semi-final game against the world’s reigning number one, Spain, a team that was also the reigning European Champion—riding an international record of 15 straight victories—and had matched Brazil’s record unbeaten streak of 35 games. Nobody predicted that the United States could actually win, which, amazingly, they did, 2-0. Thus landing the big-time underdog Americans in a rematch against mighty Brazil for the final game, a team that had decisively won the teams’ first meeting during the tournament by a 3-0 score.
Everyone remembers what came next. By halftime of the championship, the United States was up 2-0, and smelling colossal upset. The Brazilians were back on their heels, clearly not expecting to be behind, much less by two goals. Although they had enjoyed most of the run of play, the Brazilians had failed to unlock the U.S. defense.
After halftime, all that changed. An early goal by Brazil began what seemed like an inevitable march to ultimate victory, a 3-2 decision which deflated the U.S. soccer world even as, in our heart of hearts, we knew that no lead is safe with Brazil on the field.
This brings me back to President Lula’s gift. In isolation, the gift is fabulous, and any true soccer fan would love to have it. At the same time, in context, it does have a whiff of triumphalism to it, a bit of salt in the wound, as they say. It won’t impact the bilateral relationship and it will be but a footnote of the meeting in Italy, but it’s different than having the NCAA champions present a jersey to the President in the Rose Garden. After all, his country defeated ours. Sometimes, winning graciously is just as important as losing gracefully.
*Eric Farnsworth is a contributing blogger to americasquarterly.org. He is Vice President of the Council of the Americas in Washington DC.