Gemmill's goal kick started love affair

THE World Cup starts today in South Africa, with Brazil among the favourites to win it. SIMON YAFFE speaks to a British author who combines his love of the South American country with a fascination for mathematics

IT all started with perhaps the most famous goal in Scottish football history.

The little midfield maestro Archie Gemmill whizzed his way through the Holland defence and past goalkeeper Jan Jongbloed in the 1978 World Cup in Argentina.

"That was the first time I was aware of South America," Edinburgh-raised author Alex Bellos told the Jewish Telegraph.

Alex's fascination with the continent - and Brazil, in particular - led him to moving to Rio de Janeiro for five years.

He subsequently wrote the sublime Futebol: A Brazilian Way of Life in 2002 to critical worldwide acclaim.

"There was an emerging market for a book on the culture of football," he said. "David Winner had written Brilliant Orange, which incorporated the story of Dutch football with the country's traditions and history.

"Publishers Bloomsbury suggested to me that I write something like that, but I was not keen at first.

"I wasn't a sportswriter and I could not tell you who scored the winning goal in the 1973 FA Cup final.

"And, thankfully, Bloomsbury thought along the same line as me.

"Football affects so much in society, especially in a country like Brazil. I began to think it could work and agreed to do it."

Brazilian football legends Pelé, Tostão, Ronaldo, Rivelino, Zico, Carlos Alberto, Roberto Carlos, Romário and Socrates were all interviewed.

But Alex, of London, also met the native Indians of the Amazon and even went to the Faroe Islands, where he met Brazilian footballers plying their trade on the freezing islands located between the Norwegian Sea and the North Atlantic Ocean.

"I was surprised at the praise I received - particularly as I had been worried about the territorialness of football journalists," he recalled.

Alex also met Alcides Ghiggia, the last surviving member of Uruguay's victorious 1950 World Cup-winning side who beat Brazil.

And he found it particularly easy to track down all the big names.

Alex, a self-confessed Brazilianista, said: "Everyone wanted to help me. I only had to phone up a journalist at O Globo (a Brazilian newspaper), ask him for Romário's number and he would give it me. It is not like that in Europe."

Born in Oxford, the son of a Hungarian-born French mother, Ilona, and a British father of Ukrainian descent, David, he believes his surname was changed from an unpronounceable Russian surname.

Sister Viv is a classical singer, choir trainer, voice teacher and director of music at the North Western Reform Synagogue in Golders Green.

Alex spent 10 years in Edinburgh before moving to Southampton with his family when he was 17.

He went on to read mathematics and philosophy at Oxford University.

Alex said: "I chose my football team, Heart of Midlothian, when I was six and living in Edinburgh, but I don't really follow them anymore.

"Scottish football is a bit rubbish to be honest, although I do have an emotional bond with Hearts.

"I loved watching Scotland though and they had a great set of players at the 1978 World Cup - people like Gemmill, Kenny Dalglish, Graeme Souness and Joe Jordan.

"I guess I was indoctrinated after their World Cup adventure."

However, he does not think Brazil will do too well in the 2010 World Cup.

"I just have a hunch about it," Alex said. "They are in a difficult group and, as they are going to host the next World Cup in 2014, I think they will be slightly distracted by that.

"They may feel it will be more important to win it on home soil."

Despite his years north of the border, Alex has a distinct received pronunciation accent, although he reckons there is a light Scottish accent there.

After learning his trade as a trainee reporter at the Evening Argus in Brighton, Alex moved on to The Guardian when he suggested to the paper's bosses that he move to South America to become a foreign correspondent.

He recalled: "They said we can support you, but they could not guarantee a job for me when I returned."

But, in 1998, he headed to Rio de Janeiro, moved in with a friend of a friend and started work.

Alex explained: "The internet was exploding everywhere, we had email and it was really good fun."

Rio is seen as being a city of carnivals and hedonism, but Alex said it is a serious working city.

He headed to language school to learn Portuguese.

Alex added: "Working as a journalist is a great way to get to know a country, but, obviously, there are major differences between Brazilian and British culture.

"I am quintessentially British in that I am punctual and timekeeping doesn't exist in Brazil.

"I thought I would be there for six months, not four years, and sometimes it was a bit lonely, but it is a fascinating place full of lovely, helpful people."

Alex never encountered any antisemitism in Brazil and revealed that there is no problem between Jews and Arabs.

He recalled: "There is a huge Lebanese presence in Brazil and in Rio there is a market known as the Sahara.

"It is full of Jewish and Arab traders working side-by-side and they all get on brilliantly.

"If only they could get on like that in the Middle East, a lot of problems would be solved."

Thanks to the success of Futebol, he ghost-wrote Pelé's autobiography in 2006 and explained that the legend is more revered outside Brazil.

"It is similar to Sir Paul McCartney - I think he is more idolised outside the UK," he said.

The keen mathematician has made a major change of topic for his latest book.

Alex's Adventures in Numberland aims to attract readers with no maths knowledge and show them how fascinating and rewarding the subject can be.

Alex said: "I realised that my approach to writing both books was more or less identical.

"I immersed myself in Brazilian culture for Futebol and for Numberland I immersed myself in maths culture and spent a year travelling the world discovering stories and finding illuminating characters.

"I was good at maths from an early age, but was never that interested in the application of it, I was more interested in the meaning behind the subject.

"As a journalist I have a curious nature."

The book is not just about maths: it embraces many related subjects, such as neuroscience, cognitive psychology, anthropology, religion and philosophy.

And he travelled to Japan, India, Germany, France and America interviewing interesting people from the world of maths.

But the book has had its name changed in America to Here's Looking at You Euclid in homage to the ancient Greek mathematician considered to be the father of geometry.

Alex said: "I thought the Americans would not like the title, but it turned out they loved it.

"Euclid is taught better in schools in America and there is even a Euclid subway station in New York.

"If I had kept the original title in America, everyone would be saying 'who the heck is Alex?' ".

He added: "Maths is a fascinating subject. I am not a teacher, though, and everybody will have a different level."

© 2010 Jewish Telegraph