Racism repeats itself in the history of Brazilian football

Non-whites had to fight hard for inclusion in Brazilian soccer. Now they could be losing out again.


The hordes of schoolchildren that crowd into São Paulo’s wildly popular Football Museum make for an often noisy cultural experience. But even they settle down to a quietened hush on entering the darkened “Hall of Baroque Angels”.

Here to the slow beat of a surdo drum black-and-white images of Brazilian football legends in action illuminate giant glass screens suspended from the ceiling. This being Brazil, most are identified by just one name and what a roll-call of talent it is - Garrincha, Tostão, Sócrates, Zico, Romário, Rivaldo, Ronaldo and – of course – Pelé.

So intimately is Brazil’s national self-image tied up with football that this shrine underneath the terracing of the city’s stunning art deco Pacaembu Stadium is the country’s true pantheon of national heroes, of far more meaning to the young faces staring up into the gloom than the dead politicians and soldiers commemorated in the official pantheon in the capital, Brasília. During the 20th century, football became a global cultural phenomenon but nowhere else did it assume such a vital role in creating a national identity as it did in Brazil.

The reasons why are brilliantly explained in the rest of the museum. It started with the arrival of Scots-Brazilian Charles Miller at the port of Santos in 1894 with two footballs in his luggage. He landed in a country where slavery had only been abolished six years before. An enormous social chasm divided the white haves from the black and brown have-nots and the country’s elite feared its “mulatto” heritage would doom it to eternal backwardness unless they could import white immigrants from Europe.

Amazingly it was football that would play a central role in changing such racist perceptions.

The new game Miller brought with him quickly became a craze in São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro. But at first this most democratic of sports was played only by foreigners and wealthy whites. “When football first arrived it was a sport for the elite, played in elegant clubs in fine clothing. In a mixed race country like Brazil blacks could not play. Workers could not attend the games, which were played in exclusive clubs. It was an elite thing,” says Luiz Bloch, director of the Football Museum.

But such was the passion for the new sport that these racial and social barriers were first scaled and eventually pulled down. Seeking a competitive edge, clubs began to field talented black players. Teams were formed with the aim of attracting working class fans of the game. So soon after the end of slavery football was one of the motors of Brazil’s first tentative efforts at racial and social inclusion. “Within 30 years it had become the most popular sport in the country and had entered deeply into Brazilian culture,” says Bloch.

As the game grew in popularity the country’s intelligentsia, led by the sociologist Gilberto Freyre, embraced it as proof that rather than an embarrassment the country’s mixed race heritage should be seen as a source of strength and creativity. For Freyre and others it was Brazil’s African heritage – such as the elusive, swaying ginga moves imported into football from the slaves’ martial art of capoeira – that allowed Brazilian players to soften the rather functional game played in Europe into o jogo bonito – the beautiful game – where improvisation, trickery and spontaneity were as highly prized as earnest European endeavour. Football had become a central component in the new myth of Brazilian racial democracy.

Grabbing onto this myth in the 1930s Brazil’s dictator Getúlio Vargas proved a populist innovator by using football as a mobilising force for his vision of a modern tropical society no longer ashamed of its mixed race population. With a new generation of stadiums providing the stage, the sport was now to be one of the means by which this vast former slave colony would announce its arrival as a modern nation state.

The clearest expression of such efforts was the staging of its first World Cup in 1950. The tournament was to be Brazil’s coming out on the international stage, symbolised by the building of the stunning modernist masterpiece that was the original Maracanã stadium in Rio. Here the black, white and brown players of the seleção would confirm Brazil’s arrival as a global force with victory in front of 200,000 adoring fans. Unfortunately, sport notoriously intervened, Brazil losing the final game to tiny, unfancied Uruguay in a national humiliation that is known to this day as the Maracanazo (roughly, the Maracanã Blow). The defeat reawakened old fault-lines in Brazilian society. The team’s black members were singled out for unjustifiable blame.

It was only the arrival of a new generation of players – among them two of the greatest exponents of the sport in Garrincha and Pelé – that finally allowed Brazil to win a World Cup in 1958 and kick what the country’s famous playwright and football writer Nelson Rodrigues identified as the its “mongrel complex”. The mixed race nation had conquered the world.

It is now that Brazil’s complete identification with football was sealed both at home and abroad. The giant country might have been a minnow of the world’s political stage. But on the football pitch it could boast it was a superpower, and thanks to its exuberant style of play a much-loved one at that. Another World Cup win followed in 1962, football’s contribution to the bossa nova years when the economy grew rapidly and Brazilians experienced a surge of self-confidence about the future.

This mood reached its peak in the glorious Technicolor of 1970 when the world was enthralled as perhaps the greatest team of them all provided the perfect blend of the effective and the aesthetic in Mexico to become the first country to win Jules Rimet trophy three times.

But in retrospect the Mexican moment was a peak to which Brazil has never returned. The country’s mood darkened. The bossa nova years had come to an end in military dictatorship. By the 1980s the economy had hit the skids. The jogo bonito was left behind by an increasingly physical game and tactical developments elsewhere, a reality cruelly brought home by the defeats of two supremely talented teams – boasting such exponents of futebol-arte as Sócrates, Zico and Falcão – at the 1982 and 1986 World Cups. The altogether more functional sides that won the country its fourth and fifth world titles in 1994 and 2002 might have their compatriots’ respect and gratitude, but little of the love that still burns strong for the 1970 and 1982 vintage.

Now, as the World Cup returns to Brazil after 64 years, the game is exposing the darker reality behind the jogo bonito clichés of an easygoing tropical paradise. “The real price of making football the avatar of the nation is that the game’s deep connections to Brazil’s social structures, economic institutions and political processes are now laid bare,” says David Goldblatt, author of Futebol Nation, a remarkable new history of modern Brazil told through the lens of the game. “For the most part these connections have made much less edifying viewing for Brazilians and foreigners alike, than the game itself.”

Preparations for the tournament have exposed the corruption rife among Brazil’s football authorities and their facilitators in a political class eager to be associated with the game. Rather than sell a confident Brazil abroad the failure of politicians to prepare properly to host the world’s biggest sporting party has resurrected doubts about the country’s ability to compete on the world stage.

Ricardo Teixeira, the former boss of the country’s football confederation, whose lies about a flood of private investment refurbishing the country’s dilapidated stadiums were the basis for Brazil’s successful bid to host the tournament, was forced into exile as prosecutors closed in on his dubious fortune. Even so, taxpayers have been left on the hook.

Meanwhile, exposing the reality behind the myth of Brazil’s racial democracy, racism remains an insidious presence within Brazilian clubs. Employment conditions are so poor for the majority of players that they have formed a union and threatened strike action. And violence has left more than 200 fans dead over the last quarter of a century. The jogo bonito it is not.

In fact the domestic game in the self-styled país do futebol – country of football – is in decline. Despite more money as a result of recent economic growth the best players still leave early in their careers for more lucrative contracts abroad. Deprived of the country’s best talent average attendances at league games in the top flight are now far below that in neighbouring Argentina, a country with just a fifth of Brazil’s population. “I think Brazil as the country of football is now an empty slogan. It no longer fits. Argentina has a better claim to be the ‘country of football’ than Brazil. Their crowds are bigger and you have a greater identification between residents of provincial towns and their local teams. In Brazil with each decade there is greater distance between fans and players. Now you don’t even know who the players in the national team are as they leave for Europe so young,” says Cláudio Norrland, a Brazilian writer who spent five years researching fans at over 100 of the continent’s clubs for his football novel Insuficiências.

The World Cup, with its new stadiums, signals the start of a desperately needed make-over for the domestic game. But several have been built in cities with little footballing tradition, meaning they are certain to be white elephants. Others will place severe debt burdens on the clubs using them. As a result ticket prices are rising in order to repay the hefty price of the new grounds, threatening to exclude poorer Brazilians.

“Football started as a thing of the elite in Brazil,” remembers Football Museum director Bloch. “Then it became accessible and hugely popular. Now it is beginning to become expensive again with these new stadiums. I do not know if this is a good thing. I don’t know if this imported model is going to thrive here.”

Even should Brazil lift the World Cup for a sixth time in the Maracanã on July 13th the future of the game in the país do futebol remains troubled.

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