Luiz Costa-Lima
Volume 6.2
Casper / Reed
Costa Lima
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Inter-relations: Brazilian soccer and society

1894 is usually mentioned as the year in which soccer was introduced into Brazil. Although previous occasions are registered on which matches were performed, it is indisputable that this is the year in which Charles Miller, Brazilian born with an English father, came back from Southampton, where he had studied, and began practicing this sport, organizing matches among the English and Brazilians in São Paulo and thus increasing its popularity. The date, however, is merely a fact. A fact is a contingency whose meaning depends on a net of coordinates that the analyst must assemble, with which its interpretation begins. To give this date meaning we need to consider where, i.e., in which society, the fact was accomplished. In order to do so, two perspectives must be established: synchronic and diachronic. The examination of the synchronic perspective here will be more involved, because understanding it will allow us to spare time and words on the second perspective.

Synchronic Perspective
Since the publication of the most important source on the history of Brazilian soccer, Mário Filho's O Negro no futebol brasileiro in 1947, the initial phase of soccer in Brazil has been characterized as a practice confined to the descendants of upper-class native families and well-established foreigners, usually Englishmen. Social discrimination against common and colored people pertained, so to speak, to the order of things. Soccer was practiced in private clubs—first at the São Paulo Athletic Club (1888), and subsequently at the Associação Atlética Mackenzie College (1898), Sport Club Internacional (1899), Sport Club Germânia (1899) and Club Atlético Paulistano (1900)—whose associates were recruited exclusively from the ranks of high society.
1  Since Brazilian society officially ignored racial discrimination, colored people were not necessarily banned from playing soccer. Rather, the initial predominance of white players in Brazilian soccer stemmed from social criteria. For this reason it is legitimate to speak of "social whiteness," a phenomenon dictating that people, independent of their skin color and thanks to their privileged socio-economic position, are well received by society. As Mário Filho has pointed out: "If a player like Joaquim Pedro, Paulistano left-winger (as the position was then known), a black man, from the black branch of the Prado family, was transferred to Rio, he would be very well received in an elite club like Fluminense. Joaquim Pedro was a colored man but he belonged to a distinguished family; he was a rich man and he frequented the best circles."2  As this example shows, skin color was no hindrance if the player had a privileged socio-economic position. More sophisticated, or perhaps more hypocritical than American racial discrimination, Brazilian discrimination can be suspected or discovered only if one notices that the great majority of Brazilian colored people occupied (and continue to occupy) low-status jobs. "Colored people prevail or stand out in jobs like those of shoe polisher, carrier, cleaning personnel, night watchman, streetcar conductor, kitchen personnel, lower grade railroad employees and similar activities, which are either badly paid or have a low profile of social prestige."3 

But soon the white person's privilege began to dissolve in a fortuitous and surprising way. In 1904, technicians and section directors of a textile industry, Companhia Progresso Industrial do Brasil, founded The Bangu Athletic Club. Whether the number of founders was not enough to compose two teams, or, as is suggested by Rosenfeld, the directors of the plant knew that "the English textile producers in Russia had promoted soccer among their workers to stimulate their willingness to work and their esprit de corps,"4   the truth is that Bangu became the first Brazilian soccer club to have working-class players. Indeed colored players did not threaten the privilege of white players: "The worker, white or black, who played with the masters, did not either rise or climb down in the industry; he would stay where he was."5  The Bangu example opened a rift that in the short term would change the history of Brazilian soccer. Even by its geographical location—the plant and worker's village were built very far from the city of Rio and far away from the private high-schools attended by wealthy students—The Bangu Athletic Club stimulated the admittance of colored men to the sport. Although soccer did not promise its players a profession, we can see from the Bangu example, which was almost immediately followed by other worker's clubs (Andaraí, Carioca), that it assured them lighter work and some privileges: "The player-worker, on the day of training, would receive a ticket with which he could leave the plant earlier without losing the day's pay."6  So the closed clubs, whose associates belonged to the upper- and middle-classes, came to lose their exclusivity in soccer, as clubs spread out along the plains (the so-called campos de várzea), where the players manufactured the soccer-ball itself. From then on the difference between the big and small clubs was established. The former—in the Rio of that time, Flumi-nense, Botafogo, and Flamengo—continued to have socially white players as athletes. The latter comprised the clubs of the suburbs, formed in the north zone of Rio. During the first decade of this century soccer was already becoming a popular sport and received some good coverage in the newspapers. Its popularization, however, did not threaten the great clubs. "Fluminense and Botafogo did not find a menace in soccer's popularization. The most expensive seats were separated from the terraces. Everything was separated. It was not enough to play soccer to get into a club such as Fluminense or Botafogo. It was necessary to belong to a good family."7  Neither of these clubs saw soccer as their favorite sport. On the contrary, they preferred rowing. Rowing was not only the favorite sport of the high classes but represented the ideal of the athletic body. The most celebrated poet of the beginning of the century concluded a 1919 newspaper article with this exclamatory statement: "Boys! It was with muscles like these the naval battle of Salamis was won!" 8  The comparison was not an accidental one: educated in European schools, with their eyes fixed on Europe, the Brazilian élite at the beginning of the century adopted the classical Greek form as its model of bodily identity. The connection was not unusual.9   Symptomatically, and contrary to eighteenth-century Germany, the Greek pattern had no intellectual consequence; in other words, it did not provoke a deeper interest in Greek philosophical, poetic or artistic sources. It established itself exclusively in bodily terms and it concentrated on the training of the body. The muscular and well-proportioned body of the rower was seen as the ideal of perfect masculinity.

Now, from this point of view, soccer did not rise to this kind of ideal and enthusiasm, being noted rather, as Rosenfeld has well observed, for its "decorative dance of smart tricks, shrewd maneuvers and clever stratagems."10  When soccer overcame rowing in popularity, representation of an opposite ideal of the athletic body threatened white supremacy, as embodied by the great clubs, which made use of stricter measures to defend their privileges. The Liga metropolitana, which then directed soccer in Rio, prescribed that players be able to read and write, as well as to provide proof of employment in some legal business. The second measure stemmed from clandestine professionalism: to maintain colored and poor men as players, the clubs that tolerated them offered their athletes modest benefits, such as help with transportation, small sums of money for victories and, above all, fake jobs. From the point of view of white players these benefits were either dispensable, or proudly refused. However, the clubs that relied on poor athletes needed somehow to provide for them. This explains the growth of a younger club in Rio: Vasco da Gama. Without belonging to the circle of the great clubs, Vasco was founded and supported by the Portuguese colony of Rio de Janeiro. Owners of the majority of businesses at the beginning of the century, the Portuguese registered the soccer players as fake employees in their grocery stores, shops, and plants, releasing them for training at Vasco.11  The policy adopted by Vasco da Gama was so successful that the club won the Rio championship in the first year it competed. The following year, the Associação metropolitana de esportes amadores (Metropolitan association of amateur sports) was founded. One of its first measures was to exclude Vasco from the championship under the claim that the club did not have its own stadium. Only in 1926, thanks to the Portuguese colony, Vasco overcame the prohibition by finishing the construction of its stadium. In the same year, however, another small club, São Cristovão, became soccer champion of Rio.

Against the loss of their previous exclusivity, the great clubs clung to a last argument: to fight against professionalism in soccer. Notwithstanding the rise of the small clubs, amateurism endured as a rule through the last years of the twenties. Amateurism, however, was threatened by the eagerness of Italian clubs—stimulated by Mussolini's policy—to contract South American players. To be hired by an Italian club, it was necessary that the player be white and prove his Italian descendancy. For this reason, the threat was immediately felt more by Argentinean and Uruguayan clubs than by Brazilian clubs; and within Brazil, more by São Paulo than by Rio clubs. But the requirements were not enough to prevent many Brazilian players, forging Italian family names, from departing for Italy. For instance, on August 8, 1931, the official pamphlet of the Italian Olympic National Committee published interviews with recently hired Brazilian players. The phrase that is quoted and stressed by Mário Filho is quite symptomatic: "We are Italian-Brazilians, we are Italians."12   The fragile identity of being Brazilian is revealed mostly by white players. This detail deserves our attention. Once again in 1931, coming back from a tour of Europe, Vasco da Gama returned without two of their black players who were hired by Barcelona. Both however, probably due to the social discrimination they suffered, refused Spanish citizenship. A similar case with our "Italians" is not known.

Only in 1933 was the great clubs' resistance overcome and professionalism officially introduced into Brazilian soccer. This does not mean that white resistance was defeated outright. It survived intensely up to 1938 when, for the first time, the Brazilian team received international recognition, winning third place in the French World Cup. Even later, during the fifties, there was a revival of racial discrimination as a consequence of the famous defeat of Brazil by Uruguay in the Brazilian World Cup (1950).13 

Thanks to soccer, throughout the twenties and thirties, colored men achieved a form of social ascension in Brazil that the country had formerly denied them. One must not forget that Brazil was the last Western country to abolish slavery, which was extinguished less than a decade before soccer's introduction. But one must not overestimate this social ascension. "It would be a mistake to think that a soccer player as such, as a consequence of his prestige as a first rate athlete, got proportional social recognition."14   Soccer is a representative microcosm of Brazilian society because of the peculiar form of racism that predominates there. Brazil did not know an ideological justification for racism. One can even agree with Gilberto Freyre that, among us, slavery was less cruel than in other European colonies. But this trait only means that discrimination was more subtle and, thus, more difficult to locate and eradicate. It seems to me that discrimination in Brazil shows two aspects.  In the first, it has an outstanding social character—that is to say color, by itself, is not a sufficient criterion for prohibiting access to places, for exercising professional activities or for obtaining status; one may even add that colored men just "coincide" with the marginal masses. As the history of soccer demonstrates, the ideal of whiteness becomes evident only when the black or mulatto threatens the privileges of what I have called "socially white" men.

The second aspect is more difficult to understand. We will try to do so by introducing what we described at the beginning of this paper as the diachronic perspective.

Diachronic Perspective
Up to 1808, when Brazil gave refuge to the Portuguese king, Dom João VI, escaping from the Napoleonic invasion of his country, natives were forbidden from developing their own commercial and industrial activities. Furthermore, contrary to what happened in the Spanish colonies, the country was not allowed to have universities. Notwithstanding the transmigration and residence of the Portuguese court for thirteen years, which brought material progress to the colony, its presence was not meaningful from the viewpoint of economic rationality. As is observed by the best historian of the period:

    No money was enough (for the administration). When the king left the country in April 1821, liquid assets for assembling the fleet did not exist. Although the court agents had gathered all the money from the exchequer, as well as diamonds, and had collected the funds kept by the hospice of charity and orphans, it was necessary for the viscount of Rio Seco to furnish the money for absolutely indispensable expenses.15 

How can this economic chaos be explained? A decisive factor seems to be contained in the advice that would have been given by the French Talleyrand to Portuguese diplomats during the Vienna Congress. According to the documents commented on by Oliveira Lima, the famous French politician would have advised the Portuguese court to stay in Brazil as long as possible to avoid "the unsettling that provoked in Europe the revolution in English America."16  This means that in the period between the transmigration and its independence in 1822, Brazil was governed in a way that favored European equilibrium, without consideration for its own internal resources. At the same time that the elite fixed its gaze on Europe and forged its own identity by internalizing European customs and values, the majority of people considered political and state affairs as exclusively proper to "white men," i.e., these issues were not subjects of their concern. In both cases then, for the elite and for the people, a fragile identity was established, a distrust in oneself, a need to find an external support for one's own values and beliefs. It is my hypothesis that this mistrust of oneself has a major role in the peculiar Brazilian behavior: if occasionally it discriminates against the colored man in so far as he is a competitor for the best positions, normally it is nurtured by the suspicion that the native in general is a second-rate citizen.

Today, now that Brazil has become the world soccer champion four times, the soccer player himself seems free from this mistrust. Since 1958, when Brazil won its first World Cup, racism in soccer has become completely meaningless. But, according to my hypothesis, racism is only a small part of a deeper problem: the problem of a fragile identity. For that reason I believe that soccer victories will only be well understood when the meaning of this conquest is largely considered.

Luiz Costa-Lima



(1)  J. L. Werneck and J. Máximo, "Futebol," Enciclopédia Mirador Internacional, vol. 10 (São Paulo-Rio de Janeiro: Encyclopedia Britannica do Brasil, 1975) 5036.

(2)  Mário Filho, O Negro no futebol brasileiro, 1947, 3rd ed. (Petrópolis: Editora Firmo, 1994) 15.

(3) A. Rosenfeld, "A Situação das pessoas de cor no Brasil," 1954, Negro, macumba e futebol (São Paulo: Editora Perspectiva, 1993) 22. Originally published in German.

(4) A. Rosenfeld, "O Futebol no Brasil," 1956, Negro, macumba, e futebol 82. Originally published in German.

(5) Filho 11.

(6) Filho 82.

(7)  Filho 37–38.

(8) Filho 33.

(9) In a short 1877 article, Henry James noticed that "it [rowing] is the thing in the modern world which gives one most of a hint of what the Olympic games may have been." Henry James, "The Oxford-Cambridge boat-race," 1877, Great Britain: uncollected travel writing, included in Collected travel writings: Great Britain and America (New York: The Library of America, 1993) 273.

(10) Rosenfeld, "O Futebol" 100.

(11) J. S. Leite Lopes, "A Vitória do futebol que incorporou a pelada," RevistaUSP 22 (April-October 1994): 69.

(12) Filho 247.

(13)  Lopes 79.

(14)  Rosenfeld, "O Futebol" 104.

(15)  O. Lima, Dom João VI no Brazil, 1908, 3rd ed., 3 vols. (Rio de Janeiro: J. Olympio, 1945) II/786.

(16) Lima II/544.

© 1998 Stanford Humanities Review unless otherwise noted.