Understanding tragedy: Brazil and the 1950 World Cup: Part 1

3 Jun

Afro-Brazilians have played a crucial role in the formation of a distinctly Brazilian style of futebol (soccer). When we think of Brazil’s team today we immediately think of a number of Afro-Brazilian stars such as Pele, Leonidas da Silva, and Ronaldinho. The overwhelming praise that they have received at home and abroad cleverly masks the degree of racism that Afro-Brazilian players faced from the day futebol was brought to Brazil to the present. A key player in this story is Gilberto Freyre, a Brazilian sociologist who is generally credited with the formation of the idea that Brazil is a racial democracy in which all races are equally valued. Gilberto Freyre brought the Brazilian national futebol team under his wing and attempted to use its success as evidence for his confidence in the promise that the mulatto showed. He spoke for the Afro-Brazilian players and praised their Dionysian characteristics when they won and denounced them when they lost. The story of the Afro-Brazilian on the Brazilian national team is very much akin to the Greek tragedy genre of theater and the fateful final against Uruguay in 1950 can be interpreted as the turn of events that leads to downfall.

We must critically examine futebol’s introduction to Brazil in order to understand the racism directed towards Afro-Brazilians on the national team. It is believed that the wealthy son of an English family first brought futebol to Brazil in 1894. At the outset, futebol remained primarily a sport played by the elite members of society who belonged to social clubs, but it wasn’t long before factories began to promote futebol as a good way for workers to blow off steam during their break periods. A factory in Bangu was the first to realize that they could use futebol as a reward when workers were sufficiently productive and that they could also take it away as a disciplinary measure if they were unruly or idle. Other factories were quick to follow Bangu’s lead and the rapid transformation of futebol from an elite sport to a sport played by people of all classes is largely attributable to the worker-player model. However, the factory teams lacked the prestige or resources that the teams backed by elite social clubs had and it would be a few more years before Afro-Brazilians and members of the lower class began to infiltrate the semi-professional world of Brazilian futebol.

Two events occurred in the 1920s and 1930s that led to an increased number of Afro-Brazilian and mulatto players on elite futebol clubs in Brazil. The first was the attention that the Vasco da Gama club received in 1923 when it won the Rio de Janeiro city championship with a team that it had recruited from the working-class suburbs regardless of their race. The social club’s members didn’t have enough time to play on the team so they picked out these individuals to play for them. This was seen as an affront to the amateur nature of the futebol league and members of the elite clubs spoke out about the inclusion of “outsiders” (Lopes 1997). Nevertheless, the success of Vasco’s team could not be ignored and after the elite clubs failed in their attempts through various means to exclude these “outsiders” it was clear that they would have to adapt or face defeat. Therefore, elite clubs unwillingly began to recruit players of other racial backgrounds and from other social classes. However, one step that they took to thwart the rise of these “outsiders” was to implement a new rule that could easily be compared to the literacy test that restricted voting. The new rule required that “players know how to read and write properly: when they entered the field, they had to be able to sign their names on the scorepad and to fill in quickly an ‘enrollment form’ with several items.” (Lopes 1997) This implicit test of schooling is very characteristic of the indirect, euphemistic exercise of class and color prejudice in Brazil at the time.

Vasco Da Gama, 1923

Brazilian National team, 1930 World Cup

The second event that had a significant influence on Afro-Brazilians in Brazilian futebol was the rise of professionalization after the first World Cup in 1930. After the South American teams were showcased at the first World Cup, Mussolini became very adamant about recruiting Brazilian players (whites only) to play in the professional Italian leagues. A handful of Afro-Brazilians such as the legendary Fausto were recruited to play in Europe but the overwhelming degree of racism and the cultural shock resulted in their speedy return to their humble teams in Brazil. Afro-Brazilians appeared to be ‘condemned’ to ‘local’ success and “In this sense they were identified as the great initiators of Brazilian national football.” (Lopes 2000) Brazilian clubs were forced to professionalize the sport in order to stop all of their top players from flocking abroad. Professionalization was (perhaps wrongfully) construed as a guarantee that if you were good enough then you would be chosen to play and it led to an increased interest from Afro-Brazilians and the working classes in using futebol as a form of social mobility.

The space for Afro-Brazilians in futebol was stimulated by both internal and external pressures that had very little to do with the inherent “right to play”. Clubs like Vasco da Gama allowed Afro-Brazilians and mulattos to play on their team but they were kept separate from the rest of the club’s social functions. Each player had different ways of dealing with their racial identity and those who could were forced to disguise their identity as was the case with, “Arthur Friedenreich – son of a German immigrant and a woman of African descent – allegedly painstakingly straightened his hair before games, while Carlos Alberto – the only mulatto playing for Fluminense in 1916 – is said to have whitened his face with rice powder before entering the field.”(Natali 2007) The rivalry between Fluminense and Flamengo was based on racial inclusiveness and Carlos Alberto’s antics along with Fluminense’s elitist stance gave them the nickname po de arroz  (rice powder) whereas Flamengo’s popularity was based on its image as “the people’s” team and they adopted the nickname po de carvao (coal powder).

While there are certainly cases of Afro-Brazilian athletes who became futebol heroes during the 1920s and 1930s, racism persisted and for the most part, Afro-Brazilian athletes were associated with lack of discipline, drinking, and taking bribes. There was also an ambiguous split between “the adoption and idolatry of black athletes by the home fans and the stigmatizing of black athletes from other teams, an expression of the kind of ‘cordial racism’ permeating Brazilian society and orientated at one’s own personal relations.” (Lopes 1997) Not only were they discriminated against within their own country but the persistent belief in the immorality and inferiority of Afro-Brazilians both as humans and as athletes resulted in their exclusion from teams that represented Brazil abroad.  For example, the Confederação Brasileira de Desportos (C.B.D.) was involved in a heated debate over whether or not Afro-Brazilians should be allowed to represent Brazil in the South American Championship in Buenos Aires in 1921, Brazilian president Epitácio Pessoa intervened and made it explicit that, “it would not be in the interest of Brazil’s image for non-whites to represent the country in international competitions.” (Natali 2007) Reasons for their exclusion were offered such as lack of proper etiquette. For example, an exemplary case occurred with black and mulatto players in the Brazilian team traveling to Montevideo in 1923. During the formal dinner served on a ship, a white player from Fluminense pretended to drink the lavender water placed on the table after dinner for washing one’s fingers: the working-class players, who had never witnessed such a thing, attempted to drink the lavender, making them the butt of a joke which ended up serving the purposes of managers who were in favour of vetoing blacks on international team delegations for reasons of etiquette. (Filho 1964) At the time the Brazilian elite were obsessed with presenting themselves to the rest of the world as a white nation.

The introduction of the World Cup in the 1930s led to an increased association between the strength of the football team with the strength of the nation. There were still outright racist decisions by the elite to bar Afro-Brazilian players but there were inklings that something had begun to change within the rest of Brazil. For example, the C.B.D.’s president, Renato Pacheco, “tried to keep Leonidas from playing for the 1932 South American Cup but he gave in to pressure from the press, and the “Black Diamond” led Brazil to victory.” (Levine 1980) This example reveals that by the 1930s the Afro-Brazilian presence in futebol had grown to the point where the people (represented by the press) were willing to tarnish the image of a white Brazil and make exceptions for players who were good enough. These exceptions were made for tactical purposes and not as a symbol of racial harmony. To illustrate how shallow this inclusion was we need merely look at the 1938 World Cup in France where “the two best blacks, Leonidas and Tim (Elba Vargas Lima), were without explanation kept out of the semi-finals against Italy, and Brazil lost, 2-1.” (Virtual 2004) Brazil’s decision to send a team to the World Cup that was more reflective of its racial makeup than ever before and then to decide to whiten itself through benching its top black players when playing fascist Italy is a clear sign that it was still deeply confused about its national identity. However, the world took notice that Brazil’s racially mixed side showed promise even when facing Europe’s best and it served as a source of pride and valorization for Afro-Brazilians and mulattos in the middle and lower classes.

Leonidas Da Silva: Diamante Negro

Leonidas Da Silva performing his signature Bicycle kick

**Note: This is the first of a four part series


Filho, Lyra J (1954), Taça do Mundo 1954 (Rio de Janeiro: Irmãos Pongetti)

Levine, Robert M. (1980) ‘Sport and Society: The Case of Brazilian Futebol’ Luso-Brazilian Review, Vol. 17, No. 2 pp. 233-252

Lopes, Leite J.S. (1997), ‘Successes and Contradictions in “Multiracial” Brazilian Football’. in G. Armstrong & R. Giulianotti, (eds.), Entering the Field: new perspectives on world football (Oxford: Berg), pp. 53-86

Lopes, Leite J.S. ( 2000), “Class, Ethnicity, and Color in the Making of Brazilian Football”. Daedalus, Vol. 129, No. 2, Brazil: The Burden of the past; The Promise of the Future pp. 239-270

Natali, Marcos (2007) ‘The Realm of the Possible: Remembering Brazilian Futebol’, Soccer & Society, 8: 2, 267—282

Virtual Brazil (2004-2009) ‘Brazil in the 1938 World Cup’ http://www.v-brazil.com/culture/sports/world-cup/1938-France.html


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