Understanding tragedy: Brazil and the 1950 World Cup: Part 2

4 Jun

Gilberto Freyre, Brazilian sociologist

Let us take a look at the well-known figure of Gilberto Freyre and the role that he played in creating a space for Afro-Brazilians and mulattos on the Brazilian national team. Gilberto Freyre’s seminal work Casa-Grande e Senzala (roughly translated means The Masters and the Slaves) was published in 1933 and is credited with advancing the idea of Brazil as a racial democracy. He argued that the miscegenation or racial mixing that was occurring in Brazil would create a more unified and robust populace and that such mixing should be encouraged. This represented a significant change in the discourse among elites. Freyre placed futebol within his favorite paradigm of Brazil as tropical hybrid (European technology infused with Amerindian and African psychic forces) and in doing so challenged the very idea of what it meant to be a Brazilian (Levine 1980). He tried to address the popular Brazilian sentiment that Brazilian culture was “borrowed” from Europe and unauthentic. Therefore, he capitalized on the success of Afro-Brazilian and mulatto players in futebol and displayed them as examples of the fruition of Brazil’s unique past. In 1943 Freyre posited that, “Our style of game contrasts with the Europeans’ by its qualities of cunning, surprise and slightness, by an individual spontaneity through which we show our mulatto characteristics” (Freyre 1943) In recent years, authors such as Skidmore have re-examined Freyre’s concept of racial democracy and highlighted its racist undercurrents which is why we must also examine more closely the characteristics that Freyre chose to represent the Afro-Brazilian and mulatto players.

It would be historically inaccurate to downplay the importance that Freyre played in the creation and valorization of a uniquely Brazilian style of play that was heavily influenced by Afro-Brazilians and mulattos. However, “When talking about the ‘history of the black in football’, one could say that this history is told by ‘another person’ (Gilberto Freyre, in this case) and this means that the discourse either determines the place where from the black should speak or gives them no voice.” (Maranhão 2007) In this sense, the blacks do not speak but rather they are spoken of. The lack of self-representation is particularly troubling because it reinforces the idea that Afro-Brazilians relied on outside sources to determine their place in society. It also left them susceptible to abuse by the elites who sought to tout them in front of the public in order to propagate the idea of “racial democracy”. Sports journalist Mário Filho is the only other man whose voice spoke for the Afro-Brazilian and mulatto players as often as Gilberto Freyre. In 1947 Filho published the book O Negro no Futebol Brasileiro (The Black in Brazilian Football), and Freyre was given the honor of writing the preface for the book. In the preface Freyre stressed the importance of the African in Brazil’s history and that with these residues, Brazilian football became more distant from the orderly and original British football, in order to become a dance full of irrational surprises[i] and Dionysian variations.

O Negro no Futebol Brasileiro by Mario Filho

Gilberto Freyre differentiated two opposite styles of playing football and, consequently, two different cultural styles: an ‘Apollonian’ style (formal, pent-up, rational) represented by the European; and the other ‘Dionysian’ (impulsive, individualist, emotional) portrayed in the mulatto’s ‘character’. (Maranhão 2007) To clarify, Apollo and Dionysus are both Greek Gods. Freyre’s reliance on the philosophical dichotomy between Apollonian and Dionysian styles was characteristic of Brazilian elite drawing on European theories to explain their situation at home. Friedrich Nietzsche was one of the first well-known figures to address this dichotomy and he did so in his book Birth of Tragedy. As a western educated elite, Freyre undoubtedly read Nietzsche’s work and was aware that the philosopher had associated Dionysus with chaos, intoxication, orgiastic passion, and irrationality. The power of reasoning, of reckoning, calculus and coolness, obviously did not fit in his ‘praise’ of the African element. (Maranhão) These characteristics were typically Apollonian and European. Freyre’s attempts to valorize and incorporate these negative characteristics into the Brazilian style of play and the Brazilian national identity worked when they won but made those who provided the “African element” particularly vulnerable to racist criticisms when they lost.

The Greek God Dionysus

Freyre used Apollo and Dionysus to explain futebol whereas Nietzsche had used them to explain theater. A closer examination of these two art forms reveals that the two have a great deal in common. Both can rouse applause just as easily as they can move a crowd to tears, both are meant to be experienced by an audience, and both serve as a mirror of society. The principal difference of course is that theater is prepared ahead of time while futebol is left to an incalculable degree of chance. At one point Brazilians may have begun to blur the lines between futebol and theater when they printed the results of the fateful final of 1950 before it had actually taken place. We will come back to that match and critically examine its historical significance soon enough but, in order to understand this event we must first examine Nietzsche and his interpretation of the birth of tragedy.  Nietzsche argues that the tragedy of Ancient Greece was the highest form of art due to its mixture of both Apollonian and Dionysian elements into one seamless whole, allowing the spectator to experience the full spectrum of the human condition. Before the tragedy, there was an era of static, idealized plastic art in the form of sculpture that represented the Apollonian view of the world. (Smith 2000) The Dionysian element was to be found in the wild revelry of festivals and drunkenness, but, most importantly, in music. The combination of these elements in one art form gave birth to tragedy. Before the working class Afro-Brazilian entered futebol’s stage the game represented Brazilian elites longing to be like their distant cousins in Europe. Freyre believed that this era of static was brought to life by a new style of play that was unpolished and irrational.

The realization of a uniquely Brazilian style of play was a very slow process. At the outset there was a greater emphasis on what the Brazilian style of play was not rather than what it was. In Brazil, the inclusion of the working class changed the very reason to play. The value of the game, then, is judged by the pleasure and joy it elicits, far from the nineteenth-century English schools where football was considered a means of instilling moral values in boys, encouraging discipline, respect for rules and dedication to the Protestant work ethic (Natali 2007). Similarly, Christian Messenger’s study of sport in America shows the way in which, “America’s puritanical society with its fierce work ethic has nurtured a deep suspicion of play.” (Lever 1988) It would be overly simplistic to make the assumption that Brazilian society lacked a strong work ethic, especially given the fact that it was the factories that first introduced futebol to the working class as a means of placating them. However, there is little evidence of a work ethic that totally encompassed the Brazilian way of life in the way it did in England or the United States. While European football is an Apollonian expression of a scientific method and socialist sport in which personal action is mechanized and subordinated to the whole, the Brazilian is a sort of dance, in which the person is prominent and shines. (Maranhão 2007)


In a sharp contrast to the mechanized European style of play, the Brazilian approach is thought to include malandragem and ginga. The malandro is essentially a folk hero equivalent of the Greek God Dionysus. Freyre was certainly not responsible for the creation of folk heroes such as Pedro Malasarte and João Grilo but he did have a significant influence in popularizing them as representative of the mulatto or Afro-Brazilian influence in futebol. Once again, Freyre is the voice of the Afro-Brazilian and chooses to speak “in favor” of him by unequivocally tying him to a character that is best known for idleness and petty crime. The experience of improvisation and uncertainty of poor blacks, mulattoes, and whites who, like the malandro, had learned to struggle at the margins of Brazilian society was thought to represented in the national style (Rowe and Schelling 1991). Malandragem is seen as more of a lifestyle whereas ginga is a natural born “swing” that gives Afro-Brazilians their rhythm and fluid motions in samba, capoeira, and futebol. While ginga has less negative connotations it reflects the scientific racism of the day that relied on social psychologists to explain the inherent differences between the races. If the very characteristics of the ‘Brazilian style’ of football implied skill, acrobatics and having fun while competing, then such traits displayed a structural homology with the hedonistic lifestyle of a portion of the working classes. (Lopes 1997) Incorporating this style and simultaneously making it compatible with the asceticism and discipline needed to pursue a successful career was an achievement that few players managed.

Garrincha, the epitome of a Dionysian player both on and off the field

Note**: This is part 2 of a four part series

[i] In 1938 Freyre wrote: “Our style of playing football contrasts with the Europeans because of a combination of qualities of surprise, malice, astuteness, and agility, and at the same time brilliance and individual spontaneity… Our passes… our dummies, our flourishes with the ball, the touch of dance and subversiveness that makes the Brazilian style… seem to show psychologists and sociologists in a very interesting way the roguery and flamboyance of the mulatto that today is in every true affirmation of what is Brazilian.’ (Bellos 2003)


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

Freyre, Gilberto (1943), Sociología (Rio de Janeiro: Olimpio)

Maranhão, Tiago (2007) ‘Apollonians and Dionysians: The Role of Football in Gilberto Freyre’s Vision of Brazilian People’ Soccer & Society Vol. 8, No. 4, October 2007, pp. 510–523

Smith, Douglas (2000), ‘Friedrich Nietzsche The Birth of Tragedy’ Oxford University Press, 2000. 173 pgs.

Lever, Janet (1988) ‘Sócrates, Corinthians, and questions of democracy and citizenship’ in ‘Sport and society in Latin America : diffusion, dependency, and the rise of mass culture’ edited by Joseph L. Arbena New York : Greenwood Press, 1988 162pgs

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

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

Rowe, William and Vivian Schelling. 1991. Memory and Modernity: Popular Culture in Latin America. New York: Verso.


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