Understanding tragedy: Brazil and the 1950 World Cup: Part 3

5 Jun

France 1938 World Cup poster

The World Cup in 1938 occurred during the affirmation of this new style of play and the national team appropriately reflected the changes that were taking place[i]. The Cup took place in France as Europe became increasingly divided and eugenics reached an unprecedented level of importance. Brazil’s victory over such European teams as Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Sweden did not go unnoticed. The 1938 World Cup saw an increase in the number of mulatto and Afro-Brazilian players on the national team but none were as well known as Leonidas da Silva. Nicknamed “The Black Diamond” by the French media he was one of the leading scorers of the Cup[ii] and is heralded as the inventor of the bicycle kick (although Argentinian fans will say otherwise). Despite Leonidas’ talent, he was inexplicably kept off the field during the semi-final match against Mussolini’s Italy (Virtual 2004). This gesture proved that there was still a limit; Brazil was willing to send a team to the Cup with Afro-Brazilian players but would still attempt to whiten itself when playing a team like fascist Italy where eugenics was everything.

Taken as a whole the 1938 World Cup and Leonidas da Silva’s performance was a significant step in the long process of dispelling the myths that Afro-Brazilians couldn’t compete with Europeans. The French Media had a mixed reaction to Brazil’s success, “The Brazilians, mostly with black faces and mixed blood of black input, have possession of marvellous natural qualities that make them born football players. Unfortunately, the idea that football is a team sport did not arise in their brains.” (Hanot, 1938) This quote demonstrates that Brazil’s prowess was recognized by at least the French, that the players were seen as black instead of mulatto, and that there was a criticism of Brazil’s emphasis on the individual within the team. In a quote from the Diários Associados in 1938 Freyre defends the Brazilian style of play and it’s similarities to dance[iii], “…All this seems to express in a very interesting way, for psychologists and sociologists, the flamboyant Mulatism and the trickery which are nowadays part of the true affirmation of what Brazil is.”(Freyre 1938) Once again, it is important to note that the French journalist saw black faces where Freyre saw mulatto faces because it provides insight into how the rest of the world saw the Brazilian team and how that differed from how Brazil saw itself.

Brazil 1950 World Cup poster

Brazil’s success in the 1938 World Cup and its removal from the destruction that ravaged Europe during World War II made it the perfect host for the first World Cup after the 12 year hiatus. The 1950 World Cup was an opportunity for Brazil to lay to rest any doubts that it or the rest of the world had about its Afro-Brazilian influences and to become champions. The final match between Uruguay and Brazil is one that still haunts the nightmares of Brazilians today. Roberto daMatta, the influential Brazilian anthropologist, writes seriously that the loss in the 1950 final “is perhaps the greatest tragedy in contemporary Brazilian history because it happened collectively and brought a united vision of the loss of a historic opportunity. Also, it happened at the beginning of a decade in which Brazil was looking to assert itself as a nation with a great future. The result was a tireless search for explications of, and blame for, the shameful defeat.” (Bellos 2003) In order to comprehend the significance of the fateful final in 1950 we must first recognize the political climate that surrounded it.

In 1946 Brazil declared a new democratic constitution after more than a decade of dictatorship. Furthermore, Brazilians were beginning to have doubts about the civility of Europeans after the carnage and destruction that had taken place during World War II. As Europe began to rebuild there was a sense that Brazil had something fresh to offer both on and off the field. Optimism was galvanized by confirmation that in 1950 the country would host the fourth football World Cup, the most important international event to take place within its frontiers. However, midcentury found Brazil still searching for an identity, still uncertain of its destiny, still seeking to realize its aspirations. (Page 2002) The Cup was thought of as Brazil’s opportunity to prove to the rest of the world that it had successfully overcome the burdens of colonialism and slavery and had matured into a formidable opponent that demanded respect both on and off the field. Despite it’s apparent confidence, the nation’s self-image continued to reflect serious reservations about its racially mixed heritage and doubts about whether an underdeveloped tropical nation could ever compete successfully with the countries of Europe and North America, countries where Brazilians felt they were regarded as “savages.” (Page) What happened on the grass at Maracanã in 1950 intensified their worst fears.

The Maracanã which reportedly held around 200,000 people at the final of the 1950 World Cup

The Cup went relatively smoothly for Brazil up until the final. Many of their games were played in the Maracanã, which served as a physical marker of Brazil’s ingenuity. “Today Brazil has the biggest and most perfect stadium in the world, dignifying the competence of its people and its evolution in all branches of human activity,” wrote the newspaper A Noite. (Bellos 2003) The Maracanã was not only the embodiment of Brazil’s sporting ambition but also of the country’s place in the modern world. (Bellos) Brazil followed up on its success in the 1938 World Cup with victories against Mexico, Yugoslavia, Sweden, and Spain. The large margin by which Brazil beat Sweden and Spain added to the increasing euphoria and confidence that Brazil would be victorious in the final against Uruguay who had struggled in their last couple of matches. The front-page headline in Sao Paulo’s Gazeta Esportiva before the match read: “Tomorrow we will beat Uruguay!” Similarly, the mayor of Rio gave the speech prior to kick-off in which he referred to Brazil as the World Champions. No one could have predicted the turn of events that resulted in such immense tragedy for the Brazilian people.

The Brazilian national team in 1950


[i] I think that one of the conditions of the Brazilian victories in European matches is due to the fact that we had the courage this time to send to Europe a team frankly Afro-Brazilian (Gilberto Freyre, writing in Correio da Manhã, 15 June 1938) (Lopes 2007)

[ii] There are records that, when he scored the last goal against Poland, Leônidas was shoe-less, and this would be grounds for the referee to invalidate the goal. Cleverly, Leônidas splashed his feet into the dark mud; the referee could not tell Leonidas’ black socks from his black legs and from the (non-existant) black shoes. (Virtual 2004)

[iii] So, on 17 June 1938, Gilberto Freyre wrote to Diários Associados, reporting the ‘admirable Brazilian performance’ in the fields of Strasbourg and Bordeaux: Our football style seems to contrast with the European one due to an amount of qualities such as surprise, skill, cleverness, speed and, at the same time, individual brilliance and spontaneity that express the same Mulatism of Nilo Peçanha, who was the greatest name in Politics. Our passes, our catches, our misleads, our floridness with the ball … there is something that reminds one of dancing and capoeira, making the Brazilian way of playing football a trademark, which sophisticates and often sweetens the game invented by the English and played so stiffly by them. (Maranhão 2007)

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