Understanding tragedy: Brazil and the 1950 World Cup- Part 4

5 Jun

Juan Schiaffino’s goal for Uruguay to bring the score to 1-1

Alcides Ghiggia scores the winning goal for Uruguay. Barbosa, Brazil’s goalie lies on the ground defeated and the defender grabs his head, clearly in shock.

The fateful final of 1950 is “A moment that remains emblazoned in the collective consciousness of a nation.” (Page 2002) The first half was goalless. But in the twenty-eighth minute Uruguay’s captain Obdulio Varela hit Bigode, Brazil’s left half. The punch- denied afterwards by both players as being more than a sporting tap- nevertheless entered the game’s folklore as turning the psychological advantage in Uruguay’s favour. (Bellos 2003) Brazil came out strong in the beginning of the second half and Friaça scored an early goal that eased the consciences of the Brazilian crowd that had been promised that their team would win. The Uruguayan team refused to give up and was rewarded for their persistence in the sixty-third minute. This was shocking for a side that had only been scored on four times in the past six games but due to the rules of the tournament at that time a tie would have still meant a win for Brazil. The next goal was able to bring a cheering crowd of over 170,000 to a complete silence, brought tears to the eyes of grown men, and shattered Brazil’s fragile confidence in its own multiracial makeup. Alcides Ghiggia dribbled past Bigode and slipped the ball past the goalie Barbosa into the back of the net. The silence was stunning. In order to put the outcome of the fateful final in context, the celebrated Brazilian writer Nelson Rodrigues was moved to say of the game “Everywhere has its irremediable national catastrophe, something like a Hiroshima. Our catastrophe, our Hiroshima, was the defeat by Uruguay in 1950.” (Bellos) A victory would have vindicated Brazil’s national optimism and euphoria. The defeat reinforced a sense of inferiority and shame.

Footage from the fateful final in 1950

The fateful final of 1950 was the turn of fortune characteristic of Greek tragedies. The classic discussion of Greek tragedy is Aristotle’s Poetics in which he argues that the heroes “change to bad fortune which he undergoes is not due to any moral defect or flaw, but a mistake of some kind. The reversal is the inevitable but unforeseen result of some action taken by the hero.” (Heath 1996) Often the mistake is the result of hubris. In this interpretation the tragedy that occurred in 1950 could be attributed to the excessive pride (of which there is plenty of evidence) prior to the match. Aristotle believed that catharsis was the natural outcome of viewing a Greek tragedy. Catharsis is the purging of fear and pity that brings the audience back to a state of emotional stability. “It is the human soul that is purged of its excessive passions.” (Heath) In this sense the tragedy is beneficial to the audience. The aftereffects of the tragedy in which the nation saw a resurgence of racist rhetoric was not characteristic of the cleansing effects that Aristotle described.

However, Nietzsche has a different understanding of the purpose of Greek tragedy that is fundamentally tied to the inclusion of Dionysian elements. He argues that the tragedy exists, “Not in order to be liberated from terror and pity, not in order to purge oneself of a dangerous affect by its vehement discharge — which is how Aristotle understood tragedy — but in order to celebrate oneself the eternal joy of becoming, beyond all terror and pity — that tragic joy included even joy in destruction.” (Smith 2000) In Nietzsche’s opinion the tragedy was a celebration of the complexity of life, a chance for the audience to look within themselves and understand the Dionysian elements, and was not to be seen as a simplistic means of cleansing the emotions of fear and pity. If we examine the fateful final using Nietzsche’s framework then it would seem that he would ask the fans to celebrate the imperfections of the national team. We find that, “Nietzsche’s world view, his understanding that there are no moral or rational explanations for the earthly misfortune that is great and constant, is not pessimistic or dark. The members of his ideal culture are all marked by their ability to elicit from the artistic representation of tragedy an understanding of the contingency of their lives that is not coloured by remorse, resignation, or decline.” (Smith 2000) Freyre relied heavily on Nietzsche’s Apollonian and Dionysian philosophy when constructing the image of the Brazilian national team but he seems to have skipped the chapter on dealing with tragedy. Instead of deepening the understanding of the contingency of their lives Freyre and other prominent figures used the Afro-Brazilian players as scapegoats and spiraled back into scientific racism.

After the initial shock wore off Brazilians struggled to understand the tragedy at the Maracanã and many felt that it was not a coincidence that the two goals scored by Uruguay supposedly resulted from the mistakes of left-half Bigode, defender Juvenal and goalkeeper Barbosa, all of whom were black. All were condemned in the press as cowards, lacking moral fiber and discipline. While all three became convenient scapegoats, it was Barbosa whose patriotism was questioned[i] and who suffered a disproportionate level of blame[ii]. His nickname is The Unforgiven because “Under Brazilian law the maximum sentence is thirty years,” he always said. “But my imprisonment has been for fifty.” (Bellos 2003) The goalkeeper’s position has an added degree of symbolism because he is responsible for protecting the nation, he is the last defense and the last hope and it would be nearly fifty years until Brazil would field another black player in that role. The Afro-Brazilian players who were blamed had been recognized for their talent and their popularity[iii], which shows that even their star status couldn’t protect them from the color of their skin. The multiracial, confident, progressive Brazil that Freyre and Filho had conjured from futebol was dissolved in an acid bath of racism, self-doubt and self-loathing. (Goldblatt 2006)

Barbosa, The Unforgiven

The old stereotypes make a strong comeback in 1950 with the defeat bringing about collective self-blame on the one hand (resulting from the social Darwinism present in Brazilian social thought in the beginning of the century), and a commentary on the deficiencies of the Brazilian people’s mixed ethnicity on the other. Lyra Filho provides a succinct explanation for the loss in 1950, “Our people’s psychosocial state is still green [i.e. immature or unripe], and the athletes emerging from amongst the people cannot improvise the conditions and tools for overcoming [such immaturity] in athletic contests, requiring the mobilisation of greater organic resources and reserves…” (Filho 1954) The emphasis on physiognomy reflects the ever-present reliance on social Darwinism to explain Brazil’s shortcomings. It implies that the Brazilian players and the Brazilian people in general are unfit to compete with the superior genetic makeup of Europeans. Where futebol had once served as a negation of the implicit superiority of Europeans it became yet another marker of Brazil’s cultural immaturity. After the fateful final Filho became very outspoken about the misdirection of the Brazilian national futebol style, “In Brazilian football, flashy trim lends artistic expression to the match, to the detriment of yield and results. Exhibition jeopardises competition.” (Filho)

In their search to explain the loss in 1950 social psychologists critically re-examined the effects of miscegenation. According to the theories of racial hierarchy, the less ‘civilized’ black and mestizo Brazilians were prone to greater emotional instability with regard to achievements and decisions. Brazil’s poor performance in the 1954 World Cup served the purpose of those who saw flaws where strengths had previously been. The match against Hungary that eliminated Brazil from the 1954 Cup in Switzerland is considered as one of the most violent matches in football history and was yet another example of the emotional instability of the Afro-Brazilians and mulattos. Futebol was a means of assessing the cultural maturity of the nation and the results were not encouraging. “The people are not enlightened by the culture of the soul, nor of the spirit, and still experience the primary outburst of their instincts… Such is the cause of the lack of control over (our) nerves, or our psychic impropriety in relation to playing football.” (Lopes 1997)

The C.B.D. and others in charge of the structure and support of the national team sought to rectify these problems in the 1958 World Cup by providing a team psychologist to assess the maturity levels of the players. The new psychologist was named Prof. Joao Carvalhaes and Pele recalls that his method was to have the players all draw pictures of a man. “The players with the most sophistication- if we had any on the Selection- would draw the most complicated and detailed figures; the least sophisticated would be apt to draw skeletal childlike line sketches.” (Fish 1977) On the basis of his tests he reported to the coach, Feola, that it was obvious that putting Garrincha (one of Brasil’s greatest Afro-Brazilian players) into the game would be a mistake, as Garrincha’s lack of sophistication went even beyond the limits imposed by the theory.

The Brazilian national team celebrates their victory at the 1958 World Cup Final in Sweden. Brazil is still the only non-European team to win the World Cup on European soil.

Garrincha and Pele, two of Brazil’s biggest legends and members of the national team during the Golden Era of 1958-1970 in which they won 3 out of 4 World Cup titles

The World Cup win in 1958 helped to reverse the people’s sense of inferiority[iv] and reignite confidence in the Brazilian style of play. Yet, even during the golden period in Brazilian futebol racism persisted. A study by two Latin American psychologists, one of them a Brazlian, was widely quoted in the early 1960s, claiming that “the principal superiority of Brazilian athletes over their opponents lies in their African genes. The New World is closer to the jungle than is the Old; in the jungle, the feet count as much as the hands.” (Levine 2004) Similarly, Brazil’s hero worship of Pele masks a surviving undercurrent of racism among the middle and upper classes. When the 1966 national team began to play sloppily, it was subjected to a barrage of attacks, ranging from allegations that its members were ugly and too fat to a published remark that the team was the “best ever-since not a single case of syphilis was discovered among the players.” (Levine 1980) A popular joke from the 1920s was resurrected and followed the usual rounds of street humor: blacks made good futebol players because of their experience in fleeing from lions in the jungle. (Levine 1980) These quotes should demonstrate that even during the height of Brazil’s dominance in the international football world the racism directed towards Afro-Brazilian players hadn’t disappeared. If the Brazilian people are to overcome racism in sport they must take the approach that Nietzsche offers in which beauty is found in the complexity of the human condition. Freyre’s reliance on futebol as a form of catharsis[v] implies that there is a need to purify a part of the national character, and that part is inherently Afro-Brazilian.

[i] The secret police summoned Barbosa to headquarters to ask him whether he was a Communist. (Page 2002)

[ii] He recalled walking into a baker’s shop where a woman recognized him and told her son, ‘Look, there is the man who made all Brazil cry.’ (Goldblatt 2006)

[iii] Bigode had been voted the most popular player in Rio, but after the game the company sponsoring the poll refused to pay him the prize money that was due him. (Page 2002)  Journalists voted Barbosa best goalkeeper of the 1950 World Cup, yet he only played once more for the national team. (Bellos 2003)

[iv] With the 1958 victory, Brazilians changed even physically. I remember that after the game between Brazil and Sweden ended, I saw a small black woman. She was the typical slum dweller. But the Brazilian triumph transformed her. She walked down the sidewalk with the charm of a Joan of Arc. The same was true for black men, who – attractive, brilliant, luxurious – seemed like fabulous Ethiopian princes. Yes, after 1958, the Brazilian was no longer a mongrel [vira-lata] among men and Brazil was no longer a mongrel among nations.(Natali 2007)

[v] Solemn predictions that futebol as a safety valve for “animal energies and irrational impulses” would soon replace the need for militarism and revolution. Without this “purifying act,” Freyre added, urban life would turn violent, samba would stagnate and malandragem would sate Brazilian society. (Gilberto Freyre, Preface to the first edition of Mario Filho, O negro no futebol brasileiro) (Levine 1980)


Page, Joseph A (2002) ‘Soccer Madness: Futebol in Brazil’ in Sport and Latin America and the Caribbean edited by Joseph Arbena, David Gerald LaFrance. Scholarly Resources inc

Bellos, Alex (2003). ‘Futebol: The Brazilian way of life’ Bloomsbury

Heath, Malcolm (1996) ‘Aristotle, Poetics’ New York Penguin Books

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

Goldblatt, David (2006) ‘The Ball is Round: A global history of soccer’ New York Penguin Group

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

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

Fish, Robert L (1977) ‘Pele, My Life and the Beautiful Game’ Doubleday publishing

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

Levine, Robert M (2004) ‘The Burden of Success: Futebol and Brazilian Society through the 1970s’ Journal of Popular Culture Volume 14 Issue 3 pgs 453-464

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


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