Mark Godfrey

How the struggle with racism helped shape Brazilian football

Mark Godfrey
How the struggle with racism helped shape Brazilian football

BY KAUSTUBH PANDEY

There always seems to be elements of magic and fascination that surround Brazilian football and culture. Not just because of how both have intertwined over the past few decades, but how they have become so recognisable amongst a world of diversity.

Although the national team has failed to win the FIFA World Cup since 2002, the Brazilians have not completely lost their way; prominent components of that inimitable style are very much in evidence in the likes of Neymar and Philippe Coutinho.

They may never be as lauded as Pele, Garrincha, Kaka, Zico or Friedenreich were, but nonetheless they typify the standard expected of the country’s star players. They are the guardians of Brazil’s football legacy.

That legacy has its roots in how Brazilian football was once plagued by pertinent and persistent racism. Like it or not, the Brazilian way of playing – supremely technical and rampantly individualistic – was born out of the prejudice that forced the native Brazilian population to play the game differently.

Perhaps this even goes back to when Brazil was discovered back in 1500 by Portuguese explorer Pedro Alvarez Cabral. The Portuguese government had chosen Cabral as their head of expedition to India and it was during this trip that the fleet disembarked upon a land that had never been seen before by Europeans. Initially, it was thought that it was an island and it was named Ilha de Vera Cruz. Later, it was realised that this island was in fact South America. Ilha de Vera Cruz came to be known as Brazil.

The day the Portuguese stumbled upon Brazil, they had two main purposes. The first was to establish permanent settlements, and the second was to seek a monopoly in the trade of the Brazilwood tree, after which the country is named. This was the time when about 3 million indigenous inhabitants lived in Brazil; they were soon enslaved to be used as a major part of the workforce. There were multiple invasion attempts from the likes of France and Holland, but Portugal managed to fight them off and retained control of its newly colonised prize.

Brazil attained its independence from the Portuguese crown in 1822. The ports were opened for trade with foreign countries, particularly England and then to other nations such as France, Germany and the Netherlands. This allowed other European superpowers to make inroads into Brazil and establish settlements the way the Portuguese had on their arrival. The indigenous population was still viewed as unruly, uncivilized and loquacious, as well as being seen as harmful for the economic development of the country.

Football was first played in Brazil back in 1864, when off-duty British sailors took part in an unorganised and primitive form of the game near one of the country’s ports. Most likely it was ‘mob football’ – a medieval scrum that was far from the civilised, codified game that began to blossom in England’s public schools at that time. The Brazilians were formally introduced to the game in 1894, when a man called Charles Miller, who was sent to England by his Scottish father to attend Bannister Court school, came back to Brazil. Miller had turned out for clubs like St. Mary’s (now Southampton) and Corinthian FC and was very athletic by nature.

On his return to Sao Paulo he brought with him some football equipment and a Hampshire FA rule book, which consisted of 13 regulations on how to play the game. Miller is credited with organising the first recorded match played in Brazil; between Sao Paulo Railways and a Gas Company.

 This all took place some years after Princess Isabel, the daughter of Pedro II, had taken steps to eradicate racism in Brazil and passed the Golden Law, which outlawed slavery. This served a very nominal purpose and while a general law about the problem had also been passed, the mentality of the Europeans remained much the same. The indigenous Brazilian population and Brazilian immigrants were still viewed as primitive and undeserved of anything that the Europeans did. They faced segregation and discrimination in equal measure in their daily lives too.

 Since football was already hugely popular in Europe, Miller’s introduction of the game to Brazil struck a chord with the Europeans in the country. It was they who first took up the sport, but the Brazilian elite also got involved in footballing activities soon after. The game was meant for the upper classes, but it also became a symbol of segregation from the indigenous and African population who were not allowed to either play or watch.

Football, therefore, was largely a tool of racism. For example, spectators at the Rio-based club Fluminense (the Carioca elite) wore suits and dresses while watching games to demonstrate that they were from a higher echelon of society. The players wore elegant sports coats imported from England while playing and bowed to the stands both before and after games to show how cultured their lifestyles were in an apparent and perceived contrast from the downtrodden sections of the population.

The sophisticated Europeans began establishing football and sports clubs after Miller’s return to Brazil. The Sao Paulo Athletic Club (SPAC) was founded thanks to Miller’s efforts, but it was initially there for both football and cricket and also served the additional purpose of holding British community meetings.

His ideas spread throughout the elite across Brazil with Sao Paulo becoming a real hub for clubs such as this.

Sao Paulo Athletic Club was founded by British expats; other European communities established football clubs for themselves too. Fluminense was established by a gentleman called Oscar Cox, who was Brazilian but had English heritage. Germania, the club that the half-German Brazilian footballer Arthur Friedenreich went onto play for, was established by immigrants from Southern Europe and Germans in 1899.

The Corinthian club from London were the inspiration for the founding of the Brazilian club Corinthians in about 1910. Their standards of gentlemanly conduct and attitude towards games such as football and cricket appealed to those whose sensibilities were still rooted in amateurism at a time when professionalism in sport was catching hold like wildfire.

Rio de Janeiro too witnessed a boom in sporting activity. Fluminense was established by Cox as a very elitist club, which pitched them in direct opposition to a group of students from Paysandu who organised the first Brazilians only club, Botafogo.

Similar processes saw the game emerge in other parts of the country and many other pioneers like Miller popularised it. Regional and city-specific leagues were formed.

Once football began to open up to all sections of Brazilian society it really took off amongst the lower classes. Unlike other sporting pursuits favoured by the wealthy and well-to-do that required expensive facilities and equipment, its simplicity and affordability made it much more accessible. Anyone with a ball and a certain amount of space could play it. Although the more structured English game required a leather ball and lined fields, these were luxuries to the poor. It allowed the homogenous Brazilian population to showcase their skill and ability to pass, shoot and dribble. Soon enough, football’s unstoppable expansion consigned its former social exclusivity to history.

The process undoubtedly shaped what Brazilian football went on to become. Out of the urge to prove that they were just as good at the game as the elite and to use football as a means of expressing themselves, the homogenous population got so used to playing amongst themselves that the term ‘futebol’ was coined from their colloquial usage of the term.

It wasn’t just a new term that was spawned, but a new style was born as well. There was a focus on individualism. The ball spent more time at a player’s feet than it did when the elite played. The homogenous population played the game in a way that showcased their skill and technique on the ball. It was all about making it look attractive and beautiful to watch for the onlookers. Individual players focused on doing things with the ball that the Europeans could never do.

The game was now being used as an expression of freedom and creativity by the homogenous community and they saw it as an opportunity to express what they can be. Moreover, their style was a complete detachment from the way the Europeans played.

And it literally did start lifting people up from their seats soon enough. Clubs like Bangu and Vasco da Gama from Rio and Internacional from Rio Grande Do Sul began accepting black and interracial players. Matches didn’t just happen between elite clubs, pick up matches (peladas) were also commonplace.

Clubs were formed by a diverse range of communities and that helped Brazilians to have a greater access to clubs and allowed them more opportunities to get into the game and show what they’re capable of. Brazil was struck by football fever before 1910 and while games associated with the working-classes were were portrayed as showing no regard for their ‘social betters’, this disorderly manner of playing formed a more substantial foundation.

Newspapers were quick to criticise this disorderly approach to the game and felt it was a more a matter for the police than the press. Working class football players were called ‘maltas’ or mobs and those who played the game outside of elite clubs came to be known by the term ‘varzeanos’. The elite saw them as vagrants who were unemployed and uneducated. The media deemed them as ‘unsupportable’, but workers and Afro-Brazilians formed their own clubs anyway and football became part of the lives of the Brazilian working class.

Politically, football was dismissed as a waste of time and money and many leaders felt that the energy invested in it should be put to better use. But communists and socialist leaders began seeing the sport as a means of social solidarity for the proletariat through a bourgeois game. Clubs sprang up in virtually every well-populated neighbourhood and names of many demonstrated their affiliation to their communities.

The Afro-Brazilians saw this as an opportunity to make a similar mark. They established clubs of their own and soon formed a league – Liga das Canelas Pretas (Black Shins League). These were outside the jurisdiction of the main leagues in the cities and were shunned by the elite. But in response to that, the African-Brazilian population began seeing football as way of asserting the values and rights they had. Football became a part of their world and more clubs were formed to represent Afro-Brazilian pride and culture.

A much bigger challenge to the elite came from the factory clubs. These were clubs that were set up by owners and workers of prominent firms that were concentrated in the industrialised cities like Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro.

In 1892, a firm called Campanhia Progresso Industrial do Brazil built a textile factor in a town called Bangu and brought in English and Scottish technicians and administrative personnel to oversee their production processes. Eleven years on, this firm formed a club that fielded a football team in 1904 and regular workers were included in the team. In a game against Rio Cricket, the team consisted of five Englishmen, three Italians, one Portuguese and one Brazilian. This Brazilian – Francisco Carregal – stood out because he was ’a hundred percent black’. This inspired many factory teams to have Afro-Brazilian players in their squads as well.

This, though, left many enraged. When the Metropolitan League of Athletic Sports was reformed in 1907, strict rules were issued against the coloured population. Bangu, who had initially proposed to join this league, withdrew from it following the ruling against inclusion of players of a coloured complexion. While the elite still saw football as an upper-class privilege, political parties had now begun to identify the power football had to penetrate the non-elite masses.

It was around that time that Arthur Friedenreich came along. The son of a German immigrant and an African, ‘Fried’ played football in the streets of Brazil. A lanky Mulatto (mixed white and black origin), he began to play for Germania in 1909 and his style reflected that of the working class. The ball spent a lot of time at his feet. He was technically unmatched, pacy and a deadly finisher in front of goal.

He went onto play for other clubs like Mackenzie and CA Paulista when Germania began prefering robust strikers. In 1914, he was called up to the first ever Brazilian squad, which was to take on Exeter City. It is famously said that Fried carried on playing despite having two of his teeth knocked out. These were times when Brazilian football was considered inferior to that of the more developed Argentinians, Uruguayans and Europeans, but in the final of the Copa Roca that was regularly played between Brazil and Argentina, Fried played as the sole striker and scored the winning goal.

An editorial in the Vida Sportiva hailed this as the beginning of a new era in Brazilian football. It said: “The new Brazilian generation that is developing on the field of play, that is acquiring the combative qualities necessary for the great collisions of life, must inevitably transmit to their descendants the same qualities of resistance, the same attributes of energy, the same strength of will, the same desire to fight and to win that they have acquired in sporting tournaments.”

The then Uruguayan captain gave Friedenreich the nickname of ‘El Tigre’ because of his fighting instincts and hailed him as the most perfect centre-forward of the South American Championship.

Because of him, the race he belonged to and the fighting spirit he always showed came to be associated with players similar to him who played in Brazil. While Fried had to make himself look more like the elite by whitening his skin with rice powder and flour, he had to hide the obvious indicators of racial identity by straightening his curly hair. While he never succeeded in doing that, he always made public appearances with his father since the curly Afro hair he inherited came from his mother, Matilde.

Despite everything, Arthur never accepted himself as the first Afro-Brazilian football star. He was happy being called moreno – a term used to describe a light-skinned white or light-skinned people of a mixed race. He showed no hesitation in putting himself in prominent positions of the clubs he played for and the national team. His role for the Brazil national team transformed Fried into a very positive figure of racial integration.

More than that, Fried’s approach to the game sparked a new way of playing the game for Brazilians, a way that was very different to the way it was elsewhere. Once identified as a ‘British game’, football acquired a sense of Brazilian-ness in the early 20th century. When Brazil played games against other nations, it was felt that the country was fostering its own way of playing. The creation of Brazilian futebol marked the identification of some specific traits that the Afro-Brazilians had and helped them gain more acceptance within the game.

Soon enough, the dictatorial government of Getulio Vargas adopted football, samba and Carneval as nationalist propaganda.

Racial friction continued, combined with debate about professionalism in football. But the approach to the game that Friedenreich stuck to while playing in the streets of Brazil still lingers on today. From Pele in 1958 to Neymar and Philippe Coutinho today, we still see signs of what Brazilian football was and is. Although the Selecao is lagging far behind where many expect it to be, it has not lost that element of Brazilian-ness about it. And perhaps it never will.

FOLLOW KAUSTUBH ON TWITTER @Kaus_Pandey17