Brazil football supporters wave flags and banners

Brazilian football: more than just a game

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By Shafik Meghji
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Joyous fans, unmistakeable yellow shirts, jogo bonito (“beautiful game”) - Brazilian football evokes many images, but the country’s relationship with the sport is far more complex than the clichés suggest, say the authors of new book Brazil Inside Out. Here’s a quick history.

“The English invented it, the Brazilians perfected it”

In Brazil, that old saying could well prove true. Fable has it that in 1894 Charles Miller, the São Paulo-born son of a Scottish rail engineer, returned from his schooling in England with a football tucked under his arm and went on to ignite Brazil’s infatuation with the sport. Miller soon started organising matches of this strange new game, as did another son of British immigrants, Oscar Cox, who founded Brazil’s first club, Fluminense, in 1902.

In the early days football was the exclusive pursuit of privileged Anglo-Brazilians, who did their best to prevent the mainly non-white lower classes from playing or even watching it. But by 1910 makeshift pitches had sprung up and informal games were taking place across Brazil.

Makeshift football pitch, Brazil

Initially the official clubs insisted that players were amateurs, which largely ruled out black players from poorer backgrounds. Mixed-race players who managed to join them were subjected to racist abuse; Fluminense’s nickname, pó de arroz (rice powder), comes from a mixed-race player, Carlos Alberto, who whitened his skin with rice powder before matches. It was not until Vasco da Gama starting picking players because of their ability rather than their race that the elite’s grip on the sport began to loosen.

The seleção

A 2-0 victory by a team of São Paulo and Rio’s best players over a visiting Exeter City in 1914 is generally considered Brazil’s first international match, but it was not until 1938, when the seleção (national team) reached the World Cup semi-finals, that the power of football as a unifying national force was fully realised.

Brazil’s rising importance as a footballing power was recognised in 1950, when it staged the first World Cup after the Second World War. It didn’t end well. On 16 July 1950, some 200,000 spectators crowded into the newly-built Rio Estádio do Maracanã, expecting to see the seleção beat Uruguay in the final – but the underdogs won 2-1, sparking tears, heart attacks and even some suicides among Brazilian fans.

Maracana stadium, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

It was not until the 1958 tournament in Sweden that the seleção’s hour arrived. Their victory owed much to the arrival of a new star. Edson Arantes do Nascimento, better known as Pelé, was only 17 at the time, but scored two goals in Brazil’s 5-2 victory over the hosts in the final.

Brazil went on to win again in 1962, but it is the dazzling team of 1970 that is widely considered the greatest of all time. Jairzinho, Rivelino, Tostão and, of course, Pelé inspired the seleção to a third victory, the footage of which – broadcast in colour around the world for the first time – helped to cement the iconic status of the team in yellow shirts.

Brazilian footballer Pelé

The seleção of the 1982 World Cup – featuring the likes of Zico, Sócrates and Falcão – gained almost as much adulation, although it was knocked out in the second round by the more defensive and pragmatic Italians. Brazil went on to win the 1994 and 2002 World Cups, though never with quite the same attacking verve.

Brands and protests

In the meantime “Brazilian football” became a brand – used to sell everything from sporting goods to holidays – and thousands of Brazilian footballers have been exported to play in foreign leagues.

It has also made fortunes and political careers. During Brazil’s military dictatorship (1964-85), giant stadiums were built in an attempt to bolster support. Corruption scandals, rigged matches and bribed referees in the domestic leagues are common, and many clubs and federa­tions have been run by the same officials, known as cartolas (“top hats”) for decades. Politicians still make donations to local teams in exchange for votes.

However, football is also a way of challenging the status quo. During a match in Paris in 1978, for example, TV cameras could not help but show the giant banners unfurled by Brazil supporters in the crowd calling for an amnesty for political prisoners. Several players have been prominent activists, notably Sócrates, an outspoken pro-democracy campaigner during the military dictatorship.

Confederation Cup protests, Brazil 2013

Last year, as Brazil hosted the Confederations Cup, hundreds of thousands of people poured onto the streets to protest about growing inequality, corruption and poor public services. Broken government promises that public money would not be used to pay for expensive new stadiums and infrastructure for the 2014 World Cup meant public anger was also directed at FIFA and the football establishment. Many of the players even – belatedly – threw their support behind the protests.

Brazilians will still cheer on the seleção when the World Cup kicks off in June, but the recent protests show that their support is not unconditional.

Learn the lingo

Countless football terms have entered popular usage in Brazil:

·   Deu zero a zero = nothing happened (literally, it was 0-0)
·   Pisar na bola = to make a mistake (literally, to tread on the ball)
·   Driblar = to evade or get round
·   Show de bola = a brilliant or clever answer, performance, etc (literally, a display of skill with the ball)
·   Aos 45’ do Segundo tempo = at the eleventh hour (literally, at the 45th minute of the second half)

Brazil Inside Out by Jan Rocha and Francis McDonagh is published by the Latin America Bureau/Practical Action Publishing on 29 May. Shafik Meghji and Matthew Terdre wrote the football chapter.
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