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How Soccer Came to Define Brazil

The massive, multicultural, multiracial nation initially struggled to find a uniting identity—until everyone started playing and watching the sport brought over by the British.
(Photo: antoniothomas/Flickr)

(Photo: antoniothomas/Flickr)

It took less than four decades for Carlos Drummond de Andrade, Brazil’s mid-century poet laureate, to get an answer to his question: “There is no Brazil. By any chance, are there Brazilians?” Milton Nascimento’s much-recorded song “Here Is the Football Nation” replied, “At the match.” It was, from the 1960s onwards, a commonplace of Brazilian culture that football was the national ritual. When the Seleção took the field at the World Cup and over 95 percent of the population were watching them on television, Brazil existed in a more complete way than at any other moment. This was not just a symbolic practice; the demands of football could produce tangible material change too. The 1970 World Cup in Mexico was not only the occasion of Brazil’s third, and most scintillating, victory, but also, to ensure nationwide coverage of the games, the first time that a comprehensive north-south telecommunications infrastructure had been built; just one of the many ways in which the Brazilian state has tried to use football to create the nation.

The creation of a Brazilian nation-state and a living sense of the Brazilian nation or people has been a long and arduous process, for both tasks began with the most meager of resources. Although the country notionally acquired independence from Portugal in 1822, it entered the post-colonial world without experiencing the defining break that characterized the emergence of nations in Spanish-speaking South America. First, the Portuguese court decamped en masse from Lisbon to Rio, fleeing Napoleon’s invading armies. Settling in for almost two decades, the royal court ruled the Lusophone empire from Brazil. When, reluctantly, Dom Pedro I returned to take up his throne in Europe, he left behind his son Dom Pedro II as emperor of a now independent Brazilian Empire. Thus Brazil’s life as a nation rather than some unusual imperial specimen began only in 1889 when the army deposed the emperor in a brief bloodless coup and declared the first Brazilian Republic. Nation in name, the Brazilian republican state was a fragile creature. The nation’s borders were only finally resolved in the early decades of the 20th century and they remained, if geographically defined, virtually unpoliced. The federal state and the presidency, whatever their constitutional prerogatives, lacked the reach and power to govern a nation that stretched from the capital of Rio over 500 miles south to the Uruguayan border and more than 2,000 miles to the depths of the Amazonian basin and the Caribbean coast of the far north. In effect, enormous autonomy was ceded to the states and their local elites.

At the turn of the 20th century, economically and topographically Brazil might as well have been four or five nations. In the south an almost completely European population presided over rich cattle ranching; in the southeast, in the most important and populous states of São Paulo, Rio, and Minas Gerais, a world-beating coffee plantation economy was at its peak. In what is now known as the center west, the inland states of Mato Grosso and Goiás were still a refuge for indigenous Brazilians. A future inland capital had been located there on the maps, but the area was virtually uninhabited and unworked by Europeans. In the northeast, along the Atlantic coast, the remnants of the sugar plantation and slavery complex were combined with the vast, harsh-ranching latifundia of the dry interior, where the same families that had personally commanded these states for centuries remained firmly in control. In the north, but for Manaus, Belém, and the short-lived rubber boom that created them, Brazil had barely scratched at the surface of the vast Amazonian rainforest. Moreover, until the advent of reasonably regular air transport in the late 1940s and 1950s, these regions were connected by the thinnest of threads. Coastal shipping remained the most reliable and the fastest way of communicating between the south and the north, roads were poor, and the country began the century with fewer railway tracks than Belgium.

Brazil’s flimsy federal state and its antiquated military would eventually acquire significantly more power at the expense of individual states, making a national government a reality, but who and what was this geographically and socially fragmented nation?

Over the next half century or so Brazil would be transformed from an overwhelmingly rural to a predominantly urban society, and in Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo it acquired cities of truly metropolitan magnitude. Brazil’s agrarian economies, while remaining significant, were now joined by a rapidly growing industrial sector centered in the southeast. Both of these processes were driven by migration, internal and external. With the end of slavery in 1888, a vast Afro-Brazilian population of landless peasants was created, which, along with the many poor whites and mulattos of the northeast, began heading for the coastal cities of the country. Simultaneously, millions of Europeans—predominantly Italians, Portuguese, and Germans—crossed the Atlantic and stayed in Brazil. Among the many social and cultural transformations wrought by these changes perhaps the most significant was the emergence of the urban working and middle classes and the slow spread of literacy down the social hierarchy. In an electoral system where literacy was the key qualification for voting, this began to produce a larger and more complex electorate.

Brazil’s flimsy federal state and its antiquated military would eventually acquire significantly more power at the expense of individual states, making a national government a reality, but who and what was this geographically and socially fragmented nation? In the century after independence, Brazil’s tiny intelligentsia had looked to Europe for inspiration. Portugal itself proved as hopeless a source of cultural ideas as it had of both capital and labor, so the guiding compass for Brazilian high culture was France. The decorative architecture of the Parisian Belle Époque was reproduced with considerable flourish in Rio, and French novels and poetry were widely read. Auguste Comte, the founder of the discipline of sociology, provided the intellectual inspiration for the cabal of modernizing junior officers that drove the republican revolution. It is, after all, a Comtean notion of “Order and Progress” that is spelled out on the Brazilian flag; a reminder of a time when it was thought that the European sciences could diagnose a nation’s ills and produce rational and effective interventions to deal with them. Alongside this kind of absurdly optimistic positivism, Brazil drew upon European biological theories of race and eugenics. On the one hand, they provided an apparently legitimate scientific explanation of white European superiority. On the other, they made their Brazilian advocates worry about the declining demographic position and racial health of European Brazil, and advocate the whitening of the nation. What didn’t make the journey across the South Atlantic were the more radical and democratic dimensions to the French Republic, the concept and indeed the practice of universal citizenship. This carefully edited cluster of ideas and imagery might have been enough to create a notion of upper-class white European Brazilianness, albeit one constantly threatened by the demographic and racial realities of the country, but as an exercise in popular nationalism under conditions of rapid industrialization it was going nowhere.

The relentless demands of industrialized warfare have been a powerful catalyst for the creation of national state institutions and a collective sense of national identity, but Brazil never experienced this. Although its military was kept busy fighting a grueling 19th-century war with its Paraguayan neighbors, suppressing independent ex-slave communities in the northeast, putting down a rash of mutinies, regional rebellions, and revolts, and even sending a brigade to fight on the Allied side in Italy in the closing years of the Second World War, none of these conflicts could serve as a crucible of national myth, heroic triumph, or collective fortitude. Given Brazil’s calamitously low level of literacy, the creation of a national public sphere through a shared language and literature was not a plausible strategy either.

IN THIS LIGHT, CARLOS Drummond de Andrade’s apparent flippancy belies a profound problem for Brazilian nationalists of the early 20th century. At the most protean moment of Brazil’s search to define itself, the answer could not simply be imposed from above on white, literate, and elite terms. Brazil henceforth would have to incorporate some notion of its African demographics, its complex ethnicities, and the non-literate tastes and practices of its emerging urban popular classes. Brazil was, in actual fact, rich in precisely these cultural forms: popular music from choro to the samba and their accompanying dances and carnivals; candomblé, the generic term for African religious and spiritual practices forged from the hybrid of African cultures compressed under slavery; umbanda, the emerging urban form of candomblé that actively mixed African spirits and Catholic saints, pagan ritual and the Roman sacraments. Yet despite the various attempts made by Brazil’s elite to appropriate these forms, and to integrate at some level the African contribution to Brazilian life, they did not carry a sense of modernity. On the contrary, they remained rooted in deeply antiquated cultures. Brazilian nationalism required a cultural practice that could encompass the full spectrum of the nation’s complex social and racial hierarchies, and that acknowledged the nation’s past but set it on a course for the future. Football, especially in its initial association with Britain, the most modern nation of the time, provided just that. It was in this context that the game, as a physical bodily practice, as a collective ritual, as a carnivalesque spectacular and as a historical narrative, open to all Brazilians, acquired its status in the national pantheon; a position solidified by the global success and poetic acclaim of the national team.

Although football was introduced by the British in São Paulo, and initially played by a predominantly expatriate body of players, it is remarkable how swiftly and completely these influences were overtaken. By the end of the First World War, just 20 years after the first recorded games had been played in São Paulo, the British influence had dwindled to almost nothing. Portuguese vernacular rapidly replaced the remnants of English in the game’s vocabulary. Corinthians, the team of working-class São Paulo, retained their Anglo-Hellenic name, but the gentlemanly, amateur ethos of elite British sports culture was on its last legs and by the end of the 1930s it had collapsed altogether. British football, represented by touring professional teams, was already seen as profoundly different from the emerging Brazilian style of play. Over the next half-century, as well as being the most popular participatory sport, with the biggest crowds and the overwhelming favorite of media audiences of all kinds, football would become a subject of inquiry and depiction in almost every form of Brazilian popular culture and high art.

Whereas the response of the visual arts in 20th-century Britain to football can be boiled down to a single Lowry canvas, football has appeared in the oeuvre of dozens of Brazil’s leading artists—from the nationalist surrealism of Cândido Portinari to the abstract geometries of Ivan Serpa to the pop art of Claudio Tozzi. Its writers and novelists have, again and again, found space for the game in their literary landscapes: from Mário de Andrade’s Macunaíma, to José Lins do Rego’s epic saga of life on Rio’s periphery, Água-mãe, from the urbane and witty crônicas of Clarice Lispector to the sharp short stories of Edilberto Coutinho’s Maracanã, Adeus. The game has also been a thread and connector across the many spheres of Brazilian life. João Cabral Melo Neto was a diplomat who wrote poetry and his poetry featured Pelé. Pelé, a footballer, has gone on to be a businessman, the minister of culture, and a singer and composer. The composer Ary Barroso crossed over into football commentary and then to municipal politics. Politicians regularly seek the presidency of clubs, while club presidents try to make the transition to formal politics. The crowd can become musicians, while musicians have endlessly written and composed songs for players and clubs. Poets and dramatists commentate on football. Football commentators like Washington Rodrigues and João Saldanha have become coaches.

When Globo’s leading commentator Galvão Bueno criticizes the Seleção’s opponents for a fumble or misplaced pass, he says with a mixture of pity and contempt, “They don’t have the same intimacy with the ball.” It is a tone that assures you that he and his listeners are quite convinced that whatever its origins, whatever the competition, it is only in Brazil that football is truly at home, sunk deep into the web of meanings and memory that the nation has spun around it.

This post is adapted from Futebol Nation: The Story of Brazil Through Soccer, which is available now.