How could something as apparently benign as a team sport
become the greatest unifying factor of
the world’s fifth largest
country? What do Brazilians mean when they say,
with jingoistic pride, that
they live in the ‘football country’?
Football arrived in Brazil in 1894. The ‘violent British sport’ did unexpectedly well. Within decades it was the
strongest symbol of Brazilian identity. The national team, as we all know, has won more World Cups than anyone else. The
country has also produced Pelé, the greatest player of all time. More than that, Brazilians invented a flamboyant, thrilling and
graceful style that has set an unattainable benchmark for the rest of the world. Britons call it the
‘beautiful game’. Brazilians call it ‘futebol-arte’, or art-football. Whichever term you choose, nothing in international sport has quite the same allure.
I arrived in Brazil in 1998. I didn’t do badly either. I became a foreign correspondent. It was a job I’d always coveted
and, journalistically speaking, Brazil is irresistible. The country is vast and colorful and diverse. For a start, it has more blacks
than any other country except Nigeria, more Japanese than anywhere outside Japan, as well as 300,000 indigenous Indians,
including maybe a dozen tribes who have not yet been contacted. Brazil is the world’s leading producer of orange juice,
coffee and sugar. It is also an industrialized nation, curiously one of the world’s leading airplane-makers, and it has an
impressive artistic heritage, especially in music and dance.
And, of course, they’ve got an awful lot of football.
Soon after I arrived I went to see the national team play. It was at the Maracanã, the spiritual home of Brazilianergo
worldfootball. When the players filed on to the pitch, we jumped and cheered. The noise was like an electric storm, a rousing
chorus of firecrackers, drumming and syncopated chants. It crystallized what I already knew; that the romance of Brazilian
football is much more than the ‘beautiful game’. We love Brazil because of the spectacle. Because their fans are so exuberantly
happy. Because we know their stars by their first namesas if they are personal friends. Because the national team conveys a
utopian racial harmony. Because of the iconic golden yellow on their shirts.
We love Brazil because they are Braziiiiiiiiiil.
As a sports fan, I immediately took an interest in the domestic leagues. I read the sports pages, adopted a club and
regularly went to matches. Following football is perhaps the most efficient way to integrate into Brazilian society. As a journalist,
I became increasingly fascinated with how football influences the way of life. And if football reflects culture, which I think
it does, then what is it about Brazil that makes its footballers and its fans so…well…Brazilian.
That’s what this book is about.
I first wanted to know how a British game brought over a little over a century ago could shape so strongly the
destiny of a tropical nation. How could something as apparently benign as a team sport become the greatest unifying factor of
the world’s fifth largest country? What do Brazilians mean when they say, with jingoistic pride, that they live in the
If football is the world’s most popular sport, and if Brazil is football’s most successful nation, then the
consequences of such a reputation must be far-reaching and unique. No other country is branded by a single sport, I believe, to the
extent that Brazil is by football.
The research took me a year. I flew, within the country’s borders, the equivalent of the circumference of the world. I
interviewed hundreds of people. First, the usual suspects: current and former players, club bosses, referees, scouts, journalists,
historians and fans. Then, when I really wanted to get under the country’s skin: priests, politicians, transvestites, musicians,
judges, anthropologists, Indian tribes and beauty queens. I also interviewed a man who makes a living performing keepie-uppies
with ball bearings, rodeo stars who play football with bulls, a fan who is so peculiar-looking that he sells advertising space
on his shirt and I discovered a secret plot involving Sócrates and Libya’s Colonel Muammar al-Gadaffi.
I was not interested in ‘facts’, like results or team line-ups. Brazil is not big on facts anyway; it is a country built on
stories, myths and Chinese whispers. The written word is notyetas trusted as the spoken one. (One of the country’s more
infuriating customs, especially if you are a journalist). I was interested in people’s lives and the tales they told.
The result, I hope, is a contemporary portrait of Latin America’s largest country seen through its passion for
football. Brazil is the country where funeral directors offer coffins with club crests, where offshore oil rigs are equipped with
five-a-side pitches and where a football club can get you elected to parliament.
I started my research in mid-2000, exactly half a century after the World Cup was held in Brazil and thirty years after
Brazil won, so spectacularly, the title for the third time. It was a convenient starting point for reflection on the legacy of
I claim no responsibility, but within weeks Brazilian football was plunging into its most serious crisis ever. The
national team lost a sequence of matches and congress began two wide-ranging investigations into the sport.
The situation got worse and worse. Brazil kept on losing and congressmen were shedding light upon a nasty and
corrupt underworld. For a moment, the unthinkablethat Brazil would fail to qualify for the 2002 World Cupwas a real possibility.
I understand the crisis as a reflection of more general tensions. Since the 1950s, when Pelé started playing, Brazil has
gone from an overwhelmingly rural and illiterate country to an urban and literate one. It has passed through two decades of
dictatorship and is learning, sometimes uncomfortably, about how to create a new society. Meanwhile, the world is
different. Football is also different. The only constant seems to be the magic we still invest in Brazil’s golden yellow shirts.
I followed the parliamentary investigations closely. I flew to Brasília to see the hearings. I was there when Ronaldo
was called to give evidence. He was being asked to explain to congressmen why Brazil was only second best in the 1998
‘There are many truths,’ the footballer told his interrogators. He said he would give
‘his truth’, and that he hoped it
pleased them. But whether or not it was the ‘true truth’well, that was up to them.
I immediately scribbled this down in my notebook. I thought it was the most unintentionally observant comment any
footballer has ever made. Brazil has many ‘truths’. This book is my search for the
‘true truth’ of Brazilian football. I hope it pleases you.
Rio de Janeiro
Brazilians play football differently. At least they used to. It does not matter that they might never again. The
Brazilian style is like an international trademark, which was registered during the 1958 and 1962 World Cups and given a universal
patent in 1970. Its essence is a game in which prodigious individual skills outshine team tactics, where dribbles and flicks are
preferred over physical challenges or long-distance passes. Perhaps because of the emphasis on the dribble, which moves one’s
whole body, Brazilian football is often described in musical termsin particular as a samba, which is a type of song and a
dance. At their best Brazilians are, we like to think, both sportsmen and artists.
It seems that they always played differently. Or at least as far back as we can tell. In the early years there were limited
occasions for qualitative comparisons, since international games were infrequent. Yet by 1919, after that year’s South American
Championship, there were glimmers of what would enchant the world half a century later. In an article headlined
Innovation’, the journalist Américo R. Netto wrote: "As opposed to the British school, which dictates that the ball be taken
by all the forwards right up to the opposition’s goal and put in from the closest possible range, the Brazilian school states
that shots be taken from any distance, the precision of the shot being worth more than the fact that it is made close to the
target. And it further states that the collective advance of the whole forward line is not necessary; it’s enough for two or three
players to break away with the ball, which, by its devastating speed, completely unexpected, disorientates the entire rival defence."
Since most Brazilians learnt from informal kickabouts, it was likely that they would play in a way less constrained by
rules, tactics or conventions. Since many started playing using bundles of socks, it was also likely that their ball skills would
be more highly developed and inventive. Alternatively, one could explain the flashy individualism by pointing to the
national trait of showing off in public. Brazil is the country of Carnaval, not of self-negating uniformity. Archie McLean, a
Scottish League forward who moved to São Paulo in 1912, put it down to irresponsibility: "There were great players there, but
they were terribly undisciplined. Their antics would not have been tolerated in Scotland. During a game a couple of players
tried to find out who could kick the ball the highest. I soon put a stop to that sort of thing."
Some historians have suggested that reliance on the dribble evolved because of the racism of the game’s formative
years. They say that the style was created by black players who improvised artfulness as a way of self-protection against
whites. If you were black, you would not want to have physical contact with a white player, since this could end in retaliation.
Blacks had to use guile rather than force to keep the ball. An interview with Domingos da Guia, the most talented defender of
the 1930s, supports this view: "When I was still a kid I was scared to play football, because I often saw black players, there
in Bangu, get whacked on the pitch, just because they made a foul, or sometimes for something less than that…my elder
brother used to tell me: ‘the cat always falls on his feet…aren’t you good at dancing?’ I was and this helped my football…I
swung my hips a lot…that short dribble I invented imitating the
miudinho, that type of samba."
There is a revealing parallel here with another Brazilian invention.
Capoeira is a martial art, invented by Angolan
slaves, that was disguised as a dance to fool the slave owners. In
capoeira, the two contestants never make physical contact.
Instead, they taunt each otherusually to musicwith deceptive kicks and trip-ups. The hip-swinging body language used by
a capoeirista is very similar to samba dancers and Brazilian dribblers.
Whatever the singularities of the Brazilian style really were, they soon became indistinguishable from the
interpretation given to them. In 1933, coincidentally the year professionalism was introduced, a young sociologist called Gilberto
Freyre published a book that was to mark a watershed in the way Brazil was regarded in academicand popularthinking. In
Casa Grande e Senzala (translated as The Masters and the
Slaves), Freyre turned racial theory on its head.
Until Freyre, Brazil’s racial mixture was seen as a weight around the country’s neck. Freyre was the first person to
say that their contribution to Brazil was good. Because of the high level of miscegenationdue, he wrote, to the traditional
penchant of Portuguese men for dark women and the shortage of Portuguese women during colonial timesBrazil’s many races
got on in a different way than in other countries.
Despite the brutality of the slave era, there was also a unique racial tolerance. Freyre said that the authentic Brazilian
was a rich combination of European and African impulsesof, among other qualities, Apollonian rationality and
Dionysian malevolence. (Freyre, unsurprisingly, is now regarded by many as as racist as his forebears). In the 1930s, however, his
thoughts created a new, pro-mulatto view of national identitywhich in football found its most powerful metaphor.
Freyre took the negative and made it positive. He championed playfulness and mischief as national characteristics.
The folkloric Rio figure of the malandro, a kind of mixed-race artful dodger, was used to embody Freyre’s theories. The
malandro was a sublimation of whiteness and blackness. In football terms, the
malandro took an orderly British game and turned
it into a ‘dance of irrational surprise’. In 1938, he wrote: "Our style of playing football contrasts with the Europeans
because of a combination of qualities of surprise, malice, astuteness and agility, and at the same time brilliance and
individual spontaneity…Our passes…our dummies, our flourishes with the ball, the touch of dance and subversiveness that marks
the Brazilian style…seem to show psychologists and sociologists in a very interesting way the roguery and flamboyance of
the mulatto that today is in every true affirmation of what is Brazilian."
Sports journalists adapted Freyre’s theories, popularizing the idea that not only was there a Brazilian style but that
this style was a proud advertisement for the country’s unique racial make-up. This view became the consensus and found
its personification in the two outstanding players of the 1930sDomingos da Guia and Leônidas da Silva.
As football was becoming linked ideologically to national identity, it was also mobilizing unprecedented displays of
patriotism. When, in 1908, a team of Argentineans came to play in Rio the matches attracted larger crowds than had ever been seen
before. In 1914, when Exeter City were on their way back from Argentina, they played a game against an all-star selection of Rio
and São Paulo players. The match is considered the debut of the Brazilian national team. About 10,000 spectators saw Brazil
win 2-0. Newspapers reported the delirium of the crowd as ‘simply indescribable’. In 1919, Rio hosted the South
American Championship for the first time. Brazil won and (Arthur) Friedenreich, who scored the only goal of the final game, gained
a national prominence that until then no sportsman had ever had. As a measure of the public’s interest, his boots were put
on display in the window of a city center jewelers.
Football arrived at a time when Brazil, which had only become a republic in 1889, was searching for its own identity.
The game’s rapid dissemination gave the urban population, lacking in national symbols, a common experience. Football was
also seized on by politicians, who saw how it could build national pride. President Getúlio Vargas, who came to power in a
1930 rebellion and stayed in power until 1945, used the sport to feed his ideals of nationalism and social harmony. He
centralized sport, creating a national council, setting up regional federations and subsidizing Brazil’s expenses at the 1938 World
Cupto which his daughter accompanied the delegation.
When Brazil traveled to the 1938 World Cup in France, the country was gripped with unparalleled excitement.
Journalists invested the nation’s hopes in Domingos and Leônidas. Domingos was an athletic defender with such calmness and
strength of character that he could dribble his way out of danger. Leônidas was a centerforward whose acrobatic skills earned
him the nickname ‘Rubber Man’. Brazilians credit Leônidas with inventing the bicycle kick, in which the ball is kicked when
the player’s body is suspended horizontally in the air.
It was Brazil’s third World Cup. In the first twoin 1930 and 1934Brazil had failed to pass the first round. The first
match in 1938, against Poland, showed how much the South Americans had improved. At 4-4, the game went into extra time.
Leônidas was "simply amazing. He was our stick of dynamite. He did the impossible. Each time he touched the ball there was an
electric current of enthusiasm through the crowd," wrote a Brazilian reporter. Brazil won 6-5, with Leônidas scoring the winner
barefoot, after his boot came off in the swampy turf. "The shot, strong and unexpected, left everyone in Strasbourg’s small
stadium open-mouthed," wrote another witness. "People were stunned. Europe’s sports press, who thought they had already
seen everything on a football pitch, reacted with fright, confusion and shouts of
‘bravo!, bravo!, bravo’."
Brazil were knocked out in the semifinals by Italy, who would be champion, and beat Sweden in the playoff for third
place. Even though they were not champions, Brazil were the tournament’s real sensations. Leônidas was voted best player.
He was the top scorer, with seven goals in four games, and eulogized by the French, who gave him the nickname Le
Diamant Noirthe Black Diamond.
When Leônidas returned home he was the most famous man in Brazil. He became the first footballer to endorse a
product. A confectionery company, Lacta, launched the Diamante Negro chocolate bar. The Diamante Negro is still aroundit is
Brazil’s second bestselling chocolate bar and available in another ten countries including Japan, the United States and Australia.
Leônidas’s success was seen not just as good fortune but as a national vindication since he embodied the essence
of Brazil. Football played à la brésilienne
was already the most potent symbol of nationhoodtwo decades before Brazil
eventually won a World Cup. By the 1930s, there had been attempts to call the sport something less clunkily English than
‘football’. But suggestionsincluding
pébol, bolapé (using
pé, Portuguese for foot) and the Greek-inspired
balípododid not stick. Instead, Brazilian journalists started to use the transliteration
futebol. Futebol was not the game that Charles Miller
imported in 1894. Futebol was the sport that was played as a dance; it was the sport that united the country and that showed its
greatness. Gilka Machado, held as the greatest poetess of her day, summed up the national feeling in the following poem, written
about the 1938 World Cup:
I salute you
Heroes of the day
You made us understand
In a silent language,
Writing with your entrancing, winged feet
An international epopee.
overcome the space
mix with yours,
follow in your footsteps
to the rushing ball,
to the decisive kick
of the glory of the Fatherland
(. . .)
That the Leônidases and the Domingoses
Fix in the eye of the foreigner
The miraculous reality
That is the Brazilian man
(. . .)
The brains of the Universe
Render themselves, reverent
To your genial feet.
The soul of Brazil
Lays down a kiss
On your heroic feet!
Excerpted from FUTEBOL: Soccer, the Brazilian
Way by Alex Bellos (Bloomsbury, May 2002). Available at
bookstores everywhere and online at amazon.com & bn.com. Please visit
www.bloomsburymagazine.com/usa for more information.
Alex Bellos, the author, is the correspondent in Brazil for the British paper
The Guardian and can be reached at
Show Comments (0)