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Slavery, Sex and the Roots of Brazil's Transcendent Style of Soccer

Reflecting on my alternate life as a Futebol fanatic


When I was ten, just old enough for familial truths, my mother began telling me about the time she spent in displaced-persons camps across Germany. The horrors of the previous few years were so immense that her mother would fall asleep imagining a transplanted life in Brazil, where the bulk of her surviving relatives had wisely fled before the war. But all her pleasing fantasies about starting over in the tropics were ruined by a xenophobic reality. My grandparents had picked one of the worst moments in Brazilian history to file an immigration application. Quotas shut them out. They settled on a more plausible destination: Washington, D.C.

My grandparents became grocers, peddling potato chips and sodas in pre-gentrified Adams Morgan. In those days, Brazil seemed the country with gold-paved streets. My great uncle Jose would visit, carrying suitcases filled with cash to stuff into his New York accounts, where it would remain buffered from hyper- inflation. Jose had a Yul Brynner scalp and a battering-ram voice; his index finger had been truncated by a youthful farming accident. It was always that finger that clutched the wad of twenties that he would ceremonially slip into my grasp on each of his trips. Part of the deal, I concluded, was that I had to shake that mangled hand afterward.

Until my teens, the traffic of visits with Brazilians only flowed in one direction. Every year, we greeted another set of relatives, taking them to the same kitschy seafood restaurant and on the same expeditions to White Flint Mall. And every year, we were left with the same set of presents from our guests. I acquired a drawer full of canary yellow soccer jerseys that seemed dangerously exotic for school, but that I would don for the World Cup matches I watched at a Brazilian cultural center. And on those game days, draped in the national shirt, I would begin to wonder about the bizarro version of life my grandparents had wanted. Who would my friends be? What would I do once I graduated? What would it be like to live in a country where a game meant so much?

You can tell the story of America without baseball or football, but Brazilian history, which is also about race at its core, would be sapped of meaning without soccer. There’s so much about modern Brazilian culture—samba, feijoada, Tropicalismo, Black Orpheus—that evokes a genuinely multiracial society. But the history is brutal. Four million Africans passed through the port of Rio on their way to plantations. After the South lost the American Civil War, 10,000 Confederates immigrated to the old Portuguese colony—one of the last places on Earth where they could continue to practice bondage in the style of Dixie. In fact, slavery survived in Brazil until 1888, lingering just past the inventions of the telephone and automobile.

The arrival of soccer coincided with emancipation. It came in the form of Charles Miller, the son of a Scottish émigré, who brought two footballs with him to São Paulo. The game he played with his friends quickly became a fad, embraced by all those newly liberated slaves pouring into the big cities.

White Brazilians never practiced anything close to Jim Crow, but that didn’t make them enlightened. They had their own theories of racial superiority. Prejudice left the Brazilian elite deeply torn about fully admitting blacks into its newfangled soccer leagues and teams—boundaries that players gingerly transgressed. During his debut game for a Rio club, one player of mixed racial descent attempted to obscure his skin color by applying rice powder to his face, a ploy that failed to take perspiration into account. Even today, his team, Fluminense, is known as “rice powder.”

All-white lineups, however, never fared so well as integrated ones. And ultimately the thirst for victory dictated the racial composition of Brazilian soccer. The rainbow squad sent to the World Cup in 1938 played astonishingly well against the European powers. They advanced deep into the tournament on the basis of a sui generis style—full of feints, jukes, and trickery.

Their performance captivated the nation as a whole, and one intellectual in particular. A young anthropologist called Gilberto Freyre had studied at Columbia with the godfather of his discipline, Franz Boas. In 1933, he published a revelatory book called The Masters and the Slaves, an account of the sugar plantations in the northeastern part of the country. The system of slavery he described was radically different from its North American counterpart—and the biggest difference was sex. Where Americans scorned sexual relations between masters and their slaves as deeply shameful, Brazilians took another view. Miscegenation was a necessity, an accepted part of life. More than that, Freyre argued, it was the primal source of Brazil’s national greatness. Racial-mixing had birthed a new breed of man with incredible traits—and, in turn, it had birthed a new, more tolerant society.

With one pseudo-scientific twist, Freyre had transformed his country’s anxiety about race into a transcendent virtue. The Brazilian national team became one of his most powerful data points. “Our style of football,” he wrote in a 1943 essay, “seems to contrast with the European style because of a set of characteristics such as surprise, craftiness, shrewdness, readiness and I shall say individual brilliance and spontaneity, all of which express our ‘mulattoism.’ ”

This thesis hardened into conventional wisdom after the 1958 World Cup, which showcased Pelé, Brazil’s first black superstar. In his magisterial new history of Brazilian soccer, Futebol Nation, David Goldblatt notes: “Almost the entire squad had intestinal parasites, some had syphilis, others were anemic. Over 300 teeth were extracted from the players’ mouths.” Their performance, however, betrayed no signs of affliction. Pelé had begun the tournament as a 17-year-old prospect sitting on the bench. (A team psychologist even advised against inserting him on the squad: “He does not possess the sense of responsibility necessary for a team game.”) By the end, he scored some of the most memorable goals in the history of the sport, filled with all the glorious craftiness that Freyre described—including the legendary sombrero goal, where he dinked a ball just over the hair of a Swedish defender and volleyed it before it grazed the ground. When his team won the Cup, Pelé passed out and then bawled uncontrollably, an instantly iconic celebration. The country’s most important sportswriter credited him with completing the task of abolition.

Over time, Brazil grew dangerously dependent on soccer. It came to define the nation in the eyes of the world, and it played an outsized role in its own sense of self-worth. Victories came so easily during the ’60s and ’70s that the country didn’t just demand trophies; they wanted those triumphs procured with what Freyre called Futebol Arte and what the world knows as Jogo Bonito, the beautiful game. As one coach of the national team complained, “It got to the point where we beat Bolivia 6-0 and one newspaper in São Paulo accused us of playing defensively.”

The almost unbearable pressure on managers inevitably led the team away from improvisational genius. The tactics used to win the 1994 World Cup—perhaps the worst World Cup of them all—squelched inventiveness and favored the deployment of pragmatic hard men, who had a greater skill at knocking opponents off the ball than running at them with step-over dribbling.

And there was a far graver cost to success than that. Dictators and aspiring dictators skillfully harnessed mass enthusiasm for the game. Getúlio Vargas, the authoritarian leader who presided from 1930 to 1945, explicitly used soccer to create a new sense of national identity, a campaign of brasilidade, or Brazilization—and to ballast his own power. He built stadiums, then held rallies in them. His successors mimicked this approach. During the reign of the military dictatorship in the ’70s, the government plastered Pelé’s face on posters alongside its slogan: “NOBODY CAN STOP THIS COUNTRY NOW.”

Pelé, it should be remembered as you watch him in commercials for Subway’s $5 foot-long, didn’t just lend his visage to the cause; he spoke up on behalf of the dictatorship. “We are a free people. Our leaders know what is best for [us],” he said in 1972. At that very moment, the writer David Zirin has noted, Brazil’s current president, Dilma Rousseff, was being tortured in prison.

The bread and circus act of Brazil’s leaders worked until it didn’t. That is the irony of this year’s World Cup. It was the brainchild of former President Lula da Silva, a scourge of the junta and longtime head of the Workers’ Party. He poured the public coffers into the building of stadiums and infrastructure, monuments that would signal Brazil’s arrival in the world, to prove that it was a BRIC worth its weight.

There were many flaws with the government Lula ran, including a fair amount of corruption. But his accomplishments were difficult to deny. Tens of millions of Brazilians exited poverty; infant mortality and malnutrition plunged. He presided over the creation of a new middle class. And the middle class that emerged—with its new set of values and improved access to information—has asked searching questions of the billions spent on this football festival. Stadiums have been erected with no plausible future purpose to justify their size. There’s every good reason to assume that vast sums have ended up in the pockets of the cronies of the politicians who authorized them. What should be the joyous culmination of the grand history of Brazilian soccer has given way to street protests.

Over the last decade, I have experienced my own disillusionment with Brazilian soccer. Like the restive middle class, I had seen too much. Reporting on the corruption of the sport, I witnessed how little of the national game had been untouched by rot. And yet, my fascination remains. I’m taking my two young daughters to Brazil to watch the tournament in a few weeks. In preparation, we’ve watched clips of Neymar dribbling, Ronaldinho juggling, and the majesty of the 1970 team. I’ve also told them for the first time about their grandma’s displaced past and the unpredictability of history, how if their great-grandma had applied for a visa a few years earlier, their fates would have bounced differently. They may be too young to grasp the significance, but they’ll be sitting in the stands with their Brazilian cousins, and every one of us will be wearing canary yellow.