Brazil: where sport and politics have always mixed

As the football World Cup returns to the land of Pele and Socrates, Chris Bowlby discovers that Brazil's leaders have long used the people's passion for the game to cement their grip on power

Brazil's soccer star Pele is hoisted on the shoulders of his teammates and fans after Brazil won the ninth World Cup final against Italy. (AP Photo)

This article was first published in the June 2014 issue of BBC History Magazine

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The World Cup kicking off in Brazil in June will showcase a society celebrated for its exuberant football and love of a good party. Brazil’s recent economic progress will also be taking centre stage – courtesy of gleaming new stadiums and state-of-the-art infrastructure – as the world’s fifth largest country does its best to project itself as a rising global power.

The Brazilian passion for futebol and carnival is real enough – as is the rapid expansion of its economy. Tensions have been evident, however, in the build-up to this summer’s tournament. Last year, a wave of unrest swept across Brazil’s cities, as thousands of protesters took to the streets to complain about the cost of public transport amid suspicions that spending on the World Cup was accelerating divisions between rich and poor. And a closer look at football’s relationship with Brazilian history – a love affair stretching back over a century – shows how the sport has often been caught up in turbulent social, economic and political change.

Football arrived in Brazil in the 1890s at a crucial period in the country’s development. It was a British import – introduced by immigrants and traders after the British had assisted the Portuguese royal family, early in the century, to escape Napoleon and establish themselves as rulers of the colony.

Broader immigration from Britain was encouraged, says Anthony Pereira, director of the Brazil Institute at King’s College London, partly to form a new labour force following the abolition of slavery in the 1880s. Brazil had imported millions of slaves, many more than the United States, so abolition marked a huge change. Freed slaves were not given land, however, and formed a new urban underclass, often moving to the favelas, slum areas that are still part of Brazilian cities today.

And they were a sporting underclass too. Initially, says Pereira, football was “an elite sport associated with yachts and tennis clubs”. A lot of football clubs “didn’t allow black players”.

So the idea of football as a sport that miraculously united a hugely diverse Brazilian population – black, white, indigenous, immigrant – was not immediately evident. Yet it wouldn’t be long before the sheer ability and enthusiasm of players from outside the sporting elite would begin to make their mark.

Brazil’s politics, meanwhile, were far from stable, and authoritarian rulers often exploited sport to further their aims and promote their ideas of stability. A BBC Radio 4 series on The Invention of Brazil, presented by Misha Glenny in May, described how Getulio Vargas, who ruled for periods from the 1930s to the 1950s as dictator and president, sought to use football as part of his plan to unite the country. “Football as the national sport, samba as the national dance, carnival for the masses,” as Glenny argues, “all the things we think of when we hear the word Brazil, these were Vargas’s ideas, popularised in order to bind together perhaps the most diverse population on Earth.”

The last time Brazil staged the World Cup, in 1950, it had recently adopted a new democratic constitution and wanted to show the world that it was emerging as a country. It was, says Pereira, a time of “amazing optimism” with a big expansion of the franchise, and the industrial working class voting for the first time.

The government built the enormous Maracana stadium in Rio, capable of holding over 180,000 spectators – “a stage of fantastic proportions in which the whole world can admire our prestige,” wrote one Brazilian newspaper. But politicians can never legislate for success on the pitch. While England’s shock defeat at that World Cup by the USA symbolised a postwar loss of global confidence, Brazil’s hopes were dashed by a traumatic defeat to Uruguay in the final.

Before long Brazil would be regular World Cup winners, but it was the country’s new authoritarian rulers who initially reaped the benefits. The victory in Mexico in 1970 was perhaps the high point of Brazil’s reputation for ‘beautiful football’, and the military junta, which had taken power in 1969, claimed the credit. This win, says David Goldblatt, author of Futebol Nation, “crystallised the already intimate relationship between football and the military-industrial complex in the country”. For the military, football was part of its “bread and circuses” policy of trying to keep the masses happy without democracy.

Football played its part too in the eventual restoration of democracy. Some teams and prominent players such as Socrates began to wear shirts with slogans supporting democratic elections. But football continued to be affected by other problems dividing Brazilian society, such as corruption.

And preparations for the World Cup this year have shown how, in some ways, a sport that can unite Brazilians so passionately in support for their national team nonetheless still reveals deep-rooted divisions. While there has been “more convergence regionally in terms of wealth” and a “flattening of inequality,” says Anthony Pereira, the government is still trying to use the building of new stadiums in regional centres as a sign that it is spreading the benefits of development.

“Every World Cup for Brazil has a political dimension,” he adds. In some ways, the staging of protests shows that Brazil has emerged more fully from its authoritarian past, enabling the government to say: “Look how well we’ve done, we’ve included people, they’re not afraid of the government, can protest against it.”

Yet the demonstrations seen in Brazilian cities last year, he says, were partly about the question: who is this event for? Is Brazil’s modernisation benefiting all parts of the country, all social groups?

Poorer Brazilians – descendants, as it were, of the underclass created in the 19th century – will celebrate their team’s footballing successes. But expensive games in glitzy new stadiums will also symbolise exclusion for some – the kind of exclusion many Brazilians faced when football was first played there in the 1890s.

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Chris Bowlby is a presenter on BBC radio, specialising in history.