Football in Brazil is more than the opium of the masses. It is more about individual expression, playing out fantasies and climbing the social ladder
On a hot December morning in 2012, just a couple of months after moving to São Paulo, I was jolted out of sleep by an incessant sound of firecrackers. In this city, they joke, fireworks are a message from drug-lords to all junkies that a new cons ignment has arrived. But that ‘message’ is loud yet brief. This relentless barrage was being caused by the fans of Corinthians football club, as their team got ready to play against Chelsea in the final of the World Cup of Clubs in Yokohama, many time zones away. That day I realised that fireworks in São Paulo are not just about drugs, they are also done before any important jogo de futebol (game of football).
As Corinthians beat the English club 1-0, the fireworks didn’t stop the whole day. After a couple of days, when the winners and their thousands of supporters came back from Japan, there were street parties all over. Amid such revelry, it was revealed by newspapers that a lot of Corinthians fans, mostly working-class blokes, had financed their trip to Japan by selling their cars, or withdrawing their pensions or borrowing money from friends. As someone new in Brazil, I drew a quick conclusion: football is the opium of the masses in this country. If people would beg, borrow or steal to see their team play, I thought, it was a sign of addiction.
To make quick opinions about a country is a dangerous thing. And for a country that is three times the size of India with a population of 200 million and great social diversity in terms of racial groups and cultures, it’s even more dangerous to make simple assumptions.
Nonetheless, as I began to travel across the country, I could see the signs of addiction among the people: flags of football clubs on beaches, fireworks every Sunday, street fights between fans of rival clubs and animated debates and brawls in bars and cafes. Most Brazilians I met in the course of my work, or socially, asked me “which Brazilian club” I supported. It seemed the club you support is like your middle name, if not surname. Brazil is called the Home of Football, I feel, because the game controls people’s behaviour, and not because the country has produced generations of players known for their ball- controlling skills and winning the World Cup five times, more than any other country.
A few months later, I had the opportunity to travel to a Quilombo in the Ribeirao valley of São Paulo. Quilombos were set up by African slaves who ran away from their owners. They are now run by the descendants of former slaves, with support from the government. On a pleasant March morning, a small group of journalists—all South Americans except me—travelled along a blue river snaking through green hills covered with banana plantations on our way to the valley. Just off the roads lined with trees, suddenly a small village would pop up and vanish. Almost all villages looked identical: a cluster of brick or wooden houses with dirt streets, a whitewashed church perched on a hillock and two goal-posts pitched in a lush-green field.
In the afternoon, we stopped in a small village of six houses with 50 odd residents. The village had two rows of houses on the either side of a football pitch and a church standing above the goal at one end. “Why, such a small village has an Olympic-size football field!” I remarked. Suddenly, the whole group was staring at me. “Of course, a village needs a football field,” said a Brazilian journalist. “We don’t even notice it. It’s a part of our landscape, our lives,” said an Argentinian journalist, looking amused at my remark.
A little later, it became clear to me what they meant. As the sun begin to drop down, the whole village—men, women, boys and girls—came out, making small groups in different parts of the pitch. And the men, boys and girls started playing football as women shouted from the sidelines— not cheering the players but telling them how to play. As the game and shouting went on, I realised that most players had nicknames like frango (chicken), borboleta (butterfly) and preguica (sloth). The names obviously had something to do with the way they dribbled the ball and tackled their opponents. The jogo went on till the village was enveloped by darkness. It looked like a village picnic. But it was not. “This is what we do every day. People may skip church on Sunday, but you can’t miss the jogo. This is where we meet and socialise,” said a man, when I asked how frequently they play. “We don’t play matches. We just play football. We love to score goals. We all score goals in different ways,” he added, in a matter-of- fact manner.
In this part of the country, far from club rivalries, championships and multi-million contracts, football looked more like a social activity and a platform for self expression. It didn’t look like an addiction. Not even a sport.
For a sport that came to Brazil from England in 1894, it’s really amazing how deep the roots that football has developed in this country and its South American neighbours are. Several academics have done research on football and its social roots in Brazil, but anthropologist Roberto da Matta has come out with the most interesting theory about what football means to Brazilians. In England and other European countries, wrote Da Matta in an essay, ‘Football is lived as a sport, while in Brazil it is lived as a game.’ What he meant is that in the individualistic societies of Europe, football is a collective effort at creating ‘comradeship, fair play and unity’, but in Brazil it’s exactly the opposite. Here, the game is not seen as an ‘external activity’. It’s not about seeking unity, wrote the anthropologist, but it is a ‘possibility of individual expression’.
Having lived in England and seen football there, I can now see Da Matta’s point. In England, you learn the game either at school, a club or small enclosures in neighbourhoods. In Brazil, they play football wherever there is space: streets, parks, backyards, parking lots, factories and at home. A beggar living on the edge of my street is always playing with an empty beer can, dribbling beautifully and shooting it into an imaginary goal. In the streets of the city’s poor areas you see young boys, barefoot and bare-chested, keeping the ball so close to their feet as they run, it’s as if the ball a lover they don’t want to lose.
This relationship between football and people didn’t evolve in one day. It took years. For decades after Charles Miller, the Scotsman who brought the game here, the game was played by the white elite. Slowly, the poor— and mostly black—started playing football as well. This change happened on two fronts simultaneously: football and Carnival, the two things that define Brazil more than anything else. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the Carnival used to be a snooty gig—almost French in style. In those times, it was not possible for the poor (often a black or mixed-race person) to join the beautiful game or Carnival parties. As democracy took roots in the country, the ordinary people took football away from the elite. “It ceased to be a sport for Apollos, and became a sport of the Dionysia,” says sociologist Gilberto Freyre in a documentary he made on Brazilian football. The Carnival is now entirely managed by the favelas (Brazilian slums). The same is true of football too, as the most players still come from the poorer sections of the society. It’s no wonder that all the players who captivated three generations of Brazilians—Didi, Pele, Garrincha, Jairzinho, Romario, Bebeto, Juninho and Ronaldo the Phenonmenon—came from the other side of the tracks. They all represented the ordinary, poor people who could belong to Brazil because of their ability to dribble the ball. Football offered them freedom. It became a form of realising one’s fantasies.
This also reflects in Brazil’s love for their football heroes. While Pele is venerated globally, it’s Mane Garrincha who is still loved as the real hero. He is adored because he was a malandro—on the pitch and off it. In Brazilian folklore, a malandro is a ‘trickster’ who lives by his wits. In the 1930s, when poor Brazilians started honing their football skills, malandragem was their preferred style of play. As they came from poor families, they couldn’t play hard- tackle football. So, they invented shrewd body movement and back-heel passes. The people loved them as these underdogs beat teams from rich and big nations with their little tricks. Similar techniques were developed in other South American countries with similar social divisions.
Brazil's social fabric has changed a lot since the days of Pele and Garrincha. But in a country where people still have an emotional connect with jogo de futebol, when the FIFA show comes to town, it’s bound to evoke emotions. Football makes people emotional. Last year, during the Confederations Cup, hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets across the country to protest a hike in bus fares. Soon, the rallies turned into demands for better schools and hospitals. In recent weeks, there have been some protests organised by teachers unions and other groups. But with just a few days to go before the first game in São Paulo on 12 June, the mood has changed and the whole country seems awash with the Brazilian colours: green and yellow. ‘What’s the point of protesting when the best footballers in the world are playing in our stadiums? It’s not going to get us education and hospitals. Let’s enjoy the party,’ wrote Antonio Prata, a leading columnist in Folha de Sao Paulo this week. A majority of Brazilians would agree with Prata.
As far as preparations for the event are concerned, all 12 state-of-the-art stadiums are ready. Foreign teams have started arriving in different cities across the country to get used to the time zone and climate. People can’t stop talking about the “sixth star”—a reference to five-star above the Brazilian team’s logo, each one for the five World Cup wins since 1958.
But some people are still agitating, and that too reflects the importance of football in Brazil. Just last week, Brazilian football legend Ronaldo, who is a member of the World Cup organising committee, said that he felt “ashamed” with delays in the preparations for the event. President Dilma Rouseff, who will be seeking re-election in October, rebutted Ronaldo by saying that the Cup will be successful as the country “doesn’t suffer from complexo de vira-lata (the mongrel complex) anymore”. Coined by famous writer Nelson Rodrigues in the context of the 1950 defeat to Uruguay in the World Cup final, this complex reflects ‘the inferiority which arises in the Brazilian when they face the rest of the world’.
For a country that has made everyone feel inferior to them in football, there is no reason for Brazil to have this complex anymore. But then, how does one explain the anger and protests—however small—in some pockets of the country? Roberto DaMatta has an explanation. “It shows that football in Brazil is not the opium of the masses as it motivates them to come out to seek social justice,” the anthropologist said this week, after the furore over Ronaldo’s ill-timed remark. “It helps the people find themselves and their place in society.”
After living in Brazil for close to two years, during which the country has been preparing for the World Cup, I have realised that equating football with opium is to misunderstand the sport as well as Brazil. In this country, it’s anything but an addiction. Brazilians do not see football as a sport. It’s always jogo de futebol. Never football. It’s a social activity. It keeps communities together. It gives a chance to an individual to express himself. It’s not imposed as a discipline. It comes from within.
For generations, Brazilians have used football to realise their personal and collective fantasies. The trend continues in their campaign for a record sixth World Cup title.
Shobhan Saxena is a São Paulo-based journalist. He has written for The Times of India and The Hindu, and is a visiting professor at University of São Paulo, where he teaches a course on Indian politics, foreign policy and cinema