The mother of all defeats

BY IGNACE POLLET. As the World Cup is underway, critics will consider football as opium for the masses. But an unexpected defeat could unleash the ugly faces of society, history tells us.

Written by Ignace Pollet. He researches global North-South issues at HIVA KU Leuven and is specialized in themes related to decent work, public support for aid and citizen initiatives. This blog appeared earlier on HIVA blogs on global development
Ignace Pollet

Ignace Pollet

16 July 1950. Brazil is facing Uruguay in the Maracana, the stadion built to host the Football World Cup Final. Brazil, through an intricate points system just needs a draw to win the Cup, but the supporters are convinced their team will chop the opponent to pieces. In the 47th minute, the blue-yellow jerseys manage to open the score. The Uruguayans are not impressed. They take control of the game and equalize. The Brazilian defense, tested for the first time in the tournament proves vulnerable. With just twelve minutes to go, Ghiggia sprints along the right side, gets past the defenders and scores the winning goal. A crowd of 200000 people stares in disbelief, silenced, shell-shocked. They are stripped of a title they had considered already theirs.

The only records remaining of the 1950 final are a few sketchy photos, newspaper reports and 200000 eyewitnesses. Brazil was hurt. Its national pride received a bad blow from which it has never fully recovered, despite the many successes which were still to come. Soon after the grief came the anger. How could this happen? Who is responsible for this? One man was found guilty: Barbosa, the goalkeeper. He was threatened and humiliated publically. He would never sleep quietly again. But that was not enough for the infuriated press. Aside of Barbosa, Juvenal en Bigode had played a bad match too. And those three had one thing in common: they were black.

What followed was an ugly episode which Brazilians prefer to forget, a time of racist insults on and off the football field. The defeat gave new fuel to an old theory claiming Brazil’s racial mix was the reason of their national lack of willpower. After slavery was abolished in Brazil – as late as 1888 – segregation and prejudices characterized everyday life. The idea of the anthropologist Gilberto Freyre that “every Brazilian carries the colour in his soul”, was found totally unacceptable among Brazil’s social elite. Football was introduced to Brazil in the early 20th century as an exclusively white sport. In 1914, Clube de Fluminense had rice powder applied to one of its black players before he took to the pitch. As sweat started to ruin the makeup, he was taunted and mocked by white fans in the stadium. Incidents as these were not isolated cases. However, for black players football was an elusive chance to climb on the social ladder. Thanks to their physical strength and technical skills, they gradually became a common sight in the clubs as well as in the national team.

Hiding in the anonymity of the crowd, supporters who would applaud their dark-skinned heros as long as they win matches, don’t hesitate to insult them when the tide is turning.

In 1958, Brazil would at last win the World Cup . Young Pelé was their iconic star. Other black players like Jairzinho, Romario and Ronaldinho would follow in his steps. In that sense, Brazil was a fore-runner of a global phenomenon. By the 1990s, African football had become a force to be reckoned with, and the national teams of France, England and the Netherlands consisted increasingly of players of African descent. But while they were praised for their skills, they also received hostile reactions by opponent supporters. Booing and producing monkey noises or other insults became commonplace for hooligans everywhere. In a recent such incident, Brazilian defender Dani Alves picked up a banana thrown at him and ate it. The picture went viral. It showed that humour works to put things in perspective. But it doesn’t stop racism.

The FIFA responded by launching a campaign called ‘Say no to racism’. Let alone that a corrupt FIFA lacks the credibility for ethical issues, campaigns never sort much effect when standing on their own.
Campaigns tend to affect behavior only if backed up by a system of rewards and sanctions. While racism is illegal in Brazil since 1989, many black players avoid bringing up the topic publically because they are concerned it will hurt their careers. As a consequence, court cases are rare. Referee Chagas, an Afro-Brazilian, said he had been subject of racist attacks more than 200 times before he finally spoke up about the abuse. Racism is a taboo because it slumbers in nearly everybody, popping up when triggered by collective frustrations. Hiding in the anonymity of the crowd, supporters who would applaud their dark-skinned heros as long as they win matches, don’t hesitate to insult them when the tide is turning. Blacks belonging to the opponent team or to the arbitral trio receive even less clemency. They are guilty because they are black.

For a long time, Brazil wanted to see itself as a harmonious melting pot of origins and races, and that racial abuse of black football players was a foreign disease. As the country quickly develops, these entrenched views are changing too. President Dilma Roussef has said that the present World Cup should be a platform to fight racism. She did not mention the social unrest and the relentless ‘cleaning’ of the streets. As we write this blog, the World Cup is solidly underway. Brazil won its first match, with some help from the referee. They didn’t leave an overly firm impression in their second match either. Frustrations could easily boil over should Brazil leave the tournament early. The aftermath may be the real defeat. Just like it was in 1950.