The Beautiful Game? Race and Class in Brazilian Soccer

September 25, 2007

Soccer has become so rooted in Brazil that it’s hard to believe that when the ball first rolled upon the fields of the country only a small elite played the game. By the start of the 20th century, as the English mingled with the upper rungs of Brazilian “high society” in the states of São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, they began teaching the basics of the sport to the most aristocratic of Brazilians. Soccer’s position near the top of the social pyramid was also a simple reality: the equipment for the sport—specifically the ball and the proper footwear—was imported, making them exorbitantly expensive items for average Brazilians. Soccer in Brazil was thus born arrogant and haughty, a symbol of extreme exclusion.

The evolution of institutional Brazilian soccer can be traced back to the exclusive private sports clubs founded at the turn of the century where soccer sprouted its first roots. Although admission to these clubs was based largely on socio-economic standing rather than race, de facto segregation was conveniently imposed—as it was, and is, in much of Brazilian society—by socio-economic status. But it was not unheard of for a mulatto from a prominent family to be accepted as a player for a club.[1] It is these pervasive nuances of Brazilian racism that continue to this day.

What later became of soccer leads most Brazilians to believe the game was born from the masses. And why shouldn’t they? To say that a stadium is overflowing with fans on the day of a big game would be a drastic understatement. Throughout the history of soccer in Brazil, societal tensions of race and class were reflected and played out in nearly every aspect of soccer. And today, social divisions—both imagined and real—continue to define Brazilians’ intense relation ship with the sport and their teams. The transformation of soccer from an opulent diversion for society’s upper crust to eventually becoming a nationwide passion of mammoth proportions was a process fraught with the complex and charged components of race and class in Brazilian society.

Industrialization brought the first marked increase in the number of people who participated in the sport. The domestic production of soccer equipment received a major boost during World War I when Brazil had to limit imports. During the war years, industrial production increased by 8.5%, and in the 1920s and 1930s—despite the 1929 world economic crisis—national industry in Brazil became firmly established. As a consequence of this process, factories producing sports equipment began cropping up throughout the country. As celebrated sports journalist João Saldanha notes in his book The Soccer Subterraneans, “Industrial development changed [the game’s] character.” Saldanha describes how it was not until soccer balls began to be mass-produced that the sport really enticed popular tastes. But more importantly, as in other Latin American countries, industrialization in Brazil spurred the creation of teams affiliated with factories or a particular industry, allowing worker teams and clubs to be founded in and around urban industrial centers.

The Bangu Athletic Club founded in 1904 by the British directors of a textile company was the first club to admit working-class players, not coincidentally many of its players were black. Many other clubs followed the Bangu model and teams with working-class associations began to spread.[2] It is important to remember that slavery in Brazil was only abolished in 1888, so with increasing industrialization came the convergence of former slaves and their direct descendants with workers in urban areas—no doubt seen as a volatile combination by elites.[3] Plant managers saw in soccer an easy and relatively inexpensive way to keep their workers content. So in a sense, the typical argument of sports as an opiate for proletarian complacency, panem et circenses, or bread and circus, is partly true. Indeed, one cannot ignore that plant managers were trying to cozy up to their workers with the creation of soccer teams to gain worker loyalty and to undermine their solidarity. But soccer also provided a chance for workers to come together casually and share experiences, a rare opportunity for building consciousness.

Although it was in this context that soccer became “popularized,” its elitist origins were not so easily extinguished and were all too often reflected in the sport. If in the early days of the game, Brazil’s upper-class whites abhorred the presence of blacks on the few soccer fields that existed, then that attitude multiplied concomitantly with the spread of the game.

The most prominent soccer clubs in the state of Rio de Janeiro—with the sole exception of Vasco da Gama—resisted the entry of blacks to their soccer teams. Vasco was a club founded by Rio’s Portuguese community; the soccer team used the employees of the Portuguese factory owners, making it the first major squad to use black and working-class players.[4] The larger clubs of Fluminense, Botafogo and Flamengo only permitted white players on their teams. Racist attitudes and policies were not limited to carioca clubs. In the state of São Paulo, the large Italian community’s Palmeiras sports club adopted a more pragmatic solution to the race issue: it simply shut down its soccer program. More shockingly, the club Bahiano de Tenis based in Salvador in the state of Bahia—both places have a substantial black majority and are widely considered the cultural home of Brazilian Africanity—adopted the same solution. In reference to those days, singer and current Minister of Culture Gilberto Gil wrote the song “Tradição,” in which he describes the club’s position towards blacks: “In the times when blacks couldn’t enter the Bahiano, not even through the kitchen door.”

Nonetheless soccer was spreading and by the 1930s was increasingly being played across class and race lines. One reason for this shift was apparently quite pragmatic: the desire to win more championships. At the first World Cup, hosted by Uruguay in 1930, the Brazilian national team was made up exclusively of whites. The first time a black man was asked to represent his country in the world tournament was at the second World Cup hosted by fascist Italy in 1934. He was a Brazilian, the late Leônidas da Silva, nicknamed “Black Diamond.” He was one of the first prominent black Brazilian soccer players and deservedly retains his place in the pantheon of Brazilian soccer stars to this day. In an interview, Leônidas’ wife once remarked, “Being black, Leônidas believed he always had to do more to have his worth recognized. Back when he was playing, a large part of the athletes were still sons of high-class families.”

Sociologist Leonardo Alfonso de Miranda Pereira observed in his book Soccermania: A Social History of Soccer in Rio de Janeiro that the inclusion of Leônidas on the 1934 national team was an event that reflected apparent changes in the way Brazilians perceived the ethnic hybridity of their country; before seen as a problem, it was beginning to be understood as an advantage. At the time, this new perception was encouraged by the publishing of Gilberto Freyre’s The Masters and the Slaves, a landmark, albeit now controversial 1933 book on Brazilian race relations that celebrated the miscegenation of colonial times as a root catalyst for racial harmony.

Although Miranda Periera notes that by the end of the 1930s a majority of Brazilians could accept a racially integrated team and even be proud of it, former manual laborers like Leônidas still found themselves going from club to club in search of a better life. Soccer was steadily moving towards professionalization, but most clubs were adamantly opposed to the sport moving in that direction. The majority of teams feared that professionalization would challenge the upper-class, white hegemony in the sport, because working-class and black players would be able to focus on playing the game instead of trying to find or hold down a traditional job. However, the majority of clubs that tolerated working-class players already provided them with some “benefits”—transportation, monetary bonuses and even fake jobs to keep them on their team roster.[5] Such arrangements were often targeted by other teams as unfair and illegal under the amateur spirit of Brazilian soccer up to that point.

In Rio de Janeiro’s 1923 Amateur State Championship, for example, Rio’s more aristocratic clubs pressured Vasco da Gama to drop out of the tournament, claiming that its players were paid professionals and not amateurs. A more probable reason for the other clubs’ protest was the fact that Vasco was the only team racially integrated from top to bottom—from the players themselves to the coaching staff—and was made up almost entirely of workers. In the end, as the only fully integrated team of the tournament, Vasco did not drop out and went on to win the championship with a series of heart-stopping comebacks.

The year after Vasco won the title, the elite teams broke away to form their own amateur league, leaving soccer in Rio split. In one league were Vasco and other small clubs with more working-class associations, and in the other league were larger teams like Flamengo, Fluminense, Botafogo and América.

When the battle for the professionalization of soccer was finally won in 1933, working-class players who previously had to hold down a “real job” to sustain themselves could rely on their earnings as professional athletes. One reason for the acquiescence by teams opposed to professionalization was that European teams were beginning to recruit South American talent. Although this had a more dramatic effect on Uruguayan and Argentine clubs whose players were mostly descended from the countries actively recruiting players—namely, Italy and Spain—it provided impetus for professionalization amid the opposition of larger clubs.

Professionalization allowed soccer to become a means of social and financial ascension for players who before had no chance of upward mobility, but those who achieved significant financial success were a minority and still are. Data from the Brazilian Soccer Confederation (CBF) in 1997 shows that very few players actually improve their living standards; those who do, become elites within their own class. The majority of Brazilian players receive a minimum salary, and with little or no education they are left with few options when their soccer careers end. From the 7,103 athletes registered with the CBF in 1997, 54% received less than $40 a month; today it’s not much different.[6]

Another result of professionalization was that Brazilian soccer shed some of its exclusionist beginnings. Teams became more integrated, as did their fans. However, just because black and white, rich and poor attended the same games, it did not mean they sat together or that they could afford the same seats. Nonetheless, according to Miranda Pereira, “The interesting thing about soccer is the idea of communication between classes and between diverse people while absorbing tensions. Before, only Carnaval had the ability of making everyone the same.” The inversion of the social order that Carnaval represents may be a bit of a stretch for soccer games, but there are clearly some interesting parallels between the two events: on some level they both represent a fleeting egalitarian moment, they have been considered societal safety valves, each have become increasingly commercialized and violent, and both inspire intra-city rivalries.

Of course, the competition between the different Samba schools of Carnaval does not even come close to the passionately profound and historic soccer rivalries within Brazil’s cities and states. The local rivalries partly stem from the fact that institutional soccer was first organized on city and state levels, because of Brazil’s immense size, which posed logistical limitations for inter-state, much less national tournaments. To this day, some of the most heated rivalries are between local teams. Cruzeiro do Sul battles Atlético Mineiro in Belo Horizonte, Grêmio rivals Internacional in Porto Alegre and São Paulo is contested by four teams: Corinthians, Palmeiras, Santos and São Paulo. Many of these rivalries also arose from, and are still reinforced by, the social dynamics of their respective environs.

Grêmio, for example, was started by Porto Alegre’s dominant German immigrant population and refused entry to non-Germans, leading two Brazilians to establish Internacional. In the beginning of institutional soccer, the namesake São Paulo team dropped out of the city league in protest against the professionalization of the sport, which was endorsed by teams like Corinthians—a club founded by manual laborers.[7] To this day, Corinthians—whose fan base or torcida, according to the sports daily Lance!, is estimated at 24 million—is associated with the working-class, and São Paulo with 17 million fans is identified with the elite.[8]

But no rivalry in Brazilian soccer approaches the epic status of the century-old carioca rivalry between Flamengo and Fluminense, modestly referred to as Fla-Flu. Nor does any other rivalry divide quite as rigidly along class lines. Besides playing on socio-economic disparities, the rivalry is also marked by racial overtones. Flamengo is considered the team of the masses—not surprising with a torcida of 26 million—and Fluminense is widely regarded as Brazil’s most aristocratic team. A survey of 1,280 people by TGI Brasil found that 45% considered themselves Flamengo fans while only 11% said they were Fluminense supporters. The survey also found that under the three official Brazilian socio-economic categories, the Flamengo fans were predominantly from the lowest socio-economic tier and Fluminense’s from the top one.[9]

Although social divisions like race and class among the torcidas of a particular team are certainly more blurred today than they were in the early days of professional soccer, fans continue to rally around these real life distinctions and taunt opposing torcidas with the appropriate epithets. When Flamengo is scored on by Fluminense or any other team for that matter, the Fluminense torcida chants, “Hey, hey, hey! Silence in the favela!” in reference to the supposed slum-dwelling fans of Flamengo who are also referred to as “FLAvelados” by opposing fans. Conversely, Fluminense fans are referred to as “pó-de-arroz,” or rice powder. One story accounting for the nickname is that a mulatto player tried to disguise his skin tone with rice powder to avoid persecution by the team’s fans in the early days of the game, while others claim the name alludes to the white powder once used to whiten the faces of the aristocracy.[10] Divisions of race and class in Rio are arguably the most pronounced of any large Brazilian city, so it’s not surprising that Fla-Flu takes on overtly classist and racist dimensions.

When the national team plays, however, local team allegiances and their prejudices are for the most part temporarily put aside as Brazilians present a united front for international competitions. It is at those games that soccer takes on more of a carnavalesque atmosphere, especially if Brazil wins. And it was under these circumstances that the skill, ability and talent of Edson Arantes do Nascimento, a black man, earned him the nickname “The King,” or “King Pelé,” and status as a national hero. In such circumstances, prejudices about race and class become harder to rationalize in the public consciousness. To date, one of soccer’s greatest contributions is that it helped instill in the country a respect for ethnic hybridity, where the mixing of races is seen as an advantage. This is not to say that racism in soccer does not exist—far from it as shown above. But unlike the large Brazilian corporations and the university system, which are overwhelmingly white, soccer teams and their organizations are symbols of genuine diversity and hybrid identities.

In its entirety, soccer more than any other Brazilian institution reflects in microcosm the complexities of race and class in Brazil and how these distinctions are often at the forefront of social interaction, making it impossible to discuss the two social categories separately. Soccer demonstrates that racism and socio-economic injustice in Brazil are far too historically entrenched and intertwined to be parsed neatly as independent social phenomenons. Does race or class instantly determine which team a Brazilian supports? Not always. But one’s team affiliation is usually inherited from a parent. For many youngsters, going to one’s first game is a familial right of passage. A typical banner in the stands at games describes the team as “My best inheritance.” And as the common saying goes, “In life, you can change your wife, but you can’t change your mother or your soccer team.”

About the Authors
Rogério Daflon is a sports correspondent for O Globo, a major daily newspaper of Brazil. Teo Ballvé is NACLA’s associate editor and a contributing news editor for the Connection to the Americas. Translated from Portuguese by Elisa Betancor Etcheverry and NACLA.

1. Luiz Costa-Lima, “Inter-Relations: Brazilian Soccer and Society,” Stanford Electronic Humanities Review, Vol. 6.2, 1998, .
2. Luiz Costa-Lima, “Inter-Relations: Brazilian Soccer and Society.”
3. Tamir Bar-On. “The Ambiguities of Football, Politics, Culture, and Social Transformation in Latin America,” Sociological Research Online, Vol. 2, No. 4, 1997, .
4. Luiz Costa-Lima, “Inter-Relations: Brazilian Soccer and Society.”
5. Luiz Costa-Lima, “Inter-Relations: Brazilian Soccer and Society.”
6. Rogério Daflon and Paulo Julio Clement, O Globo, 1997.
7. From .
8. Figures taken from 1998 study by the Brazilian sports daily Lance!.
9. Survey cited in “Brazilian Football Fans,” Zona Latina, .
10. The latter interpretation of the nickname is taken from: Janet Lever, Soccer Madness: Brazil’s Passion for the World’s Most Popular Sport, (Long Grove, IL: Waveland Press, 1995).

Tags: Brazil, soccer, sports, race, class, favelas, institutionalization, fans

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