ENGLAND MAY HAVE CREATED FOOTBALL but Brazil made it an art form. Since the arrival of football in the South American country at the turn of the 20th century, Brazil has won eight Copa Américas and five World Cups. In doing so they have captured the hearts and minds of millions of football fans and created a template for beautiful football. It’s impossible to dispute that as a nation Brazil has shaped football. What is often forgotten is how football helped shaped Brazil itself.

Football’s beginnings in Brazil were humble. The game was first brought to the samba nation in the 1890s by British expatriates and returning Anglo-Brazilian students and at first it was played only amongst Brazilian elites. Elite clubs such as São Paulo Athletic began to emerge around this time to cater to the tastes of the richer class of footballer.

When the game was played amongst the elites, its social impact was negligible. Few could access it and hence few cared. It was only once the game began to spread to the streets, to the ordinary Brazilians, that a shift occurred in Brazilian society. Football played a key role in the inclusion of people of African descent into Brazilian society.

This was no mean feat. Slavery was only formally abolished in Brazil in 1888, making Brazil the last country in the western world to do away with the practice. The result of allowing slavery to continue as long as it did meant that by the time emancipation came in 1888, an estimated four million people had been imported from Africa into Brazil. Even though the slaves were free, society was slow to embrace them. The Brazilian elites were uncomfortable with the new status quo and efforts soon began to squeeze people of African descent out of society.

The years after the abolition of slavery saw the white Brazilian elite class launch a national program of branquemento or ‘whitening’. Branquemento’s purpose was simple: make the Brazilian population whiter and less black by encouraging white immigrants to come to Brazil and inter-marry with the natives. Coupled with branquemento, the Brazilian government ensured that Afro-Brazilian history and culture was excluded from schools and public places. People of African descent were routinely denied jobs on account of their skin and although universal male suffrage had been introduced in 1891, race relations were tense. Few saw opportunities to challenge such injustices. Hope came in the form of football.

Beginning in the 1900s, football’s popularity began to move from the elite classes to the masses and importantly this included former slaves. From 1910, players of African descent emerged on the Brazilian football scene in the form of Arthur Friedenreich, Joaquim Prado and many others. Such players did not disappoint, either.

Friedenreich was in many ways the original Pelé and was arguably the first black sporting superstar Brazil had. Over the course of his career, Friedenreich scored over 1200 goals and yet despite this, his career was not without controversy, albeit through no fault of his own. Brazilian society was not fully ready for black players.

Players like Freidenreich and Prado chose to straighten their hair and put rice powder on their skin in the hope of lightening themselves to gain greater acceptance. Was it ideal? Not at all, but it was a start, and by 1923 a mixed race team had won the league championship in Brazil through Rio de Janeiro side Vasco da Gama. Sadly this wasn’t the sea change many hoped it would be. 1924 saw the league rules change, with mixed race clubs such as Vasco banned from competing. Luckily, however, the following year saw the reinstatement of mixed race teams. Brazil was slowly, indeed very slowly, beginning to change.

The 1930s were the first time that Brazilian racial divisions began to break down in a meaningful way, thanks in part to the rise of dictator Getúlio Vargas in 1930. Vargas’s reign saw a dramatic overhaul of Brazilian society and power structures. Hoping to unite the entire nation behind his autocracy, Vargas began to popularize cultural elements common to every class. First came his endorsement of capoeira, an Afro-Brazilian martial art that had previously been vilified. Next came his promotion of samba, which at the time was a dance associated only with the poor.

While Vargas’s endorsement of capoeira and dance was important for easing race relations, his interest in football was crucial. By the 1930s, football was easily the most popular sport in Brazil and under the watchful eye of the authoritarian regime, football became much more inclusive. The sport was professionalized in 1933, which allowed a greater influx of Afro-Brazilian athletes to play. As professionalization became the norm, more Afro-Brazilians lined out for the national football team. Brazilian fans wanted the best players, not the whitest.

The selection of Afro-Brazilian duo, Domingos and Leônidas da Silva, for the 1938 World Cup has been cited by many historians as a turning point for race relations in Brazil.

While Brazil finished third in the tournament, the performances of Leônidas, who was named player of the tournament and nicknamed ‘The Black Diamond’ by Europeans, excited the local populace about the future of Brazilian football. If Leônidas could be the star at a World Cup, what could other Afro-Brazilians achieve? A space began to open up in Brazilian discourse about accepting Afro-Brazilians as an important contributor to Brazil’s future.

But this wasn’t solely due to success on the field as Joshua Nadel, author of Fútbol!: Why Soccer Matters in Latin America, recently pointed out. The reporting of the 1938 World Cup in Brazil by sports journalist and anthropologist Gilberto Freyre did much to move along the race discourse in a positive direction. Freyre covered the games for Correio da Manhã newspaper and wasn’t shy about praising the courage of the Brazilian FA for choosing an Afro-Brazilian team.

Freyre would hold up the Afro-Brazilian players as the reason why Brazil’s style of play seemed almost impossible to defend against for the European sides. Such players brought passion, skill, guile and spontaneity to the side. Freyre was often in the minority in the press box when it came to praise for Afro-Brazilian players. Another journalist at the 1938 World Cup, the Frenchman Hanot wrote of the Brazilian side: “The Brazilians, mostly with black faces and mixed blood of black input, have possession of marvellous natural qualities that make them born football players. Unfortunately, the idea that football is a team sport did not arise in their brains.”

At home in Brazil more people seemed to accept Freyre’s way of thinking rather than Hanot’s, but a substantial minority still refused to welcome players of African descent in Brazilian society.

Slavery in Brazil began sometime in the 1500s and only ended in the late 1880s. It was perhaps no surprise then that biased attitudes still existed in Brazil.

At the cessation of the 1938 World Cup, many still believed that the Afro-Brazilian class were holding back Brazilian society and holding back Brazilian football. Brazil wasn’t alone in this line of thinking as race relations in Europe around this time were particularly poor also. This seems to have had some influence in Brazil as certain sectors in society worried that Europeans viewed Brazil as uncivilized thanks to its darker population.

Such fears became apparent in 1950 when Brazil hosted the World Cup. Initially it all appeared so promising. Bouyed by the home support, Brazil began the tournament in a strong fashion with a 4-0 win over Mexico and went on an unbeaten run until the final match of the tournament.

Brazil went into their final game against a supposedly weak Uruguayan side, knowing that a draw would win them the tournament. Nearly two hundred thousand football fans crammed into the Maracanã stadium, expectant of a Brazilian win. What happened next has been described by some, including Pelé, as one of the worst moments ever in Brazilian history. Uruguay won the game 2-1 and stripped Brazil of the chance to win the Jules Rimet. Fans were despondent but sadness soon turned to anger.

In 2003, Alex Bellos wrote that in the aftermath of the game a tireless search began for explications of, and blame for, the shameful defeat. Players of African descent were an obvious target. Two Afro-Brazilian players in the form of goalkeeper Moaçir Barbosa and defender João Ferreira held as responsible for the defeat, being labelled too passive and easily intimidated.

The 1954 World Cup hardly improved matters. This time Brazil made it all the way to the quarter-finals where they were eventually defeated by a Hungary side boasting the legendary Ferenc Puskás. Again looking for someone to blame, fans and media alike, turned to the Afro-Brazilians. Columns began to fill in the press about the “mongrel” nature of the Brazilian players. The Brazilian delegation publically blamed the World Cup loss on the “physiognomy” of the squad. For those who questioned the need to include Afro-Brazilians into society, the defeats in 1950 and 1954 were welcomed. They reinforced the need for an all-white Brazil and an all-white squad.

Luckily all that changed in 1958 for that year marked the first occasion Brazil won the World Cup and the first occasion the world became truly aware of jogo bonito, or the beautiful game. Reliant on Afro-Brazilian players such as Pelé, Garrincha and others, Vicente Feola’s Brazil swept all opposition aside all who dared to share the same pitch as them.

The next decade would be seen as a golden age of Brazilian soccer, and one spearheaded by Pelé, a player of African descent. From then on discussions about whether or not Brazil should have an all-white football team became rare. It was by then a moot point.

Football may not have fully revolutionized Brazilian society, but it opened up a space for players of African descent to gain acceptance. Brazil has given much to world football and, refreshingly, football has given much back to Brazilian society.

By Conor Heffernan. Follow @PhysCstudy