How Ayrton Senna and Brazil’s football team helped forge a proud national identity in the early 1990s

How Ayrton Senna and Brazil’s football team helped forge a proud national identity in the early 1990s

Everyone needs a hero at some point in their life. Brazil in the late 1980s and early-90s was the perfect example of a nation full of such people. It turns out that, after a torrid political, social and economic period, the country finally got not one, but a team of them. They came in the shape of a racing driver and a group of footballers.

These men, despite coming from vastly different backgrounds and entirely different sports, remained closely linked throughout their lives. Each offered their own version of hope to a country that was treading water in the murky sea of corruption and despair. Their stories, whether entirely true or, as with most mythology, embellished with retellings, were the main providers of hope for the Brazilian people, who endured turmoil from changing government forces that provoked vicious societal upheaval.

Throughout all of this change, these men remained constant, even if the stories about them changed. The folk mythologisation of these heroes goes some way in helping us understand the true nature of being Brazilian and the hopes, desires and fears of the country. Simply put, in an era of upheaval and various social issues, sports stars gave the people hope where politicians simply could not. 


What it means to be Brazilian


Football isn’t really a sport in Brazil, or certainly not just a sport. Football in Brazil is to breathe, to eat, to dance – it’s a subconscious heartbeat that runs through everyone.

Players of the game are regarded with significantly greater esteem than the Western archetype of the role-model. They’re considered ephemeral icons who offer genuine hope for kids. They have shown what can be possible if you dream. The alternative for most of these players or kids isn’t worth imagining – life in the favelas is tough. The average life expectancy is 48 if you stay out of a gang in some, while that’s slashed in half if you’re in one.

Brazil’s Seleção, their national team, belongs to the world. One of the country’s most iconic players, Sócrates, said: “In Europe, Africa, Asia and the Middle East, wearing a shirt of the Brazilian team doesn’t even indicate that you are Brazilian, just that you like football.” O Seleção have transcended nationality; football has transcended sport; players have transcended mortal status.

If Brazil’s footballing legacy, and future, can be defined as anything, it’s that it is transcendent to the core. It defies the range of normal human experience. To be a Brazilian is to be familiar with this idea, even if you don’t actually articulate it. It’s a culture that resists any simple definition, a country made up of many groups of people. To be Brazilian is to be everything and nothing at once.

This mix of cultures – immigrants and indigenous – yields fertile land for myths. It’s a country where the milkman can become a saint in 50 years. That’s why, when we look at their footballers, they seem to have attained legend status before hitting middle-age.

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If it’s rare that anyone in Brazil gets close to the stars of O Seleção, imagine a racing driver from a background of privilege – one who in other countries may not have been relatable to the masses but who in Brazil sits high amongst the gods.

Ayrton Senna’s choice to move to England and start from the very bottom meant that his independence and sacrifice resonated with the Brazilian people. Although most of the football stars of the era and Senna couldn’t have come from more different backgrounds, they still embodied the quintessential traits that endeared them to the masses: bravery, free-thinking and Gpd-fearing. They were truly Brazilian.


The context of hope


During those tumultuous times in the 1980s and 90s, Brazil’s wealth divide was immense, and Brazilian society deeply polarised. Alternative housing, which now constitutes the infamous favelas, was being constructed around every major city as an answer to a silent government. Unemployment was rife and society was becoming increasingly fragmented.

Football had hitherto been the national sport. It was the thing that was important above all else – the joy in living for many. With O Seleção’s continuing slump, however, Ayrton Senna’s seemingly unlikely star rose, immediately breaking the mould of the typical Brazilian hero.

His fortunate background made him an unlikely candidate to capture the hearts of the people. His charm and charisma went a long way, though. With eyes that betrayed kindness and a criminally hidden smile, he took the barbers, butchers and builders with him around the world. Brazilian sports journalist Juca Kfouri stated: “Senna was the guy who people would wake up to on Sunday mornings and watch wave the Brazilian flag at a time when the country was in political crisis. He represented a victorious Brazil.”

When he waved Auriverde after his numerous victories, people were invigorated with a renewed sense of national pride and a collective identity. It slowly began to emancipate people from their alienation. If the football team didn’t give them a reason to cheer, he did. Café’s, restaurants, roads and cartoons began to bear his name. Brazilian grandmothers found him handsome and their grandsons wanted to be just like him.

His newfound fame offered him a platform to voice his deeply-held belief that education, well above sporting prowess, was the key to help people find a life beyond the slums. He didn’t let any chance slip him by.

Brazil’s football players often came from impoverished areas – kids from poor backgrounds with little access to social amenities. Their presence in the global media as purveyors of the purest ethos of football stems from the sheer joy that it gave them as kids. That’s why so many children and adults idolise them. They made it without the help of the government. Indeed, a successful player was a statement – ‘This kid that you’d rather have forgotten about is now one of the best players in the world.’

Despite that, the people needed a stable government more than ever, and that’s where Senna could help. During his career as a racer, he amassed a substantial amount of wealth that he spent his short life redistributing to tackle extreme poverty in the country. The politicians were doing nothing to bridge the gap, which both incensed and inspired Senna: “Wealthy men can’t live on an island that is encircled by poverty. We all breathe the same air. We must give a chance to everyone, at least a basic chance.” Senna spent a much of his life creating opportunities for young people through academic platforms mobilised by his substantial investment.

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The two forces – football and Senna – together provided a sort of alternative governance. They showed the people of Brazil what could be achieved,  fighting the sense of inequality and injustice through their own means of distributing wealth and creating initiatives. 


The dedication of 1994


Brazil hadn’t won the World Cup in 24 years going into USA 94. By most standards, the national side were losing their reputation as the world’s best, and despite two campaigns of attractive, free-flowing football under manager Telê Santana, there was little in the way of silverware.

To many, their apparent lack of interest in defending cost them two World Cups, though the failure of 1982 was as much about needing a world-class striker as anything else. The country’s footballing form was a reflection of the overall swampy political climate of the country. Santana provided a spark of hope but the stifling sense of despair was quick to fan it out.

Life under Brazil’s military dictatorship was repressive. The combination of the country’s heat and passionate inhabitants often created a volatile mix that spilt over into caustic violence. The regime ruled with an iron fist. The media was tightly controlled and dissidents were met with torture and often murder. The regime, from its peak in the early 1970s to its collapse in 1985, was brutal.

In a landscape that seemed unable to breed champions, the team’s disregard for footballing conventions was brave, bold and iconic, yet form never stuck around for long – nothing seemed to back then. They played predictably attractive football – O Jogo Bonito – until the people stopped wanting beauty and started longing for success to lift the lost generation from the lost decade.

The years following 1985 were full of difficulties and uncertainty, but chaos is a fertile breeding ground for creative and spiritual growth. Transitional periods, where repression is slowly switching to creative thinking, is when people most need heroes and where they’re often born.

Senna won his first Formula One world title in 1988. It was something for the people, although they were still struggling to keep their head above water. Flash forward to 1994 and Ayrton Senna and the Brazil team were searching for their fourth world titles in their respective sports.

At the beginning of the year, before a friendly against France in Paris, Senna conversed with the team in the changing room. Versatile nomad Leonardo recalls the Williams driver – who many within the national team identified as a hero too – telling them in the dressing room, “This is our year.” Nobody doubted him.

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The hardnosed ethic that took Senna to the very top, and that Brazil had failed to exhibit in the previous campaigns, began to manifest in the team as the heavy-hearted players began their tournament in the USA. Qualification from their group came easy, with wins over Russia and Cameroon. After knocking out the hosts in the last 16, it was the quarter-final matchup with the Netherlands that truly tested their mettle. A seemingly secure two-goal lead was quick to diminish, with the Dutch bringing it back to an even keel until an 81st-minute goal from defender Branco sealed their passage.

It was another late goal in their semi-final against Sweden, provided by Romário, that guided O Seleção to the final against Italy. The Azzurri were after their first title since 1982, and with both teams having three cups each, this was a battle to be the first to make it to four.

It was a stalemate after 120 minutes of tense action. Penalties ended up deciding the game for the first time in a World Cup final, though it’s probably not Brazil’s 3-2 triumph that became the final’s lasting image – that was left to one iconic still that captured Roberto Baggio’s despondence perfectly. After the match, though, another image would make an equally poignant statement of loss.

Despite it having been 24 years since the team won the tournament, their celebrations quickly turned to their icon and friend, Senna. He had passed away during a race only three months earlier. The squad lifted a banner that read: “Senna we accelerate together. The fourth title is ours.”

Flair and finesse got them to the final, but it was grit and fight that saw them home. In their hearts, it seemed, there was more than just a World Cup on the line. The fraught expectations of a nation and the four immortal words that Senna offered them – “This is our year” – live on forever in Brazil.

It rung in their ears and rung true in the end. The World Cup was for him as much as anyone. Together, as Brazilians, they brought home a happy team and a spirit that would help usher in a new era of hope for the country.




After Senna’s death at Imola, Brazil was overcome with mourning. His passing tinted all of his words leading up to it with a sense of prescience. Formula One racing is dangerous and there lies the allure. We are attracted, fatally so, to potential death.

The basis of these icons – Senna and the players of that emblematic Brazil team of 1994 – is that they are simple and humble figures. Men who walk amongst others yet stand out as gods. In Roman Catholic Brazil, the canonization of a saint requires a miracle. Although it’s not the kind that the Church would recognise, the miracles that were committed by the racing driver and the footballers were enough to elevate them to sainthood in the lexicon of the vox populi.

Despite being ruthless, brave and at times egotistical, Senna’s intellectual and devoutly spiritual depth leant him an aura of mystique that reflected his ideals of equality. His understanding of life came from both study and practice – an ascetic dedication to the intricate nature of existence as lived in the margins of death. He was a bunch of superlatives stuck together.

Order  |  Brazil

Although large in life, he became a giant in death. The depth of Senna’s generosity lay mostly hidden while he was alive, such was his modesty with such matters. At his funeral service, his sister Viviane addressed the crowds: “Brazil is going through a very bad time. No one feels like helping anyone any more. People just live for themselves. My brother had a mission and our family is in deep emotion today because we did not realise it had made him so greatly loved.”

Sometimes when you are too close to something, you don’t see the whole picture. It might seem like Senna was leaving only memories, but he and his sister, not long before his death, had talked about making his charitable efforts more formal. Six months after he had passed away, Viviane established the Instituto Ayrton Senna, an NGO that has donated around $400m to sections of Brazilian society as a means of helping with development for children and young Brazilians.

On the 10th anniversary of his death in 2004, members of the 1994 World Cup-winning team, including Dunga and Cláudio Taffarel, played a Formula One team that included Michael Schumacher and Fernando Alonso in a charity match near Imola, with all proceeds going to Senna’s institute. He might have loved motor racing, but he also loved football. A São Paulo local, Senna was a lifelong Corinthians fan – often wearing their shirt under his race suit. 

Senna won his first F1 title in 1988 – 30 years ago. Since then, fans of the club and the country have continually created large tifo displays in his memory. Possibly the most iconic tribute came in 2014. On entering the field, Corinthians players donned replica helmets under their arms, commemorating the two decades since his death.

Corinthians went on to an expected win against Nacional away in Manaus. Fans at the game brought their own tributes, including flags and banners. Just like with the World Cup in 1994, his spirit seemed to be present throughout his club’s 3-0 victory.


The power of a dream


The legacy of Brazil’s football team in the 1990s and the memory of Ayrton Senna are forever linked. Their influence on Brazil and their respective sports go well beyond what any politician or political party could dream of in Brazil. Numbers and statistics of their success go some way in helping us understand their greatness, but invariably miss the point.

That Ronaldo is one of only two players under the age of 18 to have won a World Cup medal – the other being Pelé – or that Bebeto and Romário played only 23 games together for the national team, never losing and scoring 33 goals between them – eight of which were at USA 94 – doesn’t matter. That Senna still holds the record for wins at Monaco – six – despite last winning there in 1993 doesn’t matter either.

Over a million people on the streets of his hometown, São Paulo, watched Senna’s funeral. Many more millions viewed the event on television. This is the most significant number associated with his life – it’s this number that is the best indicator of the impact he made, and it goes way beyond the track.

Befitting of his legacy, Ayrton Senna’s grave is small and unassuming. It’s situated between affluent high-rise flats and a favela in the Morumbi Cemetery, a spot where even in his death he can bridge the gap between the two. On one side is where most people begin. On the other is where they hope to end up. Hope is always there to give them a hand. That hope comes in the form of 11 men on a pitch and the memory of a racing driver.

By Edd Norval @EddNorval

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