In a Brazilian culture where dark skinned Afro-Brazilians were “less than” the lighter skinned members of their society, they sought to move upwards and gain recognition, respect, and a sense of national identity. The best way to do this? Through football. The Afro-Brazilians thrived on the football field because they learned how to play in the streets, on beaches, and anywhere they could find the space. Football was a sphere of life where the underprivileged could rise to the level of the privileged and beat them at their own game. And it was the Afro-Brazilian players who introduced the world to and excelled in the futbol-arte style that Brazil became so known for. “The mental liveliness and the physical plasticity that were allegedly innate to Afro-Brazilians were fundamental to the jogo bonito,” and yet those of African decent were not readily accepted into the Brazilian society that pursued the western ideal of whiteness. There was a period of time where Brazil sought to create their own culture, their own national identity based on diversity, color, and exotic beauty, but these attempts were always overshadowed by the overwhelming desire to look, act, and function like Europe.
The first part of Roger Kittleson’s book The Country of Football attempts to outline the complicated history of this struggle between race and talent, between embracing the diversity of Brazilian-ness and the pursuit of European-ness. It is difficult to argue against talent, and the Afro-Brazilian players who rose to success on the football pitch arguably had the most talent. They had the most creativity and a more natural ability to dance with, move, and control the ball. That style of play was the farthest thing from the organized, mechanical, and tradition way that football was played in Europe, and yet, that style of play was incredibly successful. That Afro-Brazilian style of play, the futbol-arte style, won games and the world took notice.
The team managers and clubs couldn’t deny the talent of these young Afro-Brazilian players and they were forced to decide whether they were going to prioritize winning or prioritize preserving the European ideal of football being only for the white elites. Clubs began to transform to include Afro-Brazilians as well as the mixed race mulattos, and those of African decent made a large impact on the national stage representing the diversity of the country of Brazil.
But even with the successes on the field, Afro-Brazilian players still faced racism and discrimination both on and off the pitch. What I found most interesting about this situation is how those players chose to handle the discrimination and their own Afro-Brazilian-ness. Some hid their “blackness” by straightening their hair and attempting to make their skin look lighter. Others, however, put their blackness on full display embracing their heritage and identity and implementing a black power attitude borrowed from the movement in the United States. But amidst all of the discrimination, the Afro-Brazilian players still excelled on the pitch and were undeniably vital to the success of the Brazilian side.
Brazil had a choice: win games and be the best in the world or maintain the white and light skinned look of the Europeans that the Brazilians were so desperately trying to emulate. For a while, Brazil chose to embrace the diversity and uniqueness they had to offer taking pride in their style of play, the background of their players, and nation that had become so dominant and well known as a footballing county. And while they did this, the Brazilian team was winning games, they were winning World Cups, they were surpassing Europe, and they were the best in the world.