Beginning in 1938, when Brazil sent its first integrated team to the World Cup, the players chosen to represent the Seleçao have also represented the country in terms of its ethnic, social, and religious makeup. The current crop of stars still mirror changes to Brazilian society, but in certain ways they have also come to represent the country’s upper class—the very target of Brazilian protestors.
In the midst of lasts year’s Confederations Cup and the widespread social protests against the cost of staging the World Cup and the paucity of the nation’s public services that accompanied it, Pelé implored Brazilians, “Let’s forget about this mess that is happening in Brazil and let’s think about the national team, which is our country, our blood.” Both elements of his appeal would have been familiar to the public. Soccer has been offered to the Brazilian people many times as a palliative or alternative reality; the military dictatorship tried to convince them that the 1970 World Cup victory was proof of Brazil’s unity and gave away free tickets to matches on bad news days. But more powerful than these crude acts of propaganda has been the notion that the national team “is our country,” that the Seleção condenses and represents this complex, continental nation.
Ethnicity and race have been at the heart of this notion for most of the last century. In 1920, the president of Brazil refused to allow black players to represent the nation in Argentina for fear of racist opprobrium and disapproval from the Argentine fans. Over next decade, despite informal color bars and racist slurs, black players forced their way into the leading clubs and then the national team.
In 1938, when Brazil’s first multi-ethnic team went to the World Cup in France and dazzled the football world, the side represented the nation’s unique blend of European and African characteristics; its mulatto—a term that does not carry the same freighted meaning as it does in the United States—or mixed demographics were said to be the source of its footballing guile and flamboyance. When a similarly mixed team lost the 1950 World Cup at home, Brazil’s African heritage was the problem; the nation made three black players, especially goalkeeper Moacyr Barbosa, the scapegoats for the disaster. After Brazil won its first World Cup final, in 1958, the playwright Nelson Rodridguez, whose ancestors were European, thought it meant the end of the racial shame and rancor of the past. “At last we can kick that stray mongrel complex,” he wrote in Jornal do Sport.
When Ronaldo, star of the 1998 and 2002 World Cup squads was asked in a 2005 television interview about the state of racism in the Brazilian game, he replied, “I’m white, so I am really ignorant of these matters.”
When Ronaldo, star of the 1998 and 2002 World Cup squads, and to my European eyes clearly a man of mixed African and European heritage, was asked in a 2005 television interview about the state of racism in the Brazilian game, he replied, “I’m white, so I am really ignorant of these matters.” This was the same Ronaldo whose black mother was denied access to the residents’ elevator and directed instead to the service lift in her son’s exclusive apartment building.
As with the wider population, class and ethnicity in the Seleção are closely aligned. Most of the white players—like Maxwell or David Luiz—grew up in middle class families, a comfortable strata that has always provided a small element of Brazil’s leading players such as medical students Alfonsinho and Socrates. However, ethnicity is no barrier to poverty in Brazil. Oscar is a white player from a relatively poor family, while Hulk’s father ran a street-food stall.
The 1970 World Cup squad combined these elements too. Félix, Rivellino, Tostão, and Piazza came from middle class European stock; Félix’s father was an engineer, Rivellino’s father an Italian immigrant laborer who became a wealthy, self-made developer. Gérson came from a football family. Clodoaldo had a harsh childhood, first in the northeast and then, after his parents’ death, as a street child in São Paulo. Jairzinho, Pelé, and Carlos Alberto all grew up poor. Since 1970, the spiritual landscape of Brazilian football has undergone the same massive shift as the rest of society. Brazilians used to be almost entirely Roman Catholic, with a fully Catholic Seleção. These days, Brazil’s evangelical Protestants make up nearly a quarter of the population and a quarter of the current squad, and have offered soccer players a framework within which they could survive the rigours and temptations of professional life.
This was the impetus behind the creation of Atletas de Cristo, Athletes for Christ, by evangelical pastor and “God’s goalkeeper” João Leite, who played for Atletico Mineiro in the late 1970s. Key proselytising individuals evangelized within their squads by organizing prayer groups and Bible-reading sessions. The group was represented by six members at the 1994 World Cup: Jorginho, Taffarel, Paulo Sérgio, Müller, Zinho, and Mazinho. After winning the 2009 Confederations Cup in South Africa, captain Lucio and five other players celebrated by wearing “I belong to Jesus” t-shirts.
The players are Brazilian in terms of their faith, social origin, and ethnicity. But their extraordinary wages, expatriate lives, and celebrity status make them more like the tiny political and economic elites who have been the target of the Brazilian protestors’ ire.
Members of the Seleção worship like their countrymen, but the course of their working lives is very different. Brazilians don’t travel much for work. Small expatriate communities have emerged in the United States and in London, but Brazil has remained a country of immigration rather than emigration. Every player on the 1970 squad played at home and only Pelé went on to have a career outside of the country. However, as the economic gap between Brazilian and European football has widened, the trickle of player exports that began in the mid-1980s has become a flood. By 1990, only half the team was playing at home. By 2006, as with today’s squad, only three players out of 23 were based in Brazil.
In the late 1990s, annual player exports were running at about 200 per year. Information published by the Brazilian soccer federation shows that around 800 players made the trip abroad in 2005, with a net exodus of more than 500 players. In 2008, the peak year before the European economic crisis slowed the boom, just under 1,200 players were exported from Brazil. Although they were tempted to the very farthest reaches of the soccer world, with players going to Qatar, Vietnam, the Faeroe Islands, and Australia, the very best were concentrated in the top five leagues in Europe, and within those leagues in the top clubs. Eight clubs—Real Madrid, Barcelona, Bayern Munich, Manchester City, Chelsea, PSG, Internazionale, and Roma—now account for half of the Seleção.
It is this more than anything else that differentiates the squad from the nation it represents. The players are Brazilian in terms of their faith, social origin, and ethnicity. But their extraordinary wages, expatriate lives, and celebrity status make them something quite different. Indeed, in some ways they look more like the tiny political and economic elites who have been the target of the Brazilian protestors’ ire. Given the circumstances of this year’s World Cup, the aspect of the Seleção that the Brazilian nation chooses to see will be determined by what happens both on and off the pitch.