“The beautiful game,” or more commonly referred to in America as soccer, has long been the national sport of Brazil. Despite the country producing some of the world’s greatest players in the history of the sport such as Pelé, Sócrates, Zico, or more recently Ronaldo and Neymar, there has been a recent backlash against the sport. Less than two years since hosting the 2014 World Cup and nearly three months away from playing host to the 2016 Summer Olympics, this backlash against sport in Brazil has garnered national attention.
On May 2, Union hosted Gregg Bocketti, a history professor at the University of Transylvania in Lexington, KY to lecture on why this recent backlash goes far beyond the injustices of hosting these national events. Bocketti is a leading historian of Latin American sports’ history and culture, and has a book entitled The Invention of the Beautiful Game: Football and the Making of Modern Brazil set for publication on May 31.
What has been focused on by the national media is that entire neighborhoods of people have been displaced to build stadiums for these events and promised improvements to infrastructure have gone unfulfilled. However, Professor Bocketti argued in his lecture, entitled Whose Olympics are these? , that the backlash stems all the way back to soccer’s origination in Brazil at the end of the 19th century.
Bocketti claims that Brazil’s interest in soccer originated as a way to “use sport to give meaning to being a Brazilian,” and that understanding the history of soccer in Brazil is key to understanding the history of Brazil.
Despite an inherent sense of classism and racism that existed in early Brazilian soccer, it “created instances of great national pride,” Bocketti said.
Bocketti discussed the evolution of soccer in Brazil from an elitist game to an inclusive one. However, even as soccer in Brazil was integrated, and an Afro-Brazillian, Pelé, led the nation to three World Cups, women were still barred from playing fields by national law and a pecking order of white supremacy still existed.
“Even while they were winning, Brazilians were still arguing about what it meant to be Brazilian through sports,” Bocketti said. “This all comes back to the hierarchy.”
When Brazil won bids for the World Cup and the Olympics in 2007 and 2009 respectively, initial response from both political leaders and citizens was positive.
“It was to be a practical moment for the improvement of Brazil’s social and economic fabric,” Bocketti stated. However, the narrative shifted by 2014, and skepticism amongst the Brazilian people grew.
While displaced neighborhoods and unfulfilled infrastructure promises have highlighted the greater political corruption in Brazil, Brazilians are increasingly seeing sport in the country as a way to manufacture a national identity rather than create one naturally.
“These Olympics and World Cup are revealing not Brazil at its best, but Brazil at its worst,” Bocketti claimed.
Soccer was once viewed in Brazil as an educational tool, but this sentiment has changed over time, as highlighted by one sign from a recent protest that read, “Brazil we need to wake up, a teacher is more important than Neymar.”
The permeation of this backlash ultimately cultivated in Germany’s 7-1 trouncing of Brazil on its home turf in a semi-final match at the 2014 World Cup. A common criticism from journalists covering the match was that 18 of Brazil’s 23 players were playing professionally in Europe, and not honing their skills in the country where the game was made beautiful.
Renewed criticism has made it seem as if Brazil had failed in efforts to promote itself as a national power through the World Cup and Olympic games. Rather than serving to fortify a national identity, the events during the summers of 2014 and 2016 have only divided the country.
“What these games have revealed is that maybe Brazilians shouldn’t argue about what it means to be Brazilian,” Bocketti concluded.”