twentieth century, the Brazilian national character had shed the veil of colonialism in favor of its own unique personality, one of the religiously historic samba, celebratory carnival, and a universal passion for soccer. The athletic fanaticism was steered at the helm by Edsom Arantes de Nascimento, the famous Pele. One of the most famed athletes in international sports, Pele was born to a poor Brazilian family in 1940.

While the samba music of the cities gained international attention, the burgeoning soccer star honed his kick on a stuffed sock. Years later, after scoring his 1,000th goal and garnering national love and world-wide hype, Pele’s biggest contribution to the Brazilian people was clear. Through soccer, the beloved national pastime, Brazil surmounted many of the complex hurdles in developing a modern identity, navigating race relations, and becoming an important part of an international focus.

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Unlike other popular colonial sports brought to the New World by the English, soccer was a great equalizer. While rugby required a cadre of expensive paraphernalia and polo could not be played without a horse, soccer only requires a ball. Additionally, like basketball has become in many urban areas throughout North America, soccer finds its popular prowess as a pick-up sport; it is financially simple, can be played in a field, alley, street, or backyard, and can be honed without the pricey training, playgrounds, and utilities of other popular sports. Despite the fact that soccer was brought to Brazil as an elite sport, it quickly found its home among all social castes.

Soccer was invented in Britain but was brought to South America in the late nineteenth century by the British. It quickly became a part of the cultural paradigm in Argentina, Brazil, and Uruguay. “[Soccer] Assumed a cultural and political importance that far exceeded what it would acquire in Britain.”

What Ramos calls “passion and Lever later calls “madness” was the fast infatuation with which the Latin American countries were captivated by the game.

In a divergent strand of assimilation, the nations of South America quickly took to the British game in a very un-British manner. Instead of it becoming one of the many ways in which the national infrastructure was defined by its monarchical satellite, it instead become redefined and envisioned as a strictly Latin American, or Brazilian, characteristic.

Lever purports that the strength of the national resolve to adopt soccer in Brazil was a result of “integration through conflict.” According to Lever, Brazilian soccer demonstrates “that large-scale organized sport presents an alternative mechanism for using primordial identities to build political unity and allegiance to the modern state.”

The adaptation of the sport was part of the rise of a republic struggling to battle its old problems in the wake of debilitating colonialism, demands of advancing technology, industrialization, and the rapid development of South America as an outlet for North American commercial interests.

After its introduction in the 1860s, soccer had transformed the landscape of Brazil from just a leisure-time amusement to an all-consuming infection of activity. “It is almost a religion,”

Krotee offers as explanation for the widespread diffusion of soccer as the height of all popular activity throughout the region. In the very way it was played, soccer functioned on the socio-cultural identity of Brazil to redefine the hierarchy.

“The soccer pitch transcends a playing field and serves as a proving ground of sociocultural heritage and nationalistic pride. Furthermore, soccer has become a vehicle to communicate, express, reflect, and sometimes preserve a way of life.”

In Brazil, soccer provided the springboard for a shared life identity among all citizens; in a country with such a complex history and corrugated national identity, soccer was an equalizer.

Throughout Brazil, race was an integral qualifier in the construction of social identity.

Like Jim Crow segregation to its north, Brazil was structured by a racial democracy.

While Skidmore follows in the footsteps of predecessors Florestan Fernandes, Emilia Viotti di Costa, and Marvin Haris, his revisionist approach to the social history of Brazil does not waiver far from the concept of racial democracy. Skidmore approaches the problem of race in Brazil as one that is thoroughly intellectual, and practically nonexistent before 1888, when slavery was abolished.

He also argues that the social manifestation of a multi-faceted racial population was not problematic in Brazilian culture, nor was there a focus on the nation’s future in terms of race. Instead, he says that because “racist theories were in vogue in Europe and the United States,” the writers and political philosophers from those countries looked upon Brazil with disdain, “the preponderance of miscegenation.”

The Brazilian elite were very sensitive to their national reputation abroad, and eager to fit into the post-colonial hierarchy of the international world, were quick to imitate the European models that might not have otherwise found home in Brazil.

Skidmore purports a world in which the Brazilian elites answered the chasm between Brazilian racial fabric and Western model with the idea of “whitening.” They looked to their European mentors with mimicking eye; they fostered in Brazil a concept that supported the supremacy of not only the Caucasian characteristics, but also social superiority. The flawed idea of racial hierarchy took a post-colonial nation and cut it the quick; instead of fostering ideas of unity and progress, Brazil at large was forced to grapple with the problem of conflicting racial tension.

As Skidmore says that honest Brazilian “negritude” struggled on the national front, the identification with “whitening” in the upper castes quickly created a difficult atmosphere for the varying shades of skin tones throughout the country. In the 1920s and ’30s, the leaders of the Brazilian Negro Front, and later in the ’40s and ’50s the Negro Experimental Theater, fostered a nationalism around which the poor might find a form of social solidarity that could reach even the lowest classes, like that from which Pele came.

Modernization provided another hurdle, and dreams of a coherent Brazil were awash in social philosophy, institutionalized racism, and cultural confusion, soccer took hold as the seamless regenerator.

Lever calls soccer an “anthropological oddity,” the foster of “civil religion.” In Brazil, the sport was a source of earnest tension and competition, but also the field of cooperation between athletes. She says that Brazil was captivated by the interlinked roles of “spiritualism, samba, and soccer.”

Because the country was so weak on political parties and the unions played little role of social success for the workers who looked to them for support, Brazil was an important symbiosis of sports and politics.

Brazil welcomed the elevated role of soccer. At first, the racial divide was still very relevant. Well into the 1920s, the Brazilian elite, “always practicing their own version of racism and intent on creating the image of a white country,” tried to exclude black players.

In the era of discrimination, the mulatto players used “po de arroz,” or rice poweder, as a jeito — a way around the racial prohibition — to play and look “white.” The fans were not tricked, though, and the stunts of the early part of the century were no longer relevant by the end of the 1920s and onward when the creation of professional leagues was commercial fodder for the mass-appeal of the sport.

Soccer became a defining part of the Brazilian identity very quickly. It united players on the fields and fans in the stands; the sporting Esperanto was retrospectively inevitable. The people of Brazil needed to define themselves in a coherent manner but lacked a motivator until the onset of soccer; with the spread of the athletic fad, it became the source of “the shared symbols of a culture.”

Through soccer, a social allegory was played daily throughout the country. The players were the heroes, the villains were the referees. The coaches were the wise characters from the storybooks; they offered advice, discipline, and hope for success. Throughout the nation, up to 80% of the exalted professional players were from the lower classes, races that had previously been castigated and left for degradation.

Instead, they found upward mobility through sport. While the actuality of their social mobility decreased once they stopped playing, it was the symbolism offered by “mobility ideology” that wound the nation around the hope provided by one game.

The special importance could not be more illuminated than by Pele. The great athlete excelled not only at soccer, but at captivating the hearts and minds of those for whom he played either as a teammate, hero, or hope. He played the World Cup at 17, far from the poverty-ridden childhood in which he grew up with the great hopes and humility of only being as good as his father, Dodinho.

His rapid ascent into the hallowed stardom of the Brazilian National Team and Santos Football Club filled his name with reputation and his feet with the will to win. Despite international skepticism, he overcame challenge after challenge. “Not even the midnight sacrifice of a roost stopped world soccer king Pele, whose most recent performance was supposed to have been jixed by the employment of every magic technique known to opposing soccer fans.”

Neither hex nor war could stop his victory, and by the time he won three World Cups, he had even put a war on hiatus, where in Nigeria, the Biafran Civil War was officially paused with a three day truce to watch Pele play in two exhibition games.

Pele was a hero. Not only was he a stellar athlete, he was a good man whose intentions were honest and successes visible. He overcame poverty, racial discrimination, and physical stresses to succeed, providing a great role model for the millions of Brazilians for whom national identity was muddied. While race and poverty confused the social context of post-colonial Brazil, soccer became part of its ability to redefine itself on its own terms. Soccer, the national pastime, became a measure of success, international standing, and, above all, a very real local hope.

Arbena, Joseph L. Sport and Society in Latin America: Diffusion, Dependency, and the Rise of Mass Culture. New York: Greenwood Press. 1988.

Associated Press dispatch from Sao Paolo, Brazil, to the Denver Post, 8 December, 1968.

Booker, R. Michael Jr. Soccer, Race, Politics, and National Identity in Brazil During the Pele Era: 1958-1970. Colorado Springs: University of Colorado.

Da Matta, Roberto. Carnivals, Rogues, and Heroes: An Interpretation of the Brazilian Dilemma. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press. 1991.

Krotee, March L. “The Rise and Demise of Sport.” Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science. Vol. 445, Contemporary Issues in Sport. (Sep., 1979.)

Lever, Janet. Soccer Madness. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1983.

Mason, Tony. Passion of the People? Football in South America. New York: Verso, 1995.

Pele & Fish, R. Pele, My Life and the Beautiful Game New York: Doubleday, 1977.

Skidmore, Thomas E. Black Into White: Race and Nationality in Brazilian Thought. Durham: Duke University, 1993.

Pele & Fish, R. Pele, My Life and the Beautiful Game New York: Doubleday, 1977. P. 12.

Arbena, Joseph L. Sport and Society in Latin America: Diffusion, Dependency, and the Rise of Mass Culture. New York: Greenwood Press, 1988. P. 27.

Mason, Tony. Passion of the People? Football in South America. New York: Verso, 1995. P. 16.

Lever, Janet. Soccer Madness. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1983.

Lever, p. 6.

Krotee, March L. “The Rise and Demise of Sport.” Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science. Vol. 445, Contemporary Issues in Sport. (Sep., 1979.) p. 141.

Krotee, p. 142.

Krotee, p. 143.

Skidmore, Thomas E. Black Into White: Race and Nationality in Brazilian Thought. Durham: Duke University, 1993.

Booker, Michael R. “Soccer, Race, Politics and National Identity in Brazil During the Pele Era: 1958-1970.” Colorado Springs: University of Colorado at Colorado Springs.

Booker, p. 47.

Booker, p. 51.

Booker, p. 51.

Booker, 194.

Lever, Chapter 3.

Mason, 56.

Lever, 140.

Lver, 142.

Lever, 147.

Pele, p .121.

Associated Press dispatch from Sao Paolo, Brazil, to the Denver Post, 8 December, 1968.


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