“There is a myth that Brazil’s unique soccer-playing style expresses the country’s apparently harmonious racial past,” says history professor Roger Kittleson. His new book, The Country of Football: Soccer and the Making of Modern Brazil, calls into question that widespread belief.
The book looks at Brazil through the lens of its most popular sport, which has come to be defined as a mostly Afro-Brazilian game. But that wasn’t always the case. Soccer came to Brazil in the late 19th century through visiting British businessmen and affluent Brazilians whose sons studied in Europe. The official clubs and leagues were white-only for decades.
A century later, when Kittleson was conducting research for a book about 19th-century Brazilian politics, the national team was “playing particularly badly,” he says. He noticed that everyone from newscasters to people at bus stops blamed the team’s performance on its racial makeup. “I heard everyone saying the team was too white,” Kittleson says. “I tucked that away; I’d want to return to this idea someday.”
In The Country of Football, which is intended for a general audience, Kittleson argues that “the idea of racial harmony began as an ideal for uniting the nation.” As early as the 1930s journalists, scholars, and politicians promoted the image of Brazil as essentially mixed-race. “The national culture was supposedly derived from the mixing of different races,” Kittleson says. “What was called ‘mulatto football’ was key to the creation of this notion of a mixed-race Brazil.”
Despite continued discrimination against Afro-Brazilians in soccer and other aspects of society, the ideal of a racially integrated Brazil—and a soccer style that emerged from the country’s mixed-race people—remained appealing for many decades. Ultimately, Kittleson notes, that image “became little more than a marketing brand.” The recent protests surrounding the World Cup, he says, demonstrate “that the Brazilian people are no longer satisfied with these simplistic understandings of their country and culture.”
The protests, about the expected $15 billion being spent on the World Cup (more than the two previous Cups combined) and the heavy-handed way in which the government has displaced entire neighborhoods and siphoned money away from schools and hospitals, continue today. Kittleson was particularly disappointed to hear Ronaldo, one of the players he’s admired for years, suggest recently that the police crack down, beating protesters if necessary. He sees hope, however, in the persistent calls that many other Brazilian players have made for a deeper and more just democracy.
His prediction about the World Cup? Kittleson says: “I’m sure things will be a mess, and that everything will work out anyway.”