Like most Black men of my generation, I have long had a long distance love affair with Brazil. As a child growing up in the 70s, like boxer Muhammed Ali, and the West Indian cricket team, their international sporting success made me proud to be Black, and was a tangible repudiation of those that argued that Blacks were inferior. Though the glory days of that team led by Pele are long gone, Brazil is still the default team for any Black football fan in the diaspora.
But even putting their footballing prowess aside, everything about Brazil seemed sexy and cool, and the African roots of so much of its popular culture was plain to see. From the martial arts inspired dance form of capoeira, to the sexy rhythms of Samba, and the beautiful women that always featured in any music video or documentary shot there, to the world’s largest street Carnival in Rio, that made our own Nottinghill Carnival look like a back-yard barbeque. Hell, even the waxing treatment to remove pubic hair and facilitate the wearing of high-cut bikini bottoms is named after the country. And I’m sure I even read somewhere that they invented the thong!
But the increased media attention that Brazil has enjoyed in the lead up to the World Cup has forced me to question whether my love was misplaced – like forming a favourable impression of someone you meet on-line, who turns out to be a disappointment when you finally meet in person. Much to my horror I’ve discovered that Brazil is a deeply racist country. Anyone following this media coverage over the last 12 months, couldn’t have failed to notice that in any documentary featuring politicians, media personalities, or entrepreneurs the interviewees are uniformly white. In contrast, those documenting Brazil’s gang wars, crack cocaine epidemic , or shanty town favelas feature predominantly the country’s darker skinned people. As I’ve learnt over the last year, the majority of the Africans kidnapped for the Transatlantic Slave trade were taken, not to America, or the Caribbean, but to Brazil. The practice was not abolished until 1889, making Brazil the last nation in the Western Hemisphere to outlaw the institution, and it is clear that 125 years after its abolition, the descendants of those slaves remain firmly at the bottom of Brazilian society.
Looking at international finance we are told that the Brazilian economy is one of the new vibrant economies (The BRICS) bucking the global recession and enjoying growth. But as the street protests before the World Cup revealed, this new wealth is not trickling down to benefit all in the country. The protesters were angry that the government had spent $12 billion dollars on building new football stadiums to meet the standards of FIFA, whilst neglecting the country’s schools and hospitals. But from what I could see from the TV reports, the majority of those street protesters were the country’s middle class whites, the poor Blacks presumably being too busy dodging the bullets and bulldozers that were enforcing the government’s cold-hearted policy to clean up and ‘pacify’ the favelas before the tournament got under way.
No doubt much to relief of the Government and the country’s rich elite, those street protests came to an abrupt end when the tournament began, as the protesters put down their face masks and Molotov cocktails in order to support their national team. But again the faces of those Brazilian supporters in the stadiums were uniformly white. How could it be that in a country that is 51% Black, 100% of the national team’s supporters in the stadium were white?
Clearly this sporting spectacle was for the enjoyment of the rich, with the bill picked up by the taxes of the growing middle class. And as for the poor? Well they were just an embarrassing inconvenience to be bulldozed out of view. Out of (the tourist’s) sight, out of (the government’s) mind.
Had Brazil been successful in the World Cup, no doubt the country’s growing social inequality would have continued as before. Just as with the Olympics in the UK, the government could argue that, ‘yes it cost a lot of money, but wasn’t it worth it? Look how it brought the country together’.
Even if Brazil had not won the tournament, but had played well and lost in the final, that argument could still have held some weight. But with the ignominious way that Brazil were dispatched by Germany, that can no longer be argued. The country’s team was not a source of pride, but a source of national shame. Those expensive football stadiums that will remain long after the FIFA officialls have left, will now not be monuments to the national team’s success, but rather reminders of their humiliation. Though the country was united in grief when their star player Neymar was injured, they shed few tears for the eight construction workers who lost their lives in the building of those stadiums. For a country that has for so long used football to form their national identity, this can no longer be the case. Just as England have slowly had to acknowledge over the last 40-odd years, Brazil are no longer a leading world football power. How many kids will be sporting Brazilian football shirts after this? They didn’t get knocked out of the tournament after fighting bravely. They scraped their way into the semi- finals where they were humiliated. Germany gave them a lesson in football, and Brazil will now have to take their national pride and identity from something else.
The government cannot continue with business as usual. The whole country needs a rethink, rather like George Forman after his shock defeat to Muhammed Ali in the legendary Rumble In the Jungle in 1974. Foreman was the Mike Tyson of his day, considered ‘the baddest man on the planet’ and unbeatable. Ali proved that he wasn’t, and after Ali’s shock victory Foreman was forced to re-evaluate his whole life. He entered a deep depression, and completely retired from boxing three years later. But he eventually turned his life around, becoming a born-again Christian, returning to boxing only to raise money for his church, and is now more famous as the smiling face of the George Foreman Grill than as a mean-mugging pugilist.
I’m hoping that after their humiliation, Brazil will have a similar re-evaluation. Since they can no longer take their national pride from the football team, what will they take it from? Now that the entire world has seen their social inequality, the horrendous living conditions of so many in the favelas, the homelessness and crack epidemic that blights so many of the neglected underclass, I’m hoping that rather than ignoring the plight of their own populous and looking for plaudits from overseas, the government will start to turn their attention to those of the population who cannot win them trophies, but still need jobs and houses.
There are things in life more important than football. Of course no one wants to hear that when their team is winning. But you are forced to confront this when your team are routed. Here’s hoping that their humiliating World Cup defeat will make the Brazilian elite reconsider their priorities, and start to make it a country that even non-football, non-carnival fans can admire.