This article is a part of the 30 day Special Series from Football Bloody Hell devoted to the World Cup 2018.
There are few things so heavily ingrained into a nation’s culture that they resonate through every pore of its populace. It’s generally the small things that grow so ubiquitous – a post-meal nap or that staple mug of tea. Away from habits and the like, it’s harder to discern what goes nationwide. But still, there are things – activities, personas, historical developments – that influence the mentality and thinking of a nation whole.
Football. Think of the sport and names of past greats start popping into mind. Names of clubs come too, and countries soon follow. There are many that live and breathe the sport: England, Argentina, Nigeria, Mexico, Uruguay, and Brazil. Of course, Brazil. The five time world champions and its 207 million population only cares for one thing: the sixth. Kids spend their days on the asphalt courts or the sandy beaches, kicking a ball about in hope of one day being able to put on the famous yellow shirts and blue shorts. Past heroes are revered. The likes of Pele, Zico, Socrates, Rivelino, Rai are idolized. It’s perhaps the most common life dream: to walk out at the Maracanā and move with that samba rhythm, the freedom of joga bonito.
That too has its origins. Football was first brought to the Brazilian shores at the close of the 19th century, mere years after Brazil abolished slavery in 1888. Prejudice and bias didn’t die overnight. The upper classes sought all privileges, invited immigrants to marry the Afro-Brazilians in a nationwide programme of branqueamento or ‘whitening,’ and monopolized football. Gradually, football trickled down to the streets where Afro-Brazilians and former slaves could finally have a go at the exclusively-white sport. What followed was an awakening of a people’s, a nation’s potential.
Before, there was just one escape from the cruelties of Brazilian life: capoeira. Created by slaves, the dance-martial arts hybrid focused on body movement. No shackles, no restraints, completely and utterly free body movement. It begged the practitioner to express, to move and twist without thought or worry. No instruction, no repression, just liberating euphoria. All slaves took part. Capoeira turned mantraic.
When Afro-Brazilians finally got to kick a football around, those sentiments rushed back. Football was the new medium for resistance, for endless self-expression in a repressive society. Brazil remained exclusive. Players felt the need to whiten their skin for widespread acceptance. It took decades for change. Only under the dictatorship of Getulio Vargas in the 1930s did the attitudes finally lighten. Vargas endorsed capoeira and turned football into a legitimate, professional sport purposefully, to build a stronger national team consisting of the most talented players, not the whitest.
A quick 30 years later, Brazil had won two World Cups with two star Afro-Brazilians, Pele and Garrincha. Calls for an all-white Seleção were now laughed off. But, living in Brazil did not get any better.
Plainly, the 1960s were a time of dread. After Jânio Quadros resigned from office in 1961, then-vice president João Goulart took on the full post. He rushed to nationalize various industries to bolster the domestic economy as to not fall further behind the United States economically. The radical changes divided the public. Many were convinced that Goulart was aligning Brazil with the Communist Bloc and called to protest. Whispers of a coup d’état were spread and by 1965, Goulart fled to Uruguay and was replaced by the former Chief of Staff of the Brazilian Army, Marshal Castelo Branco.
Branco further centralised power. He granted himself, and any following president, the right to fire politicians at whim and alter the constitution at will. Branco’s successor, General Artur da Costa e Silva, dissolved congress, censored media, and upped his authority to that of a dictator, which was exploited by his own successor, General Emílio Garrastazú Médici.
His entrance was quite abrupt: “Brasil: ame-o ou deixe-o” (Brazil: love it or leave it). He censored journalists and jailed dissidents. There were low wages, high inflation rates, and torturous police. Life in Brazil wasn’t fun.
To appease the public, Médici turned to football. He authorized the construction of many new stadiums throughout the land. But the cheers of the public only inflated his ego. Médici wanted control over the selecting the line-ups of Flamengo before attempting to do the same with the Seleção. The manager of the latter, João Saldanha, refused to play Médici’s favourite striker, Dario, and quickly got the axe in response. Brazil were without a manager just months prior to the 1970 World Cup.
Saldanha got his message through before getting sacked, thankfully. He wanted his team to play with samba rhythm, that Brazilian flair. He wanted inventors, creators, pure entertainers. He challenged each player to channel that capoeira energy into football. Free flowing, radiant, expressive football. The nation was in peril, but in the summer all its focus would be on the Seleção. And Saldanha wanted his side to jolt an entire populace to life.
Brazil delivered. It was football so lush it turned rivals into fanatics. Speed, power, trickery, artistry, joga bonito came to the Mexican coast and devoured teams entire. They played to galvanize. To prove that life can flourish under tyranny.
The only team ever to win all seven of its World Cup matches? Brazil 1970. The only player to ever score in every match at the World Cup? Jairzinho, of Brazil 1970. The only players to ever win three World Cups? The Brazilian Pelé, who was at his glorious peak in 1970. His supporting cast was quite snazzy, too. Tostão, Gérson, Jairzinho, Rivelino are magicians in their own ways. Together, they simply enchanted. Visibly a tier above the rest, waltzing to success in premium fashion – Brazil 1970 set the precedent for football of beauty and flair.