Why is Brazil So Good at Soccer?
Ask soccer fans which team they want to see play before they die and many will say Brazil. In their yellow shirts and blue shorts, Brazil has earned the reputation of playing attractive soccer more consistently than anyone else. When Brazilians dubbed soccer “o jogo bonito,” the beautiful game, it wasn’t just an aspiration.
Brazil also wins. The team’s reward for making football more about art than science has been more World Cup trophies than any other nation and the highest winning percentage of any national team.
How did Brazil get so good? Some say it’s because poor Brazilians playing on the street learn how to stay on their feet and control the ball better than those who grow up playing on grass. But you could make the same argument for many other countries—poverty is unfortunately not unique to Brazil.
Brazil is not great at soccer because of any special, natural endowment. Brazil became the best in the world because Brazilians made the game central to their understanding of what made their country special. Every nation wants something they can take pride in. For Brazil, that was soccer. And they decided on that long before they won their first World Cup.
The British invented the modern game of soccer and took it to Brazil in the 1890’s. Before long, there were several teams in São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro made up of European immigrants. Locals watched, then took up the game. They formed their own teams because most of them weren’t welcome at the all-white European clubs.
Brazilians celebrated when a collection of their best players beat a visiting English side in 1914. They celebrated again when their team won the South American championship in 1919.
The winning goal in that final was scored by a player with African heritage, or an Afro-Brazilian—Arthur Friedenreich. He was only allowed to play on white teams because of his German father. Racism was common in Brazilian soccer—Friedenreich made sure he was never photographed with his black mother and slicked down his curly hair before every game. However, as white Brazilians discovered that winning games fed their national pride they were willing to overlook their prejudices. Racist abuse of Afro-Brazilian players in Argentina in 1920 and at the World Cup in fascist Italy in 1934 encouraged Brazilians to see soccer as a unifying force in their society—even if racism remained a persistent temptation. One of Brazil’s early black stars, Leônidas, invented the bicycle kick, but even he had to deal with people rushing the pitch during one game and chanting, “Lynch him!”
In the 1930’s, three men further cemented soccer at the core of Brazil’s national identity. The first was the country’s authoritarian president, Getúlio Vargas. He didn’t like soccer, but he made use of it to unify people and reduce social tensions.
The second was Gilberto Freyre, an academic whose writings placed soccer at the heart of what it meant to be Brazilian. For him, soccer was the perfect reflection of his multi-racial country, where all races had to work together to win. He celebrated the black contribution to Brazilian soccer, arguing that the fluid, creative way Brazilians played was a result of their African roots, and contrasting this to the rigid, unimaginative style of European teams.
The third man was a journalist, Mario Filho. He was the first to write about soccer in the enthusiastic tones that fans used when they spoke about the sport.
The idea that blacks are naturally more creative or athletic than whites attracted critics in Brazil, and rightly so. But the ideas that soccer made Brazil special and that Brazilians made soccer special now had the support not just of fans, but of leading figures in politics, academia, and journalism. This popular-elite combination created a stable foundation for the connection between soccer and Brazil’s national identity.
With that foundation in place, Brazilians became good at soccer in large part because the prestige attached to the game ensured that every year millions of youngsters would juggle a ball and dream of representing their country.
Success also helped. Brazil won the World Cup three times in quick succession—1958, 1962, and 1970. That their best player, Pelé, was Afro-Brazilian, solidified the idea that racial diversity was central to the team’s success. Brazil won the cup again in 1994 and 2002.
When the team loses, the nation mourns. The 7-1 defeat by Germany on home soil in the 2014 World Cup semi-final was especially hard to stomach. Yet Brazil continues to win more games than it loses—69% in the World Cup—and to produce players with skills that make the rest of the world smile. They are not the only country to do so. But nowhere else is soccer so central to a country’s self-understanding and self-belief.