In Brazil, often considered the premier country for soccer, soccer is a way of life for millions. The game exerts an immense influence within a social context.The way in which soccer is included in the program of Brazil’s schools, however, could be more appropriate. This paper looks at Brazilian soccer’s social impact in an effort to understand its implications for schools.
Brazilian Soccer History
The history of soccer in Brazil reflects the wider history of the people and helps explain, perhaps, Brazilian society’s appreciation for the game. A variety of people from different parts of the world helped build a unique Brazilian culture, which comprises the largest multiracial democracy on our planet. When the Portuguese arrived in what is now Brazil, a small native population scattered throughout the area was often enslaved. Other slaves were subsequently brought to the area from West Africa and forced to work in mines and on farms. These slaves had metal-working skills that the native people lacked. African slaves also brought with them new music, dances, cookery, and martial arts. These contributed to shaping a lifestyle that all Brazilians now share. Most of the more recent European settlers were attracted to Brazil’s coffee-growing regions and to the growing industrial towns in the southeast. Brazil in fact has been occupied by “foreigners” for a much shorter time than most other countries.
Soccer was brought to Brazil in 1885 by Charles Miller, an Englishman. The Portuguese called it futebol, and it was initially played in private clubs by young men of the elite class. This discrimination against poor people and black people in terms of soccer access persisted for decades but began to be transformed in 1933, with the advent of professional soccer. The game then became very popular in schools, factories, and clubs. Futebol was practiced throughout the country, on beaches and fields, and the number of players grew quickly.
It is generally accepted that to understand Brazilian soccer, one needs to understand Brazil’s people. Their diverse races and cultures combined in a social phenomenon that is embodied in local and national soccer. Futebol became popular in the low-income population, where blacks and mulattos were overrepresented. That there is a distinctive, footwork-intense “Brazilian style” of soccer is, according to some authors, a legacy of the endemic, music-accompanied martial art capoeira and the dance style samba, both of which reflect African cultural development (Melo, 2000). Brazilian-style soccer is as much an art as a sport. The people who bequeathed it valued both complexity of rhythms and creativity of choreography. A nation of ex-slaves, they demonstrated great capacity to overcome injustice–and plain suffering–through imagination (Maranhão, 2002). Brazilian fans today look for the agile “soccer-artist” to focus their interest and appreciation on.
Another more practical aspect of soccer has influenced its history in Brazil. That is, the game is easy to play, with simple rules and no requirement for elaborate equipment or special playing locations. It can be played on synthetic grass or on abandoned land; it is played on more than 2,000 beaches. It is even played indoors in homes, with soccer balls comprising folded socks, oranges, soda bottle lids, and other handy items. Moreover, people with various physical attributes can participate in soccer, meaning many players, and the more players available, the more very talented players available. Soccer in Brazil is similar to basketball in the United States, in that the general cultural environment is characterized by extensive (and intensive) pursuit of the sport; people are shaped by their environments, in this case to want to play soccer and basketball, respectively.
Brazil has more professional soccer teams than any other country in the world. A wealth of players and a passion for play led the Brazilian soccer team to become the first ever to win the World Cup five times (in 1958, 1962, 1970, 1994, and 2002).
Heroes and Illusions
It has been argued that Brazil’s soccer culture possesses more influence over Brazilians’ lives than even aspects of politics or economics (Maranhão, 2002). Media coverage plays a role, and so does the myth of the rags-to-riches soccer star. Such media idols are much imitated by children, many of whom–like Pelé, Garrincha, Zico, Romário, and Ronaldo themselves–learned to play soccer in the dirt, under conditions of harsh poverty. Soccer here is a mix of joy in playing and suffering in being poor. In Brazil’s streets the boys of the nation, particularly boys from ethnic minorities, kick a ball and dream of becoming media idols themselves. This dream motivates millions of children: Soccer is their only hope of a future outside of poverty. Every time a poor kid succeeds through futebol, Brazil’s national soccer culture becomes even more deeply ingrained.
According to Teich (2002), a number of players on Brazilian national soccer teams have followed a common path. Very poor and having limited schooling, they became more than idols: They became owners of surprising wealth. They pursued their soccer playing intensively and the skills they developed strengthened soccer in Brazil, adding to its worldwide fame. They believed in soccer as their way up, economically and socially. There is a commonly held idea in Brazil that for the poor, especially the dark-skinned poor, social mobility can come only through soccer, music, or drug trafficking.
Would-be soccer stars without world-class talent grow up to be motoboys, delivery boys on motorcycles, or perhaps van drivers, if they do not die first in confrontations with police or drug dealers. In Brazil the realities of race and power, which translate into realities of opportunity and ability, have long histories that boil down to nonwhites’ deprivation of health, education, work, and income (Graham, 1990). This is why, Arbena argues (1988), for Brazil’s poorest children and teens, soccer’s importance to daily life transcends simple recreation.
To say that becoming a professional Brazilian soccer player guarantees wealth is not entirely true. According to the Brazilian Soccer Association, only 4.3% of professional players receive over US $1,350 in pay each month (4,000 Brazilian reais). The great majority of players, 83.4%, earn less than US $120 monthly (“Salários,” 1998).
Soccer, School, and a More Inclusive Society
Despite the great importance of soccer to Brazil’s culture, the positive social impact that could result from the game’s careful use in Brazilian schools typically has been neglected. Transforming the schools into places that generally please children would stimulate learning. Brazil’s children play soccer before, after, and yes, during, school. Adults, however, have not capitalized on soccer’s youthful popularity to improve social integration. They have not even approached soccer as a tool for enhancing school attendance and thereby promoting learning. Surely one solution to school failure, including dropping out, would be organized soccer. School must be connected to students’ local culture, which represents what they have already learned. As Freire (1992) explained, children take to school with them an understanding of their world (the place of their origin and the culture it supports) that is in fact the beginning of all other knowledge they obtain over time. Because they know soccer so well, the sport offers nothing less than a means of knowledge development and resulting liberation, if it could be strongly connected to what the children are asked to learn at school.
The schools belong to society. Society should move to promote opportunity for all Brazilians by putting soccer to work in its schools. For a few, it might turn out to be the dream come true of soccer stardom, but with a complete academic education, even for the many, economic opportunity will begin to expand.
Arbena, J. (Ed.). (1988). Sport and society in Latin America: Diffusion, dependency, and the rise of mass culture. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.
Salários dos jogadores no futebol profissional brasileiro [Players’ salaries in Brazilian professional soccer]. (1998, February 14). Folha de Sao Paulo.
Freire, P. (1992). Pedagogia da esperança [Pedagogy of hope]. Rio de Janeiro: Paz e Terra.
Graham, R. (1990). The idea of race in Latin America, 1870–1940. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press.
Maranhão, C. (2002, July). O pais do futebol [Soccer nation]. Revista Veja, 1758A(26A), 48–52.
Melo, V. A. (2000). Futebol: Paixão e política [Soccer: Passion and politics]. Rio de Janeiro: DP&A Editora.
Teich, D. (2002, July 17). De onde eles vieram? [Where did they come from?]. Revista Veja, 28A, 36–42.