As a child, you learn to improvise. You make a ball out of newspaper and masking tape or your mother’s old tights. You demarcate two goals with your Havaianas flip-flops. In case what you’re missing is players, you practice dribbling by yourself. Even if, by a miracle, you happen to develop no interest in the sport, you pretend to care. You buy a jersey. You say you love your team until you grow courageous enough to finally burst out in the middle of a family dinner: “I hate football!” Then, for the rest of your life, you’re condemned to having to justify, in a shameful tone, staring at your feet, your absence from this most-adored national ritual.
In World Cup years, you surprise yourself by feeling entirely pleased as the country explodes in colors. Weeks before the first game, party stores replace their stock with Brazilian-themed decorations. There are little flags, balloons, plastic cups, hats, and inflatable balls. On São Paulo’s famous street, 25 de Março, vendors sell fake jerseys, fake cleats, and fake trophies. Then, you watch in awe as streets all over the country are decorated. People graffiti murals of famous players. Sometimes they tie hundreds of pennant strings on street poles, so when you walk under them, the sky above is green and yellow: the colors of Brazil.
Some companies install TVs in the office just for the World Cup. Others let employees leave during the games. Meetings are canceled. Schools set up projectors, or teachers stop halfway through a lecture, turn on the TV in the classroom, and watch the game with their students. In wealthy houses, maids are allowed to finally take a break and sit on the couch beside their bosses. With every goal, even you, a soccer-hater, celebrate as roars and fireworks reach a perfect crescendo.
I was only nine years old in 2002. I had little knowledge of history and geography, but I knew that Brazil was at the bottom of both — except for football. I had heard of the United States and Europe because people always talked about them. The lucky ones visited them on vacation and bragged about their newly acquired goods: Hollister shirts, GAP sweaters, Nike shoes, and a 212 Sexy perfume. They told me that Americans had fancy cars, big houses, money, and Disneyland. Europeans had culture. Brazil had samba, Carnival, and endless summer, which have unfortunately made us lazy and underdeveloped, as I was told by other Brazilians.
The day I understood our predicament, I was watching TV at home before going to dinner with my parents. The main character on this particular show seemed singularly obsessed with a place called Harvard, which is supposedly the best school in the world. She had spent most of her life preparing for it. She was part of social clubs; had read Henry James, Sylvia Plath, and Voltaire; and still feared a rejection. I remember looking around our living room, in the periphery of São Paulo, in the periphery of the world, a living room that looked nothing like hers, and realizing that I would never in my life attend Harvard. My school had no clubs, and I didn’t speak English. I spent dinner crying into my pizza, telling my parents how sad it was to be born Brazilian.
Still, I will never forget the excitement I felt in 2002, watching out my window as three images — a flag, a football, and a trophy — slowly took shape on the street below my building just before the sidewalk turned yellow and green. It was an excitement that carried through every game as we beat European teams to reach the final, where the full joy of Ronaldo’s smile after scoring the winning goal against Germany infected every person in Brazil. Sick with passion, we stopped traffic, hugged strangers, and danced from morning to evening. We were, if only briefly, the best in the world, and I was, for the first time, proud to be Brazilian.
That same year, I watched Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva of the Workers’ Party (PT) win the presidential elections for the first time. He was the first person to become president who had been born into poverty and lacked a formal education — a tale of hope and social ascendancy that resonated with many, but which also attracted criticism from those who believed only the educated could be qualified for the position. His campaign denounced neoliberalism and promised to address social inequalities that had plagued Brazilian society for decades. He vowed to govern for the people and end hunger and poverty in Brazil.
A little over a year in power, Lula took on another task — to increase the self-esteem of Brazilians like me. His government launched a campaign called “The Best of Brazil Is Brazilians,” with slogans like “I’m Brazilian and never give up” that played on TV and radio stations all over the nation. The ad that I remember most clearly opens with an image of a small child in black and white, fading to a wide shot of Brazilian soccer fans in a stadium, then a compilation of Ronaldo’s best moments. The montage ends when he falls and injures his knee in an Inter Milan game in 2000, followed by newspaper headlines saying that his career is over. Then Ronaldo reappears undergoing physical therapy and returning again to the field, playing that final game in 2002. After he scores, the ad cuts to a white screen with these words: “The whole world thought he was done. But he is Brazilian and never gives up.” The final shot shows Ronaldo kissing the World Cup trophy while the sentimental ballad “Tente Outra Vez” by Raul Seixas plays in the background. The lyrics translate roughly to “Don’t say this song is lost / have faith in God / have faith in life / try again.”
This campaign told the tale of the country Lula had promised to create — one where belief is possible — and it must have struck the right note at the time because a lingering hope colors my memories of that period. For many years after, it was common to hear Brazilians repeat “I’m Brazilian, and I never give up” in casual conversations. Yet, when I recently rewatched the ad, I noticed its delusional undertone, as if belief and persistence alone are enough in a country like Brazil. But mostly, I wondered what it says about our psyche to need an ad like this, and what it says about our nation to rely so much on football.
In his 1983 book of the same title, the Irish political scientist Benedict Anderson wrote that nations are “imagined communities.” He argued that, to some degree, nations exist and are maintained by a shared collective illusion — the belief that strangers who would otherwise have nothing in common share “a deep, horizontal comradeship.” Members of a nation buy into the idea that they are a collective because they believe that they share a common heritage, history, and traits. In Brazil, football is one of the pillars sustaining our collective illusion.
The sport arrived in Brazil in 1894, thanks to a young Scottish Brazilian man who, after studying in the United Kingdom, returned to São Paulo carrying a football, a pump, and the rules of the game in his suitcase. The country was just then beginning to define a national identity separate from Portugal and in relation to the rest of the world. Six years before, Brazil had finally abolished slavery. This overhaul in the labor system brought an influx of immigrants to now-sprawling cities. In 1889, a coup d’état overthrew the monarchy and established a republic, forcing the imperial family to flee. With the new republic came the need for a unified national identity. The state gained a new constitution and a flag — with a green background, a yellow rhombus, and a blue circle filled with white stars and a stripe with the words “Ordem e Progresso” (Order and Progress). But Brazil remained confused about itself, forced to deal with the push and pull between modernity and conservatism.
On the line were questions about miscegenation and the role of Black and Indigenous people in Brazilian society. As Marcos Guterman writes in his 2009 book O futebol explica o Brasil (“Football Explains Brazil”), Brazilians had to contend with a popular eugenics movement that saw the country as fundamentally inferior because of its intermixing of races. In 1903, for example, famous children’s author Monteiro Lobato wrote: “Brazil, the son of inferior parents, ill-mannered, devoid of the strong characteristics that imprint an unmistakable mark on certain individuals, as happens with the German and the English, grew sadly […] resulting in a useless type, incapable of continuing to develop without the life-giving blood of some original race.” Most kids, including myself, grew up reading Lobato’s books.
In 1930, the year of the first World Cup, Getúlio Vargas, a populist leader, became president. He saw the beloved sport as an opportunity to unite the nation’s races and classes behind a nationalistic project. He wanted to create a modern, homogeneous, patriotic country — a true “Brazilian race.” In 1938, Brazil sent its first mixed-race team to the World Cup in France. As Guterman writes, the team “was the perfect translation of Vargas’s objectives” as it painted the image of a unified and harmonious society. Encouraged by Vargas, employers, for the first time, allowed workers to pause and listen to World Cup games, which were played on loudspeakers in most cities. To the surprise of Europeans, Brazil reached the semifinals, playing a strange type of soccer — it was the first time the world saw bicycle kicks, invented by Leônidas da Silva, a Black Brazilian player.
That same year, the anthropologist Gilberto Freyre — famous for his seminal defense of miscegenation in the book Casa-Grande & Senzala (1933) — published an article entitled “Foot-ball mulato.” In it, he argued that the team arrived at the semifinal “thanks to the courage we finally had to send Europe a team that was deeply Afro-Brazilian.” He then attributed our football style — cunning, agile, spontaneous — to what he called our “mulatismo” as opposed to the Aryan football played by Europeans. Through football, Brazilians finally began associating their “Brazilianness” with grandiosity. Football became a unifying force — our way out of the shame of being Brazilian and into the hope of becoming a great nation.
By December 2010, the end of Lula’s second term in power, nobody could deny the positive changes in Brazil — about 20 million people had escaped poverty, and 30 million had moved into the middle class. The value of our currency had more than doubled against the US dollar, which meant that, for the first time, the elites weren’t the only ones going to Disneyland. I still remember the happiness that I felt watching the news back then, learning that Brazil was on its way to becoming the sixth-largest economy in the world — we’d even beat England.
Despite a parliamentary vote-buying scandal that implicated several members of PT’s administration, Lula left power with close to a 90 percent approval rating. He also helped elect Dilma Rousseff, the first woman president of Brazil, who had been part of the armed opposition to the 1964–85 military dictatorship. By the end of 2010, a majority of Brazilians believed the country already was or would become a superpower. Like many people who benefited from this boom, I packed my bags in 2011 to move to Canada and learn English, my first time traveling outside Latin America.
During my first months away from home, one of the things I missed the most was watching football with my brother and father on Sunday afternoons. I noticed, to my surprise, that not all countries share our love for the sport, so, feeling homesick, I watched hockey alone instead. The game was somewhat similar to football — there were two teams, two goalies, and two goals — but I couldn’t keep up with the puck. When the Vancouver Canucks scored, there were no fireworks, and my neighbors didn’t run outside screaming, “goooaaaaal!” So, slowly, I gave up trying to find a substitute for football, and the sport joined the list of the many things that I left behind in Brazil. The next time I watched a game seriously, years had passed.
I remember walking through the quiet streets of downtown Vancouver with my friends, entering a dark pub, and making our way to a crowded basement that smelled of buffalo wings and beer. It was early afternoon on July 8, 2014. There were about 50 Brazilians there — flags draped on the backs of their chairs and hung around their necks. As they talked loudly among themselves, sipping their beers, their eyes remained glued to the TV. We joined them, anxiously waiting for the start of the FIFA World Cup semifinal game against Germany; Brazil was hosting the tournament that year.
I knew that the sounds of fireworks, vuvuzelas, barking dogs, and people yelling “Vai Brasil” filled the streets of Brazil. Children fidgeted in their seats, and women bit their green and yellow nails. Before the first kick, the camera panned across the field, showing the Brazilian players. They looked pale and nervous, their shoulders slanted, carrying the burden of a nation. Since 2002, 12 years had passed, and expectations were high. A good result would take us to the final at the famed Maracanã stadium in Rio de Janeiro. Winning the title for the sixth time would also justify the over $11 billion spent to host the tournament at home. For the players, it would mean living up to the legacy of idols that came before them.
Germany scored their first goal in the 11th minute. A corner kick came across the box connecting with Thomas Müller’s right foot, firing straight to the back of the net. This was the first of five goals within 30 minutes — possibly the most humiliating minutes in football history.
In the only other memory that I have of that day, I’m making my way to school at halftime. I remember being on the SkyTrain, watching the city go by and feeling like a heavy rock had settled at the bottom of my stomach. I thought about the last two years: Brazil’s booming economy had initiated its downfall. Protests that began in 2013, with a simple demand to stop the increase of bus fares in many Brazilian cities, had grown by this time into a shapeless and confused beast. These were the largest demonstrations that Brazil had ever seen, yet a year into the protests, nobody could agree on what exactly they were for. These were the early days of Operation Car Wash, an investigation that unveiled a money-laundering scheme involving several politicians and the state-owned oil company Petrobras. Some angry Brazilians called for an end to corruption and demanded more government investment in healthcare and education. Others wanted to cancel the World Cup. The radical ones wanted a complete overhaul of our political system and a return to a military dictatorship.
As I walked into the school’s atrium, I saw students gathered around a projector, watching the second half of the game. When a friend got up to say hi to me, I looked at them, at the screen, and I couldn’t say anything. Uncontrollable tears came down heavy and fast, soaking my shirt. Watching my country, already on the verge of collapse, become an international joke in front of millions broke me down. Germany won 7–1 — a loss that erased many victories.
The only other time that Brazil hosted the World Cup was in 1950, the first tournament after a 12-year hiatus caused by the Second World War. Getúlio Vargas was still in power and hoped to use the event to showcase Brazil’s potential to other nations. He built the largest stadium in the world at the time, the Maracanã, where Brazil played the final against Uruguay. In the old World Cup point system, the country only needed a tie to win the tournament, but Uruguay managed to score two goals and win. The loss was considered — at least before the 7–1 — one of the most tragic events in Brazilian history. Some refer to it as the “game that never ended.”
As a child in the 1990s, over 40 years later, I still heard stories about the loss. I was told about the heavy silence that fell upon the stadium at the end of the game. I heard about the people who cried and fainted, the streets that became deserted, the commerce that shut down, and the two fans who died at the event — one by suicide and the other by a heart attack. As the anthropologist Arno Vogel put it in 1982, it was as if the motherland had died, and we were having “a funeral procession.” The shame was so extreme that the Brazilian Football Confederation launched a countrywide contest to change our national uniform from white and blue to the current yellow, green, and blue.
In 1958, reflecting on our exaggerated reaction to this loss, Nelson Rodrigues described Brazilians as suffering from a “mongrel complex,” or “the inferiority in which Brazilians put themselves, voluntarily, in comparison to the rest of the world.” As he writes, “Brazilians are the backwards Narcissus, who spit in their own image. Here is the truth: we can’t find personal or historical pretexts for self-esteem.”
The morning after the 7–1, Brazilians woke up to headlines such as “Shame, Shame, Shame,” “Humiliation at Home,” and “The Biggest Fiasco in History.” One newspaper printed a black cover with the text “There Will Be No Cover.” Another published an obituary for the dreams of a sixth title. “Death by Shame,” it read. In an interview with CNN, President Rousseff said, “Not even my nightmares go this far. I feel immensely as a fan because I know what other fans are feeling, but I also know that our country has one trait — we rise up to adversity.”
But in reality, people burned down 26 buses in São Paulo alone after the game. Protests not only continued in the following months but were also co-opted by a radical and fast-growing right-wing movement. Unsatisfied with the political establishment, they rejected the existing political parties and hoped to change Brazil through a conservative nationalist agenda. They took to the streets wearing the national jersey and flags — now the symbols of their movement.
In 2014, Rousseff won reelection in one of the closest contests in Brazilian history, but her second term didn’t last long. Then, in 2016, I watched on TV, afflicted, as Brazilian senators voted to impeach her. Of them, one stood out: the retired military officer Jair Bolsonaro, who dedicated his vote to Colonel Carlos Alberto Brilhante Ustra, head of the torture unit where Rousseff had been imprisoned during the dictatorship.
Benefiting from the fallout of the Car Wash investigations, Bolsonaro was elected president in 2018, a surprise result to most. He ran a controversial and divisive campaign that expressed opposition to same-sex marriage and other human rights causes, which he claimed were against family and Christian values. He vowed to bring radical changes to Brazil through austerity measures and by cutting government spending — particularly for programs that redistributed wealth to the lower classes. He also promised to liberalize gun and environmental laws. As he celebrated his victory, he was surrounded by a sea of people wearing the yellow and green jerseys — co-opting what used to be a symbol of national hope.
In the four years that followed, Brazil grew even more divided as the government undid many of the progressive policies of the past. Hunger rose to levels not seen since the 1990s. Deforestation of the Amazon increased by 50 percent, reaching the highest level since 2008. And, in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, even as deaths approached half a million people, the president responded with scorn, suggesting chloroquine as a cure.
The last time I went to Brazil, I landed at the São Paulo airport on a cold evening in October 2022. The prior weekend, I had waited in line on 56th Street in New York City to cast my vote against Bolsonaro. It was clear by now that those who had been uncomfortable showing support to the far right were no longer hiding in shame. They chanted in favor of Bolsonaro outside the polling station and spoke of protecting children and the family unit — their backhanded way of saying that feminists and queer people have no place in Brazil. They shouted about sending Lula to prison and called for an end to corruption. Often, though, they didn’t say anything. They wore football jerseys and carried Brazilian flags on their shoulders. Their clothing alone said enough.
Lula’s supporters wore red, an homage to the worker’s movement, the ghost of communism, and PT’s flag, but also, I think, as a joke that said to bolsonaristas, Here come the boogeymen. I wore a burgundy shirt, which made me feel exposed. I had no doubts about voting for Lula, but I wanted privacy over my decisions. I also wondered how much my shirt served as a polarizing sign. Did it indicate that I’m no longer willing to debate?
The NYPD showed its presence during both the first and second voting rounds. In true American fashion, they contributed to the tense climate by making it even more tense. They barricaded Bolsonaro supporters on one sidewalk and Lula supporters on another. The two groups shouted at each other while the cops stood in the middle, controlling passersby. “Get out of the street,” they shouted at me, although the street had already been closed to traffic. “Pick a side” is what I thought they meant.
As in other recent visits to Brazil, it took me some time to adjust to our new reality: wounded personal relationships, scarred by political divisions; Uber drivers loudly playing pro-Bolsonaro stations in their cars; and acquaintances preaching bolsonarismo as if it was the only path to salvation. I avoided talking about the upcoming second round of the elections with my family. I talked about the World Cup instead.
My father, with whom I have watched many World Cup games, surprisingly claimed not to care about the national team. “I cheer for Palmeiras,” he told me. My brother expressed similar sentiments and justified this by telling me that these players aren’t our players. And in a way, he is right. Unlike Pelé or Garrincha, both of whom played in Brazil for the majority of their lives and are considered akin to national heroes, most of our players today move away before they have cultivated a Brazilian fan base. As a result, our football has also become gentrified — we play more and more like Europeans, to the point that the “beautiful game” is a dying art.
The conversations I had with my brother and father reminded me of an opinion piece, “The Nation Without Cleats,” that the newspaper Folha published in the aftermath of the 7–1 game. “Our passion for football will, of course, survive yesterday’s nightmare,” the writer asserted. “But the massacre, brutal and unforgettable, not only tarnished the mystique of the yellow and green jersey, but perhaps it will also come to mean the end of an era in which country and stadium, people and fans, politicians and coaches, nation and team are seen as the same thing.” I believe my father and brother expressed a similar (and common) feeling in Brazil post-7–1 and post-Bolsonaro — they were ready to give up the nation but not to give up football.
In November, days before the beginning of the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, hundreds of Brazilians gathered in a small town in the state of Santa Catarina to dispute the presidential election results that made Lula victorious for the third time, defeating Bolsonaro. The national anthem blasted on loudspeakers while an ocean of people in green and yellow jerseys, holding Brazilian flags, sang along. One could have mistaken the crowd for football fans if it wasn’t for the fact that their hands were raised in a Nazi salute.
In the first World Cup game I watched back in New York — crammed into a Brazilian bar in Queens — Brazil played Serbia. The place was so crowded that people were flowing out onto the street; they huddled around a small television perched on the window ledge while, inside, the game was projected on the entire back wall. I had seen the bar this full once before — the night Lula won the 2022 election. Despite my excitement about the match, I couldn’t help but think about the jerseys people were wearing — what they had symbolized just a few weeks before. I kept looking at the strangers around me, thinking about election day and what side of the fence they had stood on. Did they, like Neymar, support Bolsonaro? Would they have joined in the Nazi salute?
The strangest and perhaps most dystopian moment came when Brazil won the game. As people cheered in unison, the bar began to play “Pra frente, Brasil,” a jingle created by the military regime during its most oppressive period to celebrate the 1970 World Cup. The song speaks of a nation moving forward, united. In May 2020, the bolsonarista Regina Duarte, an actress and former minister of culture who denies the use of torture by the military regime, gave a bizarre performance of the song in an interview with CNN. “Wasn’t it better when we used to sing this song?” she asked. She was heavily criticized for it. Yet, after Brazil won the game, we sang the jingle, drinking beers, hugging strangers — pretending we didn’t know the song’s origins.
We couldn’t have imagined then that, less than two months later, thousands of Bolsonaro supporters would invade the National Congress, the Supreme Federal Court, and the presidential offices, calling for a military takeover of Brazil — perhaps our most unoriginal and pathetic attempt at making history. Wearing football jerseys, bolsonaristas smashed windows, slashed famous paintings, attacked journalists, stole classified documents and weapons, and defecated in rooms and hallways. Their actions have so far resulted in the arrest of over 2,000 people and exposed serious divides within our armed forces. Meanwhile, Bolsonaro, who continuously raised doubts about Brazil’s electoral system, self-exiled in a 3,600-square-foot house in a gated community in Encore Resort at Reunion, next door to Disney World in Florida.
Brazil was eliminated by Croatia on penalties in the quarterfinals. Apart from the usual display of emotions by Brazilian players, the loss felt surprisingly anticlimactic. In the last five World Cups, Brazil has gotten to the semifinals only once. The generation just after mine grew up in a country very different from the one that celebrated winning the 2002 World Cup. They don’t know what it’s like to be victorious in the nation of football.
Less than one month after the end of the World Cup, I know another, and more profound, loss will stay with Brazilians for decades to come. It was captured recently in two photographs. In one of them, Lula walks up the ramp of the Planalto with eight civilians. Among them are an eight-year-old boy, the Indigenous leader Chief Raoni Metuktire, a metalworker, and a teacher. Behind them is a sea of people wearing red. The second image, taken exactly a week later, shows Bolsonaro supporters ascending the same ramp toward the National Congress, wearing yellow and green football jerseys, just before ransacking the capital.
Perhaps it will be impossible from now on to accept symbols that reduce the complexities of our country, that try to unite those who are simply too different to agree. After Lula was elected, he made a speech in which he said: “There are not two Brazils. We are one country, one people, one great nation. Nobody is interested in living in a family where discord reigns. It’s time to reunite families, rebuild the bonds broken by a criminal spread of hatred.” I would like to think that he is right, that it’s time to reunite Brazil — or at least make it more tolerable.
But maybe we’re better served thinking of Brazil as a multitude. There are not two Brazils. There are many Brazils within a great nation. And then there’s football.
Clarissa Fragoso Pinheiro is a Brazilian writer living in Brooklyn, New York.
Featured image: Arthur Dove. Untitled (Centerport), 1941. Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of the Sara Ruby Foundation. www.si.edu, CC0. Accessed November 18, 2022.