The beautiful game: football in Brazil

Eduardo Bueno
01 April 2014

From shanty town pitches to deserted motorways, football oozes from every corner of Brazil. As the nation gets ready to host the World Cup, Eduardo Bueno explores the roots of the country's unique style

OK, so the English invented the rules and picked out a name (foot + ball = the most popular game on the planet), but nowhere on earth did football flourish and thrive the way it did here, in sun-kissed Terra do Brasil, land of the brazilwood. For here foot and ball didn't just roll around in the lush grass together: they bound together in the scrub too, and they stayed together, and they still play together, in the grass and in the scrub, but in the sand too — and on tarmac, concrete and cobblestones; on the beach, in the dirt, in the mud and the mangroves; in the urban jungle, the Amazon jungle, the pampas and the arid backlands. In Terra do Brasil, the union between foot and ball bore healthy fruit, as the world knows.

It comes from the fact that we shoot from a greater range in Brazil — we have more kinds of feet. Feet of every colour, shape and size. Bare feet, dusted with the white sand of beautiful beaches, or coated in layers of dried mud. Big feet, tough feet. Tiny feet pitter-pattering in open sewers. Feet scarred from stomping around prison yards. For whatever reason, these feet of ours are as skilled as the hands of an artisan. Feet in football boots, feet in trainers, feet in sandals, wellies or flip-flops — ah, flip-flops, the ubiquitous Havaianas, the nation's favourite footwear, adorning millions of Brazilian feet, from the richest to the poorest, especially the poorest. A multitude of feet — all ready to kick a ball at any moment...

Like the Portuguese ‘discoverers', football came to Brazil by boat. Not on the same boats of course, not on the ships and caravels that the conquistador Pedro Alvares Cabral sailed south in April 1500, but 400 years later, via the steamy vapours of the industrial age. Because although kicking a ball can be said to have more remote and distant origins, football as we know it is a British game, born in the shadows of the factories that filled England, and then the world, with wealth and smoke. A game started by the elite, as with most games, but adopted, like few before it, by the rude proletariat, in whose hands (or feet) the game took off like a steam train. And that's no idle metaphor: to a large degree it was because of the expansion of train lines that football was dispersed so far and wide. Many of the first English teams were born beside the tracks or linked to railway companies.

It was no different in Brazil, where football arrived courtesy of Charles Miller, son of a Scottish father and a Brazilian mother of English descent. John Miller had come to Brazil to work for the São Paulo Railway Company, and Charles was born beside Brás station in 1874, Brás being the industrial heartland of the Paulista capital. When Charles was ten years old, he was sent to study at a private school in England. There he learnt to play football, rugby and cricket. On 18 February 1894, he returned to Brazil — and changed the course of the country's history. He brought with him two deflated footballs, a pump to blow them up with, a pair of football boots and a rule book. On 14 April the following year, in the centre of São Paulo, the Gas Company of São Paulo and the São Paulo Railway Company took to the field to compete in the first ever football match played on Brazilian soil.

Subsequent research proves that some time before Miller, as far back as 1881, Jesuit priests in São Paulo introduced football as a recreational activity for students. Whether or not it was ‘association football', the official game brought over by Miller, is another matter. But it certainly involved balls being kicked against the college walls by boys in ankle boots and priests in cassocks, as they tore around the yard.

Either way, the ball was rolling, and it would soon roll away from the moustached Englishmen and the wealthy Paulistas, from the austere Jesuits and their unruly students. As if rolling downhill, football left the high plains of society's elite and came to rest in the valleys and wastelands of the poorer echelons of society. This didn't take place in São Paulo — where football stayed confined to schools and fancy sports clubs for quite some time — but in Rio de Janeiro. The game had been introduced to Rio by a Brazilian, Oscar Cox, and was also initially a game for the moneyed classes, but it was very soon ‘democratised'.

It all began with a bitter home defeat. Capoeira — a cross between dance and martial art, invented by African slaves and spread through Brazil in the 16th century — was outlawed by Carioca politicians in 1904. But 14 years later a violent revolt broke out, in protest at a new law authorising the application of the smallpox vaccination by force. The maltas, as capoeira clubs were known, took the frontline in street battles with police, armed with knives as well as feet. Capoeira was banned once and for all.

‘What was there left for people to do?' asks writer Joel Rufino, author of A Political History of Brazilian Football. ‘What was left was football, played on wastelands, which Rio had in abundance. Many maltas turned into football teams.' It's no coincidence that samba was born around the same time, and in the same Rio neighbourhoods. In this way a genuinely Brazilian style of football emerged: a dance-cum-fight, performed as if to a samba rhythm. 

José Antônio Gonsalves de Mello, an expert on the Dutch occupation of the northeast of Brazil, advocates the theory that guerrilla warfare was invented in Brazil, due to Portuguese troops fighting alongside indigenous and African warriors, and that this combination enabled them to defeat the Batavians, who fought using traditional methods. He argues that the same happened in football: when Brazil came up against Europeans, they applied the guerrilla tactics of dribbling and improvising, to overcome the rigid tactical discipline of their opponents.

Be that as it may, the countless theories relating to Brazilian football principally derive from observations of professional football, particularly the Brazilian national team in 1958, 1962, 1970 and even 1982 (the one that lost but that nobody will ever forget). And although it's hard to find fault with what they say, these photographs show something different. It is not about Pelé, Garrincha, Tostão, Zico, Sócrates, Ronaldinho et al. It's about street football. This is football's soul: football without rules, without reins, without restrictions or referees' whistles — even without the ball, for instead of a leather or plastic ball, many a game has been played with a bundle of socks or a rolled-up newspaper, even, in desperation, an orange. Brazil's passion for football is such that we don't even need one in order to play. Anything similar will do. Of course this is partly because football sprang up to take capoeira's place during Rio's belle époque, a period that was ‘belle' only for the few. The common man didn't — and to a large extent still doesn't — have the means to buy that most precious of objects: the sphere, the orb, the sheep's bladder, the ball.

I don't know whether Christopher Pillitz knew any of this when he went to Brazil to photograph street football but he came back having captured the essence of football, its presence in the body and soul of the nation. It's all there in the image: the all-round passion, vibrant and dynamic. A passion that's stamped on walls; that permeates through favelas and tower blocks; that's tattooed on bodies, flutters on flags and booms out from the drums, echoing Africa and the Afro-Brazilian rituals of Candomblé. It shows football as sacred, worshipped under the open sky.