Last December, a video from the Brazilian state of Goiás spread on social media: An eleven-year-old footballer sits on the grass, scared, crying. He had been racially insulted by the opposing trainer several times. Incidents like these are regularly discussed in Brazilian football, in popular sports and in professional leagues.
Under the right-wing extremist President Jair Bolsonaro, who has been in office since 2019, racism has not increased significantly, says Brazilian sports sociologist Carlos Henrique Ribeiro. But the hostile social climate encourages many people to make statements of hate that they have previously kept to themselves: “Many children from disadvantaged families dream of a great career in football schools. Their parents invest a lot of money in boarding schools, they see football a chance for social advancement. This creates competition between the young people. Families often attack each other at games, sometimes with racist statements. “
Increasing repression because of the World Cup and the Olympics
Racism in Brazil is closely linked to social inequality. 51 percent of the population describe themselves as black. Afro-Brazilians are more severely affected by poverty, they have a lower life expectancy and poorer educational opportunities. In Congress, only 17 percent of MPs are black. In recent years, state repression has been greatly expanded, especially in the favelas, also because of the domestic soccer World Cup in 2014 and because of the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.
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The journalist Niklas Franzen lived in Brazil for a long time and says: “The victims of this police violence are almost always black. For black Brazilians, the risk of violent death is 2.7 times higher than for white compatriots. But there are certain Areas where blacks are recognized. This is mainly in sport, especially in football, and in music. But this social construction of black heroes often serves as a fig leaf for structural racism. “
Footballers want to look lighter with rice flour
This racism has a long history: The former Portuguese colony of Brazil was the last state to abolish slavery in 1888. British import football was then a game of the white elite. The Brazilian Football Association did not allow black players until 1918. In 1921, President Epitácio Pessoa called for a national team with only white players. Many politicians believe that this would make Brazil appear more progressive. Some clubs followed this approach into the 1950s. The publicist Martin Curi lived in Brazil for a long time and wrote a book about football there: “At the Fluminense club in Rio de Janeiro, it is so passed down that when dark-skinned players were recorded for the first time, they powdered themselves or themselves have just put rice flour on their face to appear lighter. And that this was just ridiculed by the fans. That’s why Fluminense is still called ‘rice flour’ to this day. “
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In the 1920s and 30s, black players were often brutally fouled. Arthur Friedenreich, son of a German merchant and an Afro-Brazilian laundress, also experiences this. The striker scores more than 1,300 goals. Again and again he has to straighten his hair to appear “whiter”. From the 1940s onwards, President Getúlio Vargas was more positive about social diversity. From now on, Afro-Brazilian influences from carnival and samba will also shape a new national feeling. Soon, many Brazilians are looking at football as a symbol against racism. But this perception conceals the structural inequality, says researcher Carlos Henrique Ribeiro: “Brazil hosted the World Cup for the first time in 1950. We lost the last game against eventual world champions Uruguay 2-1. For many viewers and the media, the scapegoat was Moacir Barbosa, our black goalkeeper. Barbosa made no mistake, but he still felt marginalized forty years after the final. Maybe that’s why we still have so few black goalkeepers today. “
Neymar experiences racism and supports Bolsonaro
Black players like Pelé or Garrincha shaped the heyday of Brazilian football from the late 1950s. But role models like Pelé don’t talk about racism beyond the limelight. This is not surprising, because the long-term consequences of slavery and colonialism are rarely discussed. To this day there are virtually no black head coaches and top football officials, says long-time Brazil correspondent Niklas Franzen: “Because of this social discrimination, many Brazilians do not see themselves as black. Or try to somehow make themselves whiter. That was the same with Neymar. He used to say that he would never have suffered racism because he wasn’t black himself. And then he moved to Europe, played in Spain. Then some fans made monkey noises and then he did has dealt more and more with the topic, including his own identity. And has also participated in anti-racism campaigns, for example. “
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On the other hand, players like Neymar support the far-right president. Jair Bolsonaro has made racist statements on several occasions. And he is responsible for cuts in social benefits or science grants, which Afro-Brazilians in particular suffer from. Hundreds of football fans protested against this policy in the past year. Subliminal discrimination is less of a focus. The name of the former Wolfsburg professional Grafite, for example, goes back to the dark mineral graphite. In addition, there is often positive racism, says Brazil expert Martin Curi: “Such nicknames are very common. They say ‘Neguinho’, ‘the little black one’. Something like: Dark-skinned people can dance well. And maybe then Play football well. It’s very common. “
A number of long-term campaigns against racism in sport have sprung up in Germany, Great Britain and the USA, often in cooperation with politicians and human rights organizations. In Brazil this is currently hardly possible under Jair Bolsonaro.