A Short History of Brazilian Soccer

Staff writers Franklin Foer and Clint Smith talk about which teams they’re rooting for in the 2022 World Cup, and give a lesson about one of the most storied teams in soccer.

Three soccer players run toward the right side of the frame; the one in the center wears the distinctive yellow jersey of the Brazilian men's national team.
The Atlantic's Franklin Foer will be rooting for Brazil in the 2022 World Cup. (Buda Mendes / Getty)

The World Cup in Qatar gets under way in days, and as teams from nations around the globe take to the pitch, one team has a fabled history that stands out among the rest: Brazil. Over the years, the Brazilian national team has reached incredible heights and suffered devastating losses. They have also produced some of the game’s most extraordinary and dramatic players.

The historical significance of Brazilian soccer goes beyond the pitch, though; it’s also intertwined with Brazilian politics, for better or for worse. Atlantic staff writer Franklin Foer takes us through a short history of the beautiful—and the ugly—side of his beloved Brazilian team.

Tape in this episode comes from: FIFA, Banda Folia Brasileira, Le Huffington Post, KFC, and Neymar's TikTok (with music from DJ Dubay: Vota Vota E CONFIRMA 22 É BOLSONARO)

Listen to the episode here:

Franklin Foer: Hi. I’m Franklin Foer, a staff writer at The Atlantic, here today with my colleague Clint Smith.

Clint Smith: Hey, hey.

Foer: Hey, hey. We’re here because we’re going to spend the next month, which is going to be consumed by the World Cup, watching the game, not doing any of our staff work for The Atlantic.

Smith: This is why I joined The Atlantic. When I signed up three years ago, I said, “I just want to be on staff so that when it’s time for the World Cup, I can watch eight hours of soccer per day for a month.”

Foer: Yeah. We’re going to hope that Jeffrey Goldberg is not listening to this segment of Radio Atlantic.

Smith: Right.

Foer: I suppose you’re rooting for the U.S. men’s team in this tournament.

Smith: I am. Yeah. It’s a young team, an exciting team. It’s our first World Cup in eight years. I think there’s a lot of excitement around so many of the players who are playing in Europe, who are in top leagues against some of the best players in the world. U.S. soccer is in a different place than it was eight years ago.

Foer: Yeah, I’m pretty stoked for them as well. But I have to say, one of the joys of watching a World Cup is that while I’m attached to the American team, I’m just as interested, if not more interested, in all the other matches that are unfolding. And I think one of the pleasures of the World Cup is having other teams that you root for. Do you have a second team, a second favorite?

Smith: It’s interesting you say that, because I’ve been thinking about how the World Cup I probably enjoyed the most was 2018, and the U.S. wasn’t in the 2018 World Cup. But I think that that was in terms of quality, in terms of entertainment value, in terms of the drama of the matches—I mean, that was a World Cup unlike anything that I remember in the 20-some-odd years that I’ve been watching.

You know, I used to live in Senegal. I write about Senegal in my book. I have a very deep affinity for that place. And it’s a place that also completely recalibrated and—in many ways—made healthier my relationship to the game. I played soccer my whole life, and it was always very competitive. It was always very intense. And then I got to college and I rode the bench, and that was a very new thing for me, and it’s a very unsettling thing for me. I was a sort of 18-year-old—

Foer: Let’s just pause in this episode. We’re outing Clint Smith as having been a very excellent soccer player.

Smith: I was. But the problem is that when you are an excellent soccer player in Louisiana, you don’t realize that Louisiana is not necessarily a hotbed of global soccer talent against which to measure one’s skill. It’s not like the suburbs of Paris. And so then I went to Senegal, and I studied abroad there. And it was so important for me because it just made me remember that the game was just supposed to be fun. Like, I brought a ball to the beach, and, you know, you bring a ball to the beach in Senegal and you’re everybody’s best friend.

All this to say, I’m going to be cheering for Senegal, even though I’m devastated that Sadio Mané is now injured. For those who don’t know. Sadio Mané used to play for Liverpool, now plays for Bayern Munich—the reigning two-time African player of the year. And so I’m devastated. But I’m hoping that this is the year that an African team makes it past the quarterfinals.

Foer: Well, I wanted to take that image that you provided of playing, the simplicity of playing and the beauty of playing on the beach. Because today I wanted to talk about my second team, and I wanted to give a little bit of the context for why I love this team, and some of the history. And I think it’s important for us, as fans, to take that beautiful simplicity, the idealism of the ball on the beach and the feel of this game that is the lingua franca for the planet.

And to also talk about the dark underbelly of the game, because as we watch this tournament, it’s going to be impossible for us not to focus on the moral questions that are at the heart of this game, at the heart of this tournament, at the heart of the way this tournament was selected, that migrant labor was used in an abusive way to build the stadiums that the games are going to be played in. The tournament’s site itself was selected in a totally corrupt sort of way. The good, the bad, the moral, the immoral—they’re just shot through this tournament, and we’re all nevertheless going to watch every game in the tournament. And so I’m just very mindful of the morality of the game.

My second team is Brazil. And so I want to supply you with the baseline knowledge to transmit the things that I love about Brazil, but also to make sure that you’re going into this eyes wide open about the way in which the good and the bad are really just part and parcel of the same thing that I’m so attached to. Just given their history as the world’s greatest footballing superpower, I think they’re the easy overdog to root for.

But my connections to the team are pretty personal. My extended family emigrated to Brazil in the 1920s, they were coming from Eastern Europe. They were Jewish, and they really wanted to go to the United States, but that wasn’t a possibility, because of quotas at the time. And as a kid, my family from Brazil would come visit. And it was an event.

If I had been born in Brazil, like my cousins, I would have grown up in São Paulo in the late ’70s and ’80s, at a moment when Brazil was arguably at the peak of its soccer powers. And at that time, a very recent soccer memory would have been the 1958 World Cup, which was the moment that Brazil announced itself to the rest of the world. But it’s also a moment that I think encapsulates all the reasons why the world fell in love with Brazilian soccer.

This is happening against a backdrop where the world is falling in love with a lot of other Brazilian exports. It’s a time when Brazilian music is starting to achieve global popularity; 1959 was the moment where the movie Black Orpheus was released, and there was a whole brand of cinema that started to emerge from the country; its architecture was the greatest in modern architecture.

In the 1950s, you have this relatively democratic period in the history of the country where there’s an incredible amount of social mobility relative to Brazil’s historical standards. And you could see it on the soccer pitch in the ’58 tournament; you had a team that was filled with Black and brown players, and it really was a break in Brazilian soccer history. You’d had Black and brown players in the past, but you were coming off of an era of economic advancement.

And so the prominence of those players, I think, reflected something about Brazil, Brazilian society itself. And you have the 17-year-old who nobody really knew, who went by a single name, Pelé. The thing that made Pelé and this Brazilian team so extraordinary was that it seemed as if they were breaking every rule about the way that the game was played. There was an inventiveness to the game as it was displayed by the Brazilians. There were movements of the hip and the body that just were foreign to the rest of the world. Soccer kind of fits right within the pantheon of all these other sports. It does seem to be this exotic thing that has a joyfulness. There is some spirit to it that seems lacking within European culture that attracted the rest of the world to it.

There are certain goals, like Pelé’s 1958 goal, that are so iconic that they can’t help but merit a nickname. And perhaps it says something about this nickname, and the way that the world thinks about Brazil, that it was called the Sombrero Gol. Sombrero, of course, is Spanish. It’s not a Portuguese word, but we can forgive that act of cultural ignorance, because of the elegance of the goal that’s described.

And so Pelé is playing for Brazil in the 1958 finals against Sweden. He chests the ball down. He flicks it up over the defender, makes the defender look like an absolute ass as he’s totally turned around, and then launches it into the goal with incredible authority. So much happens in such a compressed period of time. It’s a motion that’s been invented on the spot, never really to be repeated again.

The other thing about the ’58 World Cup that sticks in everybody’s mind is there’s a moment at the end of the tournament where Brazil triumphs. This unexpected 17-year-old hero is carried off on the shoulders of his teammates, and he’s in tears. But I think it also shows you something about what the world wanted to see in Brazil. The emotion, the joyousness.

There was something that was kind of the antithesis of the stiff upper lip of the English game, which had been so dominant for so much of soccer’s history. You could see people connecting with the game on this almost spiritual level.

When I was first getting into the game, there was no YouTube. And so I had ordered a VHS cassette of highlights from the 1978 World Cup because I knew it was the greatest World Cup ever, and I knew that the Brazilian team that played was regarded as the greatest team ever.

And if there was one moment in that tape that epitomized Brazil, it was the last goal of the finals against Italy which is played in Mexico City. It was sweltering hot, and the fact of the heat meant that defenders weren’t able to really press up against players. And so it just allowed more room for Brazil to do its Brazil thing, to get all the jukes, all the subtle hip movements, all of the trickery and fakes. And what makes the score so spectacular is just everything that happens as the ball travels up the pitch. You have a series of defenders who are made to look like fools. And then the ball is laid off to Pelé, and Pelé completes this spectacular no-look pass into the path of Carlos Alberto, who just slams the ball into the back of the net.

And, to me, it was the summation of what makes this such a spectacular game to watch. But Brazil in particular are such a spectacular team to watch. It’s not just Pelé who is a genius. There are about half a dozen acts of individual genius on the way to the goal being scored. The ball travels from front to back in this almost continuous, elegant sequence as the ball is headed off from player to player.

I’ve just described to you what makes the Brazilian game so wonderful. All these things that are embodied in the young Pelé. But I would be totally remiss if I didn’t explore the dark side of the Brazilian game with you, because this moment, where the Brazilian national team is at the peak of its powers, also happens to be a moment where Brazil surrenders its democracy.

In the 1960s, a military junta comes to power. And if there’s one thing that we know about soccer, it’s that anything that engenders so much passion and enthusiasm among the masses is something that a politician is going to try to exploit. And the Brazilian military junta did its best to try to attach itself to this spectacular natural resource that they had in the form of the national team. The peak of the authoritarian exploitation of soccer is the 1970 World Cup. You have this team that steps onto the global stage that asserts Brazilian dominance. It’s the third World Cup that Brazil wins out of four, something that’s completely unprecedented in the history of the game. And it’s this thing that becomes synonymous with Brazil internationally.

So there was a chirpy soundtrack to the 1970 World Cup team, this march, “Pra Frente Brasil,” “Forward Brazil.” And one of the lines in the song imagines 90 million Brazilians—the national team and the whole rest of the nation—moving forward in harmony. I mean, it was like a piece of propaganda for not just the team itself, but also really for the dictatorship.

And so the team that this World Cup squad produced became kind of a metaphor that the dictatorship tried to adopt for the nation itself, that everybody would be working in sync, there would be no dissent. They were going to build the nation up in the same sort of way that the national team built the nation up. And indeed the dictatorship was super involved with the inner workings of the squad. And just before the World Cup was about to start, they insisted on firing the team’s head coach, who had communist sympathies, and they installed somebody who they knew would be sympathetic to the dictatorship's mission.

The Americans had just sent the first man to the moon, and that became the metaphor that the dictatorship used for the team. They were constantly comparing the national team to the American space program, that it was their own way of projecting their power onto the national stage. It was their own claim to international greatness. They went on a spending spree after the game, building these massive stadiums in every single city. And it’s hard not to see some of the strategy at work and what they were doing. This is a classic example of the old bread-and-circus routine: distract the masses by giving the masses exactly what they wanted. This spectacle that was associated with nationalism and patriotism. “Go Forward, Brazil, Pra Frente Brasil”—that was an anthem.

And Pelé, I think to his shame and perhaps in some way to his credit as a player, allowed this to happen. He was actually declared an un-exportable natural resource by the Brazilian state legislature because he was so associated with Brazil, the Brazilian government, Brazil’s national legislature. And Pelé gave an interview in 1972 where he supposedly said, “There is no dictatorship in Brazil; Brazil is a liberal country, a land of happiness.”

And he said this while there were thousands of political prisoners rotting in Brazil’s jails for having the temerity to challenge the dictatorship. Now, I’m willing to forgive Pelé some of this because he’s a sports figure. He came from incredible poverty. He’s thrust into a position that he didn’t ask for. But on the other hand, he went from being just kind of a passive symbol of the regime to being somebody who was arguably an active apologist for it. So I think one of the clear themes of Brazilian soccer, as I narrate the story, is that there are these conflicting impulses within.

And just as you have this impulse where it becomes identified with the authoritarian regime, really the country’s rebellion against authoritarianism in some sense also originated on the soccer field. And I just have to digress about this for a second, because there was a great player who played in the 1982 World Cup team called Socrates, and he kind of exuded the spirit of the 1960s. He was kind of shaggy-haired, insolent. He hated authority.

And as part of his club team, Corinthians, he was part of a movement called Corinthians Democracy. And so in a way, they took the national political struggle, and they installed it within their team. And so Socrates and his comrades at Corinthians chafed at the dictatorial practices of their coaches and kind of seized control over their team. And he was a smoker. He was somebody who just wanted to stick a middle finger at the authoritarians, and the democratic spirit that Socrates represented that was embodied in the 1982 World Cup team, I think, was a powerful counter symbol to the dictatorship. I think it showed that there was a space for resistance, and I think it offered a model that civil society craved to embrace for itself.

One of the things that I find both forgivable and maybe ultimately a little bit annoying about Socrates is his style of taking penalty kicks. And in 1986, their elimination game against France comes down to a penalty shootout. And Socrates has this habit of taking this kind of slow two-step run up to his penalty kick. And it’s just so arrogant. It’s like there’s something just so kind of wonderfully entitled about it. And it’s an assertion of his personality. Sometimes it was effective, but in 1986, the goalkeeper just swipes it away in this stone-cold motion.

But there’s something about the elevation of style over substance, or the way that he insisted that style was substance, that I think felt both very Brazilian but also just really did exude the rebelliousness that I’ve been describing to you about Socrates.

Brazil, in a way, has been the victim of its own success. The country is so identified with soccer that it needs continued success in soccer to justify itself in some way. And so in its pursuit of victory, there’s this running debate about: Does the nation need to somehow abandon its traditional identity for playing the game in this cheeky, inventive, very Brazilian sort of way? Or does it need to adopt more pragmatic tactics in order to compensate for those tendencies? Does it need to play a more defensive-minded, more physical game in order to counteract the fact that it’s got these hugely inventive players who are basically passengers on the team and don’t do a whole lot of defending, and playing for the national team can become this total millstone for a player.

One of my favorite players, who plays for my club team, Arsenal, is a striker named Gabriel Jesus, who emerged as this teenage savant in the tradition of Pelé. Or he was compared to the great Ronaldo.

So Gabriel Jesus ended up playing for Brazil in the last World Cup, where he was the starting striker, and he actually had a fairly good tournament. He was very productive. He was very useful. But as a striker, your job is to score goals. And Jesus went through the World Cup without actually having scored a goal. It was just such a crushing thing for him to reach the pinnacle and to disappoint at the pinnacle that it really dampened his career.

It put him into this kind of long funk that took him years and years to recover from. The experience was so rattling to Gabriel Jesus that he decided to switch positions. He went from being a striker to a winger for his club team, Manchester City because he found the experience of playing as a striker for Brazil to be such an emotionally exhausting and overwhelming experience.

Fortunately, in the years since, Jesus has found his confidence, and he’s moved back to the center of the park, and when he plays for Brazil in this World Cup, it’ll most likely be as a striker.

We can’t talk about Brazil and this current iteration of Brazil without talking about Neymar. And Neymar is one of those figures in sports who everybody loves to hate. Europeans tend to despise Neymar, and, especially, casual viewers of the game tend to despise Neymar because when he’s fouled, he’s had this long history of writhing on the ground in exaggerated pain. We’re like, Come on, man, there’s no way it hurt that bad. And so he would just roll and roll.

And Neymar’s writhing on the ground was so exaggerated and so comical that it was actually sent up in ads that KFC made in South Africa, where a player rolls off the pitch writhing in pain, keeps on rolling and writhing, out of the stadium through South African streets, writhes all the way up to a crosswalk. Stops at the stop sign, continues rolling past when the walk sign lights up, and writhes all the way up to a KFC counter, where he stands up as if nothing has happened to him. And orders some chicken.

But in Brazil, he was somebody who carried the expectations of his country on his shoulders. He was seen as the one transcendent genius on the team, somebody who tapped into the legacy of Pelé as somebody who had that kind of inventiveness. And he was the Brazil part of Brazil. You could just see when he played that he was crushed by the expectations that were placed on him.

And so, this is now: We’re going into his third World Cup. It’s actually happening a month after presidential elections in Brazil. And the question with Neymar, just as it was with Pelé, is where does he stand vis-à-vis Brazilian democracy? And in the run-up to the most recent election, he started on the wrong side, in my opinion, both morally and politically, and endorsed the country’s proto-authoritarian incumbent, Jair Bolsonaro. So Neymar endorses Bolsonaro in a TikTok video, of course, where he’s sitting in recovery boots and does a karaoke to a rap that was produced in support of Bolsonaro.

And there was something just so feckless about the whole video because it’s so, so jocular. He’s treating Brazil’s descent into autocracy and his own role in it in this very, very frivolous sort of way. So he’s pushed himself, much like Pelé did, on the wrong side of history. So I know that I have just loaded you down with a lot of the ugly part.

What is Brazilian soccer that there is this legacy of corruption, that there are the ways in which dictatorships have exploited the game? Of course, that’s just the flip side of everything else. And there is this temptation, as fans, to ignore the dark side of the games that we watch and the teams that we admire.

When I look at the players who step on the field, the fact that this history exists only makes me admire the accomplishments within the game itself. Even more the fact that, with the weight of this radioactive-yellow jersey that they put on, which means so much to the country, that politicians are constantly trying to exploit it, the fact that they're able to achieve, in spite of all that, makes me admire the the accomplishments, because it’s creativity, it’s innovation, thriving in some ways in the most difficult of sporting circumstances.

This dialectical relationship between the beautiful and the ugly that exists within Brazil certainly exists within the entirety of this World Cup, but it also exists within any national team that you could possibly be rooting for in this tournament, because those tensions are going to be so evident. It’s incumbent upon us as fans to explore those tensions and also to enjoy them, because the ugly part is part of what makes the beautiful part so beautiful.