Today we welcome a guest post from Jack A. Draper III, translator of The Black Man in Brazilian Soccer by Mario Filho, out April 2021 from UNC Press.
At turns lyrical, ironic, and sympathetic, Mario Filho’s chronicle of “the beautiful game” is a classic of Brazilian sports writing. Filho (1908–1966)—a famous Brazilian journalist after whom Rio’s Maracanã stadium is officially named—tells the Brazilian soccer story as a boundary-busting one of race relations, popular culture, and national identity. Now in English for the first time, the book highlights national debates about the inclusion of African-descended people in the body politic and situates early black footballers as key creators of Brazilian culture.
The Black Man in Brazilian Soccer will be available in paperback and ebook editions in April 2021, and can be pre-ordered now. Use code 01HOLIDAY on our website to receive 40% off during our annual holiday sale.
Pibes and Moleques on the Soccer Field: The Parallel Stories of Maradona and Pelé, Argentina and Brazil
Recently there has been a lot of discussion in Argentina and internationally about the legacy of Diego Armando Maradona, in the wake of his passing on November 25. Having just translated a book for UNC Press about Brazilian soccer history, Mario Filho’s The Black Man in Brazilian Soccer, I can’t help but note that the tales of Maradona as a player connect to a national mythology in strikingly similar ways to those of Brazilian soccer stars in their country. It’s all the more striking since Argentina and Brazil are so often pitted as rivals, not least the “who was the greatest” debate between Pelé and Maradona. There is something about the Río de la Plata regional (rioplatense) history that encompasses both of their stories, which are part of the nationalization of a sport imported by the British in both countries before the turn of the 20th century.
At its base, there is the idea of meritocracy in soccer which allows for social mobility for the poor and/or people of color. I say meritocracy because it is only of course a skilled elite that can achieve the pinnacles of a Maradona or Pelé, or even some fraction of their success and fame. And what kind of player of humble origins is the one who can make it big in the soccer world?
The typology in both countries has been a poor kid (pibe in Argentina, moleque in Brazil) with cunning (viveza in Argentina, malícia in Brazil) whose territory for learning soccer is not well-groomed fields or stadiums but instead the street, the beach, or empty lots (Argentine potreros or Brazilian terrenos baldios–where the informal, improvised game would take place, called pelada or “shirtless” in Brazil). Learning to survive and thrive in this rough atmosphere, often improvising a ball from anything from fruit to rolled-up pantyhose, then falling in love with his first real ball and never parting with it as if it were a lover, the pibe/moleque is molded into a scrappy underdog able to survive the roughest of play on the worst terrain through his own guile and individual creativity. To go from this to becoming a soccer icon requires also incredible drive and grit (garra) and quite a bit of luck. Despite their clear differences in personality and temperament, Maradona and Pelé both stepped into these mythologies already molded by stars of previous generations, only to become themselves their epitomes, their avatars.
In the same vein, they were both linked to popular music in their countries, Maradona to tango and Pelé to samba. Perhaps I am biased (I root for Brazil), but I must say that samba seems a bit more appropriate to soccer since it is often played at a fast tempo, while tango tends to be pretty languid and slow. Perhaps for this reason, the director Emir Kusturica reimagined Maradona as a punk rock hero playing soccer to the sounds of The Clash, a reference more contemporary to Diego and a genre he would even perform on stage. Plenty of those writing eulogies to Maradona are also referring to him as a rock n’ roll soccer icon. We can see here also how Maradona as pibe legend came on the stage rather late, long after tango had its golden age, and thus calling him a Carlos Gardel of the soccer field was more anachronistic than calling Pelé a Paulinho da Viola. But in truth, Pelé, too, was associated with other genres, including many carnival marches written in his honor. Still, he himself actually wrote and recorded sambas with the likes of Sergio Mendes and Elis Regina. I don’t know of any attempt to record tangos by Maradona, though he did sing a tango or two. Pelé and Maradona’s movements, in any case, were considered musical, matching the national aesthetic for beauty and rhythm in popular dance.
In keeping with the underdog story of the pibe and the moleque, both were also associated with historically oppressed racial groups, Maradona with Guaraní Indians (as a mixed-raced criollo descendant) and Pelé with Afro-Brazilians. The difference being the latter group is a majority in Brazil and had a whole history of struggling to desegregate the sport in Brazil, told in Mario Filho’s book. Accordingly, “moleque” has different racial overtones than pibe, being a word with African roots in the Kimbundu language of present-day Angola, whereas pibe has Iberian roots in the Catalan language. The moleque has had to deal with racial discrimination, an added barrier that took many years of struggle to overcome for Afro-Brazilian players, as detailed in The Black Man in Brazilian Soccer.
Clearly they both represent more than a sport, on some fundamental level embodying the way that these countries see themselves and represent themselves to the world. This is particularly in terms of masculinity, of course. Women finding their way in the sport in both countries were inspired by the same mythology, but have had to struggle against this masculine/macho-coded typology that, while ultimately inclusive racially and in terms of class, tended to marginalize women as soccer players and to even outlaw and/or suppress women’s soccer for many years. Nevertheless, women’s national soccer teams and leagues have arisen in both countries in recent decades to expand the tradition beyond its male-dominated roots. I haven’t heard of a “female Maradona” yet, but the female Pelé is clearly Marta in Brazil. At some point perhaps it will be possible to define male players in terms of iconic female players or players of any gender, but we aren’t there yet.
Meanwhile, the cycle continues. Pibes and moleques of all backgrounds and genders are still striving in the streets, empty lots, beaches or fields of their countries to become future global soccer stars and national heroes of Argentina and Brazil.
Jack A. Draper III is associate professor of Portuguese at the University of Missouri. Follow him on Twitter.