Pelé as Avatar of Afro-Brazilian Soccer History

Guest blog post by Jack A. Draper III, translator of the new English language edition of The Black Man in Brazilian Soccer by Mario Filho

Recently another film about Brazilian soccer legend Pelé was released. The word “another” is necessary because, not surprisingly considering the worldwide popularity of the subject, there have been a number of documentaries and at least one biopic released just in the last couple of decades featuring Pelé, let alone earlier films that he starred in during and after his career as a player in the twentieth century. Directed by Ben Nicholas and David Tryhorn, the succinctly named Pelé (2021, Netflix) nevertheless manages to tell a unique, subtle and captivating tale about the heyday of this soccer great.

Yet in one feature length film it is difficult to capture in detail the entirety of Pelé’s biography and soccer career, let alone the pre-history of Afro-Brazilian struggles to participate in the sport that paved the way for Pelé in the decades before he was born and during his childhood. After viewing this film, I hope that viewers less familiar with the player or the history of the sport in Brazil are inspired to seek out the answers to questions left unanswered. In particular, how did previous generations set the stage for Pelé? And how was Pelé seen in comparison with earlier Brazilian soccer legends? The fascinating answers to these questions are in large part to be found in Mario Filho’s The Black Man in Brazilian Soccer, to be published for the first time in English this April by UNC Press.

By the time Pelé won the World Cup for the third time with Brazil in 1970, indeed even before that, he had been crowned the king of soccer in Brazil and was considered its greatest player, and certainly the greatest in the world at that time, if not in all of soccer history. Nevertheless, since his goal is to tell a larger history of the contributions and struggles of Black Brazilians in the sport, Mario Filho takes the long historical view in his portrait of Pelé. He notes that every 20 years since Brazil first became competitive internationally, a singularly talented soccer star had become famous on the field, culminating with Pelé in 1958 and beyond. Each generation since the 1910s had had its ultimate soccer idol, and it just so happened to be that they were all Brazilians of African descent. The different experiences of these players on the field and how they were received by Brazilian society in their times, which Filho recounts in detail, reveal a lot about the history of soccer in the country, in particular the desegregation of the sport and the struggles that Black players had to go through to gain recognition and success, even as they contributed enormously to the quality and style of the game.

Here I’d like to paint some brief portraits of these key figures highlighted by Filho, those precursors to Pelé forty and twenty years before his incredible world debut at the 1958 World Cup. Namely, those famous forebears were Arthur Friedenreich (1892-1969) and Leônidas da Silva (1913-2004).

Arthur Friedenreich is described by Filho and recognized historically as the best player of the 1910s and 1920s in Brazil, an era in which he was a key player on Brazil’s first major international championship team, the 1919 South American Championship winners. However, his experience and behavior on the field as a player of mixed African and European descent in that time, as detailed in The Black Man in Brazilian Soccer, reveal the racism of the society and the related ostracism and psychological turmoil experienced by its victims, the first generation of Black players to break the color line and begin to play for the major clubs in Rio de Janeiro and other cities. Reading Filho’s book, one can see how this amateur era of Brazilian soccer prior to professionalization in the 1930s was also an era of elitism and unequal access to fields and clubs for many Afro-Brazilian players and fans alike (let alone coaches–the first prominent Black coach, Gentil Cardoso, would not debut at a club until the 1930s, and he would remain a solitary figure in that role for decades).

Despite being a star player by the late 1910s, Friedenreich was no exception. Filho details how he and other players made efforts to “pass” as white or at least to disguise their African descent. Friedenreich sought to straighten and flatten his hair before every match, while another player named Carlos Alberto on the Fluminense team went so far as to whiten his face with rice powder, resulting in the derogatory nickname “rice powder” which opposing fans shouted at Fluminense. Clearly the atmosphere was one of white supremacy, in which fans and other players might react negatively to the presence of a Black man on the team, and even more so when the first majority Black and mixed-race teams began to appear in the 1920s. Thus Friedenreich very much rose to stardom and greatness despite this atmosphere of anti-Black discrimination and segregation, paving the way for future generations.

By the 1930s, enabled by the victories of Black players in previous decades and the professionalization of soccer (which provided a more equal playing field for players of all social classes by providing them with salaries to live on), a new generation of Afro-Brazilian star players was ready to take prominent roles in the biggest clubs, including Leônidas da Silva, the lead scorer (having knocked in 7 goals) of the 1938 World Cup. Although Brazil placed third that year, it was their best result at the World Cup up to that point, and when Leônidas came home from playing in France, he was celebrated by the nation as the first superstar of Brazilian soccer. In 1942 he received a record transfer fee when he left Flamengo for São Paulo, and was greeted by 10,000 fans at the train station in São Paulo when he arrived–according to Filho, ”something never seen before.” Leônidas was also the first soccer star to pursue lucrative sponsorship deals, associating his famous name with everything from guava jam to cigarettes.

There were also certainly other great contemporaries of some of these players whose stories are told by Filho, such as the center back Domingos da Guia (1912-2000), who also played in the 1938 World Cup. But the true greatness of Pelé, in the end, was to be able to combine the skills and talent of all his forebears; to unite, incredibly, the stylistic flair and creativity of forwards Leônidas and Friedenreich with the technical excellence and calm reserve in defense of Domingos da Guia. The complete player.

Thus Mario Filho can confidently write in his final chapter, “The Black Man’s Turn,” still years before the 1970 World Cup, that “Pelé was the greatest player of all time. He played in back and in front, from goalkeeper to left winger. And wherever he played, he was the best […] How many times, when the opposing team was attacking, did the fan who had known Domingos da Guia see him come out of the penalty area, doing dribbles of half a millimeter? Until the eyes corrected the illusion. It was not Domingos da Guia, it was Pelé.”

Jack A. Draper III is associate professor of Portuguese at the University of Missouri.