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Tim Vickery Column: The politics behind Brazil’s 1970 World Cup triumph and how it shaped Brazilian sports journalism

The Great Pelé
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Thirty four years ago, as those stunning images were coming in from the Mexico World Cup, some on the political left in Brazil were anxiously hoping their team would lose.

Pele and his marvellous supporting cast were bewitching the entire planet with the quality of their play, but these artists and intellectuals could hardy bear to watch. Their problem – that Brazil’s military dictatorship was making political capital out of the team.

It was exactly fifty years ago that the military seized power. Until recently even some official documents referred to the events of March 31st and April 1st 1964 as a ‘revolution’ – an absurdly grandiose term for a squalid, grubby little soldiers’ coup; more proof, as if any were needed, that in societies containing huge wealth differentials the military exist as much to repress their own people as to defend the country’s borders.

As tinpot, goonish military plotters go, the first lot in 1964 were relatively mild. But history teaches time and time again; once you start down the road of authoritarian solutions, the inevitable tendency is for an increase in authoritarianism. 

The more liberal of the tinpot, goonish plotters were too stupid to see it coming, but it should be no surprise that there was a ‘coup within a coup.’ By 1968 the hardline had seized power and suspended all political rights. Repression may not have reached the scale later hideously practiced in Chile, Argentina and Uruguay; but these self-proclaimed saviours of Western Christian values used torture and murder to achieve their aims.

A grotesque slogan sums up the era – ‘Brazil, love it or leave it.’ No questioning, no curiosity, no argument, and if you don’t like it, get out. The generals saw the national football team as fine ambassadors, happy, smiling and successful representatives of a country, according to the official propaganda, which was moving forward together.

In response, as we have seen, many on the left could not bear the thought of Brazil winning the 1970 World Cup. One young journalist took a different position.

Juca Kfouri was on the left, and he was also a football fan, a devoted supporter of Corinthians. His logic was simple and inescapable; the military dictatorship have taken so many things away from us, he thought, that I am not going to let them appropriate football.  The game, and Brazil’s prowess in it, belongs to the people, and not to these latter day lords of misrule. There was no inherent contradiction in cheering on the team and hoping for the end of the military government.

Kfouri’s capacity to grasp this elementary truth launched a powerful journalistic career, one in which football is both celebrated as a cultural phenomenon in its own right, and also used didactically to examine defects in Brazilian society. 

A common theme in his thinking is the ‘despite’ clause; that Brazil have won World Cups because of the talent of the players and the application of the coaches, but despite the deficiencies of those who organise the game.

It is a line of argument that has ‘won’ him some powerful enemies, but which has also given him considerable moral authority. And perhaps most importantly, his example has ensured that this critical, socially minded approach is a part of Brazilian sports journalism. And that, 50 years after the triumph of the tinpot, goonish plotters, is something to be celebrated.


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