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Demolitions in Rio, 1904

When Charles Miller arrived from England in 1894 with two used footballs in the luggage Antonio Conselheiro had already gathered thousands of followers at the village of Canudos in Bahia.  Conselheiro’s preaching gave hope to destitute rural workers and ex-slaves, and his religious community in the backlands of Bahia started interfering with the local labor market. With the excuse that he was a danger to the nascent republic (he was indeed against the separation of church and state) the “authorities” sent armed men to quest the “rebellion”. The three first ones were defeated, the last and larger one, with 3,000 soldiers and heavy artillery finally managed to kill every man standing in 1897. Canudos was the first war of the Brazilian republic against its own people, as chronicled by Euclides da Cunha (Os Sertões, 1902) and Vargas Llhosa (La Guerra del fin del mundo, 1981), and sadly would not be the last.

As if in another planet, Charles Miller was born in São Paulo of a Scottish father and sent to study in England. When he returned in 1894 he brought two leather spheres in his luggage, allegedly the first footballs to arrive in Brazil[1].

By the turn of the century there were several football clubs functioning in Brazil, all formed by white men of middle and upper middle class. The traditional clubs of today: Fluminense, Botafogo, Vasco da Gama, Corinthians and Atlético Mineiro were all founded before 1910. Futebol conquered Brazil from the top down.

Meanwhile, the soldiers (mostly black) sent to the Canudos expedition had nowhere to live when returned to Rio de Janeiro after two years of military campaign. The War Ministry allowed them to camp on a hill downtown which they named Morro da Favela because the place looked like a hill full of favas (bean sacks) in Canudos were they had camped during the assault. Ever since, the term favela applies to settlements built upon illegally occupied land in the immediate vicinity of the formal city.  What started in the first decades of the twentieth century as a desperate solution to housing needs as workers migrated from the countryside in search of jobs in nascent industries would become the standard housing option for about a fifth of the population of Rio and São Paulo, a third of Caracas and about half of Lima. One by one, they built temporary structures on any piece of land available, only to be removed by the police in a matter of days if the land was of interest to private owners or state agencies. Consequently, informal settlements endured in areas where land was deemed unworthy of development.

Favela and futebol would come together soon, but for the first decades after their first appearance in Brazil they were as separate as world apart can be. Indeed this is exactly how a leading journalist in Rio described the favelas back in 1911: “following them I found another world. The lighting had disappeared. We were in a rural place, in the backlands, away from the city”[2].  Decades went by with very little change. Them versus us; darkness versus light; rural versus urban, backlands versus city; those are all common dichotomies applied to Latin American divided cities throughout the 20th century. Futebol was from the beginning associated with modernity and by definition cosmopolitan and therefore on the opposite side of the favela in the social spectrum. The practice of sports was an issue first raised by the wealthy. The poor, in the backlands of Canudos or in the newly occupied hills of Rio were too busy working from dawn to dusk, flexing their muscles with a hoe or holding bricks.  Meawhile, the same elite that ordered the destruction of Canudos in the 1890s decided that Rio needed to look more European, with wide boulevards and public buildings au pair with Paris. Inspired by Haussmann mayor Pereira Passos demolished more then 1,000 structures, displacing 4,000 people, mostly poor who lived in unsanitary cortiços (rental rooms). Kicked out of the old fabric of colonial Rio (now crossed by wide avenues and prime real estate) the people moved up the hills that nobody wanted.

To be fair, futebol was not greeted with much excitement by the Brazilian intelligentsia either. Graciliano Ramos wrote as late as 1921 that futebol was a fashionable trend doomed to be forgotten because it had no place in the Brazilian backlands.  The backlands that Graciliano knew so well was migrating fast to the larger cities where it would meet the noble sport invented by the British. The result would astonish the world in both its forms: favela and futebol.


[1] Miller is credited with having introduced football in Brazil but there are accounts of a game in Para in 1890 and football exercises at the Jesuit Colegio Anchieta in Friburgo as early as 1886.

[2] The Portuguese original follows: Acompanhei-os e dei num outro mundo. A iluminação desaparecera. Estávamos na roça, no sertão, longe da cidade., João do Rio, Vida Vertiginosa, 1911, p.53.

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