In the first decades of the twentieth century the capital city of Rio de Janeiro went through drastic transformations. Appointed mayor in 1902, Pereira Passos got absolute powers to literally “sanitize” downtown Rio. Inspired by Hausmman Parisian reforms, Passos opened a series of new avenues downtown, helping connect the port and the commercial center with the bourgeoning zona-sul, the ocean front areas of Rio being occupied by the wealthier. In the process, thousands of humble structures (cortiços) were demolished, its inhabitants simply pushed out.
A significant portion of the 5,000 people displaced, having nowhere else to go, got their few belongings and moved up the hills helping fuel the growth of the favelas. The “sanitation” project used real public health concerns to push forward another kind of “cleaning”: to eradicate the mostly black and mulatto poor population from downtown Rio and make it look as European (meaning white) as possible. The belle-époque was not so belle after all.
Racial undertones were so pervasive in Brazil that even a modernist prophet like Lucio Costa wrote in 1928 about “this anonymous crowd that take the trains (…) making us ashamed everywhere. What can we expect from such population? All is a result of race. The race being good the government will be good and good will be the architecture. Say what you may, our basic problem is selective migration, the rest is secondary, will happen by itself.” (Costa in O Pais, July 1st, 1928).
No wonder that dark skinned athletes had to powder their faces and make their skin lighter-colored in order to play. Fluminense, one of the great soccer teams of Rio is still called pó-de-arroz, first by its adversaries (the term pó-de-arroz or face powder signifying elite spoiled kids) and later by its own fans. Nowadays, when the Fluminense team enters the field for an important game, hundreds of bags of pó-de-arroz are thrown from the upper ring of Maracanã stadium.
The true story is nothing to be proud of. Blunt racism being of course illegal, the debates of the early 1920s revolved around amateur versus professional players. Botafogo, Flamengo and Fluminense being elite clubs from the southern parts of Rio had mostly upper middle class white players. They dominated the early decades of soccer in the city. Between 1906 (the first championship) and 1922, Fluminense won eight times, Flamengo four and Botafogo three.
Their domination would be challenge in 1922 when America won, and again in 1923 with the triumph of Vasco da Gama. Outraged that mulatto players of Vasco da Gama could beat the white boys of Rio’s elite, the league tried to push Vasco (and others) out with the argument that their players received money to perform and therefore could not compete in the amateur-only league. In 1924 there was indeed two championships in Rio, one won by Vasco, the other won by Fluminense. The debate over amateur versus professional soccer would be dragged onto the 1930s and decided, naturally, in favor of the best players: the dark skinned boys of the Brazilian periphery that would soon enchant the whole world.
In that process, two players had a very important role: Arthur Friedenreich and Leonidas da Silva.
Born in São Paulo in 1892, his father a German businessman and his mother an afro-Brazilian washwoman, Friedenreich played for Germania and Ypiranga clubs in São Paulo, being the top scorer 13 times between 1909 and 1929. In 1914 Friedenreich would be the first black Brazilian to play in the national team. He helped Brazil win Copa América in 1919 and 1922. Unfortunataly Friedenreich never played on a World Cup despite ending his career only in 1935.
Early World Cup glory was reserved for another important black Brazilian player. Leônidas da Silva was born in Rio in 1913. Self proclaimed the inventor of the bicycle kick (in which a player, with its back to the goal, does a backwards summersault to hit ball) Leônidas was named “black diamond” by the French press in 1938. On that World Cup Brazil got third place and called the attention of the soccer establishment for the first time, with Leônidas being the top scorer (7 goals) and elected by FIFA the best player of the tournament.
By the late 1930s the Brazilian modernists were pushing the country to accept its black traditions and soccer was rising to a prominent place in the national imaginary thanks to exceptional players such as Friedenreich and Leônidas. The favelas, however, would continue under the radar for another half century.