Racism returns to remind Brazil of society’s ills

The Rio Report

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In two incidents last week, the spectre of racism spread its deathly chill through Brazilian football.

The first occurred on Wednesday at the Estádio Montanha dos Vinhedos, in the verdant hills of Rio Grande do Sul. Referee Márcio Chagas da Silva was on duty for the local state championship game between Esportivo and Veranópolis. The 37-year-old – voted the best official in the competition last season – would have been forgiven for expecting a fairly quiet night, but off-field events ensured that the match shot to national attention.

“As soon as I walked onto the pitch, I heard the home fans shouting racist abuse,” Chagas da Silva revealed later. According to the reports, a number of (so-called) supporters were calling him "monkey". Some impelled him to “go back to the circus”. “The jungle is your home”, yelled others. More bile rained down as he walked to the changing rooms at half-time.

Despite the acrid atmosphere, the game was completed. But the ordeal was not over. After Chagas da Silva had showered and changed, he wandered over to his car. The doors were dented and scratched. On the bonnet were two bananas.

Asked about the incident on television, the referee was visibly shaken up. “I am hugely saddened to have been treated in this way, especially in a supposedly educated society,” he said as tears rolled down his cheeks. “I thought about my son. I hope he never has to experience anything like this. It was horrible.”

Just 24 hours later, ESPN microphones picked up on racist chanting aimed at Santos star Arouca during his side’s 5-2 victory over Mogi Mirim. “It’s lamentable and unacceptable that this sort of thing still happens,” the midfielder wrote in an open letter on Friday.

These two cases came hot on the back of Cruzeiro player Tinga being racially abused in a game in Peru – an incident that caused some outcry – and served as potent reminders that, when it comes to discrimination, Brazil’s own house is not as perfect some like to think.

Brazil often presents itself – or is presented from without – as a bastion of racial harmony, the rainbow nation made flesh. In some ways, this view holds sway: few countries have diversity written into their DNA in the way that Brazil does. This land is African, indigenous, European and a million other things all at once, and celebrates its melting-pot identity with some verve. Frictions have flared through the ages, but assimilation has been the norm.

Yet things are not as rosy as they can seem. It has struck many that Brazil’s great social division – the staggering wealth gap that consigns millions of people to slum life with others swan about in gross opulence – is demarcated along racial lines. Poverty in Brazil is largely, although not exclusively, black (and 'Indian') poverty. With income bleeding into education, there is at the very least a notable inequality of opportunity.

It could be argued that a bunch of idiots running their mouths at football matches has little to do with such structural issues. But the sporting world has always been an echo chamber for the broader gripes of humanity, highlighting and accentuating tensions that may otherwise remain unspoken.

Indeed, one need only glance at the difficulties encountered by black managers to see that the patterns at a macro level are reproduced in microcosm. For a country whose footballing history has been so shaped by black players, the demographic is markedly under-represented on Brazilian touchlines, with some coaches reporting an invisible glass ceiling. Lula Pereira, whose CV includes spells at Flamengo and Bahia but who has found work increasingly hard to come by, last year told Placar magazine that one club owner had turned him down with four gobsmacking words: “Sorry, but you’re black”.

Such attitudes, as Estadão columnist Antero Greco noted this week, show that Brazil is still behind the times. “We have a tradition of discrimination,” he wrote. “Football is just one of the areas in which it manifests itself.” If the game is, as Arouca claims, a “mirror to society”, Brazil cannot have liked the image that gazed back last week.

Jack Lang - @snap_kaka_pop

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