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Both victims and heroes

Astrid Prange / alMay 23, 2014

They are victims and heroes at the same time: Black Brazilian football players are regularly subjected to racial abuse. Authorities in the country say they want to use the World Cup to heighten awareness of the issue.

Marcos Arouca goes for a ball during a football match
Image: picture-alliance/dpa

Brazilian referee Marcio Chagas da Silva says he's been subjected to over 200 racially-motivated attacks on the football pitch over the course of his career. During a recent game between Brazilian clubs Esportivo and Veranopolis, fans yelled at him from the stands: "You belong in a circus. Go back to the forest, you monkey."

Footballers are regularly the target of racial abuse. In March, midfielder Marcos Arouca da Silva from FC Santos came under attack during a post-game interview. Fans called the 28-year-old a monkey, reducing him to tears.

Former national team goalkeeper Dida, has also complained about verbal attacks from the stands against him recently.

The attacks are not isolated cases. Racism on the sports field is an age-old problem in Brazil.

"It might sound crazy, but in the 1920s the presidents of Brazil even called up national coaches to make sure they didn't take black players with them on foreign tours," says Brazilian sports journalist Roberto Asaf. Brazil's overseas reputation would have otherwise been damaged, the politicians claimed.

Former national team goalkeeper Dida holds a ball and gives players instructions
Former national team goalkeeper Dida was called a monkey at a recent game in the city of NatalImage: Picture-Alliance/ASA

White sport, black players

When football first came to Brazil over 100 years ago, it was still considered an activity for the white elite. Club bosses' fear of the aristocracy inspired them to devise curious schemes. In 1914, Rio de Janeiro's Fluminense club had rice powder applied to one of its black players, Carlos Alberto, before he took to the pitch. As sweat started to ruin the makeup, white fans in the stadium taunted and mocked him.

One hundred years on, five-time world champions Brazil want to break the taboo of ongoing, but often forgotten, discrimination in football. President Dilma Rousseff hopes that the World Cup will be a platform to fight racism.

"Brazil is the country with the largest black population outside of Africa," she said at a recent anti-racism event in Brasilia. "Racism in this country in everyday life is not acceptable."

Soccer's world governing body, FIFA, appears to have recognized that more needs to be done in Brazil. The organization pushed the Brazilian football federation CBF to take action, and the CBF held a panel discussion on racism in sports. But the keynote speech was given by a US sports lawyer, rather than a player who had been subjected to racist attacks.

Fear of ruining your career

Racism was only made illegal in Brazil in 1989. The number of court cases about discrimination and racial attacks are increasing slowly but surely. Referee Chagas and players Arouca and Dida all reported the attacks on them to the police.

Still, there hasn't been any significant improvement. The punishment handed out to Esportivo, whose fans called Chagas a monkey and pelted his car with bananas, was mild. The Brazilian sports justice authority fined the club around 10,000 euros ($13,175) and banned it from hosting its next five home matches.

Brazil's players celebrate a goal
Many of Brazil's biggest current stars are blackImage: picture-alliance/dpa

For historian Marcel Diego Tonini, who wrote his doctorate at the University of Sao Paulo on blacks in football, the mild punishment is proof that racism in Brazilian football remains a taboo topic.

"The number of black players on the pitch are increasing, but among the coaches and club bosses, the number of Afro-Brazilians are in the minority," Tonini said.

Many black players avoid bringing up the topic publically because they're concerned it will hurt their careers, he added. Referee Chagas said he had been the subject of racist attacks more than 200 times, when he finally spoke up about the abuse, Tonini said.

Such a reaction was way overdue, according to the famous Brazilian telenovela actor Caio Blat.

"Our football success is thanks to our black idols, like Pele, Ronaldinho und Romario," Blat said. "After that incident with the rice powder, Brazilian football is 100 percent black."