Early Afro-Brazilian Soccer Stars and the Myth of Racial Democracy  

by Zachary R. Bigalke

The ideology of racial democracy cast a long shadow over twentieth-century race relations in Brazil. First popularized by influential Brazilian scholar Gilberto Freyre, this theory presumed a level racial playing field that was paradoxically dependent on the whitening of the populace. Rather than helping to drive the country toward a multiracial future, racial democracy shrouded the structural issues that remained as a legacy of Brazilian slavery.

Throughout his corpus of writings, Freyre portrayed Afro-Brazilians as sexualized Dionysian figures with a florid talent for bodily movement, expressed not only through capoeira and samba but also on the soccer pitch.[1] Freyre used soccer as a foil for his theories of racial democracy throughout the course of his career, assigning certain attributes such as surprise, skill, cleverness, speed, and spontaneity on a racialized basis even as he tried to claim racial syncretism both in soccer and in broader society.[2] Journalist Mario Filho furthered this discourse in his 1947 book O Negro no Futebol Brasileiro, for which Freyre wrote the introduction. Freyre and later Filho lionized certain players while glossing over others to create the myth that soccer exemplified multiracial harmony within Brazil’s racial democracy.[3]

The career arcs of two key soccer players—Francisco Carregal in Rio de Janeiro and Arthur Friedenreich in São Paulo—offer a lens to evaluate the extent of Afro-Brazilian agency during the early decades of soccer’s growth in Brazil. The stories of their respective careers and historical representations illustrate the extent to which the myth of racial democracy was contingent on the process of whitening, in soccer’s case less through manipulation of behavioral traits and physical appearance.

To better understand these individuals and their status in Brazilian soccer as vanguards for future generations of Afro-Brazilian players, let’s look at both men through the context of their careers as well as their portrayals by Filho in his landmark text.

Carioca Trendsetter: The Case of Francisco Carregal

At first glance, Francisco Carregal appears the consummate example of racial democracy in action. A seminal figure during the formative years of Bangu Athletic Club, Carregal remains a source of pride for the club and its fans. Reading further into the popular narrative of his career that was put forward by Mario Filho, we can see that a society ostensibly deracinated and freed from the burden of racialized hierarchies still rooted social mobility in terms dictated by whiteness.

Carlos Molinari, “Time do Bangu em 1905,” Bangu.net, via Ludopédio, Francisco Carregal is pictured seated front row and center in the photo.

When he first suited up for Bangu on May 14, 1905, he took to the pitch as part of a roster that included five English, three Italian, and two Portuguese descendants.[4] Superficially this indicates the very inclusivity that is extolled by racial democracy. The way that history has identified these players, however, is itself indicative of the limits of racial democracy. Throughout his book Filho avoids recognizing blacks as the descendants of Africans. The emphasis is on color rather than race.

While he readily notes the national origin of other players, the same is only partially applied to Carregal, who Filho describes as “Brazilian with fifty percent black blood. His father was white Portuguese, his mother black Brazilian.”[5] As a mulatto, Carregal’s patrilineal origins are noted while his matrilineal genealogy is lost in this erasure of African roots. Through this linguistic turn, racial democracy retained a variegated understanding of the white population in Brazil while homogenizing an Afro-Brazilian population stripped of any substantive understanding of its geographic origins.

Filho also noted that Carregal was “a real dandy on the field” who, despite working as a weaver at the Bangu Textile Factory, took care to look proper at all times on the pitch and maintain the new appearance of his gear. Filho explicitly contrasts Carregal’s fastidiousness to white teammate William Procter, a master electrician, who apparently “did not care about these things.”[6] This disparity in physical appearance speaks of a critical dynamic taking place in Brazilian cities during the early twentieth century. While color certainly played a role in social relations, class status was also critical to determining one’s position within Brazilian society. Because of his status as a simple laborer, Carregal was likely taking pains to look more polished in his appearance than working-class status might otherwise portray. While it is not directly addressed, integration into white-dominated athletic clubs and social organizations seems to have required overcompensation for one’s skin color through whitening one’s dress and appearance.

The popular interpretation championed by Filho positioned Carregal as a progenitor of racial democracy, one in which color ceded to merit in determining one’s success. Carregal’s lived experience, though, existed mainly in a space of assimilative sociocultural whitening. Even though Bangu Athletic Club was a working-class club, Carregal still felt the need to compensate through an attention to sartorial details that situated him in contrast to his white teammates. By fashioning himself as more modern and civilized, Carregal worked his way up at Bangu and remained involved with the club for years after his first match. By 1911, he was also serving as the treasurer on the club’s board of directors.[7]

Carregal’s appropriation of the symbols of Eurocentric modernity provided a roadmap for other Afro-Brazilian players to succeed within organized soccer, but there were limits to how much upward mobility could be achieved. Created in 1904 as a factory team of the Companhia Progresso Industrial do Brasil, Bangu was unique in that regard compared to most other top clubs of the period. While they competed as equals against more affluent clubs like Fluminense, Bangu’s players were hardly equal in socioeconomic terms to many of their league opponents. Class, rather than race, is the reason why “a Francisco Carregal, although a clean mulatto, or Manuel Maia, although a good and respectful black, would enter Fluminense” according to Filho.[8]

The prevalent opinion among Brazil’s elite classes was that the “Black Race in Brazil… will always constitute one of the factors of our inferiority as a people.”[9] Just as they attempted to whiten their physical appearance, soccer players of color consciously cultivated decorous personalities in order to fit in with white-dominant social groups. Rather than looking to dispel the collective notion of blacks as inferior, players like Carregal are indicative of the drive by Afro-Brazilians to individually seek advancement within a society predicated on white values.[10]

For some this whitening process was taken to its physical extreme. Carlos Alberto, among the first black players to break into the ranks at exclusive Fluminense, used rice powder on his face throughout his career to reduce the darkness of his skin. Facing his former club América on May 13, 1914, the partisan crowd called out their former hero for his whitening practice, a ploy that backfired when pó de arroz was adopted as a term of endearment by the Fluminense supporters.[11] To this day Fluminense partisans celebrate Carlos Alberto by throwing talcum powder in the stands.[12]

For most black and mulatto players during this period, the main avenue toward entry into organized soccer was through factory clubs. That avenue remained one of the few paths of upward mobility for the next generation of Afro-descended players such as Domingos da Guia. Born in Bangu during the local club’s 1911 second-division championship season, Domingos grew up as soccer evolved into a means of social mobility. Even during the amateur era, athletic competence translated into better employment, bonus payments, and greater financial success for those players who earned a position in the first team of Bangu and other factory teams. Even then, few players of any color expected to make a living solely by playing the sport.[13]

Domingos, in recalling his own upward mobility in the sport, focused on appearance as a sign of status. He recognized that African roots had kept his older brother, Luiz Antonio da Guia, from securing a career in soccer. This caused Domingos to consciously portray himself as a mulatto by trying to flatten his hair and by avoiding associations of blackness in his public comportment, in effect mimicking Carregal’s sociocultural whitening.[14] By carefully cultivating his public image, even dressing formally away from the playing field, Domingos broke away from racial and class stereotypes by adopting normative cultural identifiers of white society.[15]

Just as we see later for Domingos, Carregal’s attitude toward his appearance demonstrates how the myth of racial democracy depended on Afro-Brazilians adopting the trappings of white culture. Therefore, racial democracy was a process of cultural assimilation rather than the cultural syncretism implied by the term. Racial democracy insisted on all parties buying into a racial hierarchy that inferred an end to racial distinctions without addressing the lingering predisposition toward favoring whiteness.

Paulista Wunderkind: The Case of Arthur Friedenreich

Afro-Brazilian players throughout the amateur era reiterated this need to whiten their appearance both physically and culturally in order to integrate into white-dominated clubs. Arthur Friedenreich, despite the doors opened by his lineage, still felt the need to highlight his whiteness at every turn. Like Carregal, Friedenreich lived in the liminal space between white and black, and his career would be defined both by his skill and by his skin color.

Born to a Brazilian-born German descendant and an emancipated slave in São Paulo, a mixed-race background paved the way for Friedenreich to play in both organized and impromptu spaces, syncretizing multiple styles of play.[16] As a seventeen-year-old in 1909, he capitalized on his German patrimony to become a first-team starter with SC Germania in São Paulo. From there he bounced from club to club before settling with Paulistano in 1917.[17]

Friedenreich’s career coincided with the rise of the Brazilian national team. He first appeared in a Brazilian selection on September 8, 1912, scoring a goal in a 6-3 loss to Argentina.[18] He was also on the field for the landmark 1914 friendly against England’s Exeter City that ended in a 2-0 Brazilian victory.[19] He became a semi-regular fixture for the national team, especially playing a key role at the 1919 South American championship held in Brazil. Friedenreich scored a hat trick against Chile and the decisive goal against Uruguay to help Brazil win the title.[20] His critical role in securing Brazil’s first continental championship helped make him a national star.

But his celebrity seemed tied as much to his racial admixture as rooted in an admiration of his talents. In Filho’s words, “The popularity of Friedenreich was due perhaps more to the fact of him being a mulatto, although he did not want to be a mulatto, than due to him having scored the winning goal for the Brazilians.”[21] Admiration for Friedenreich’s mulatto qualities was hardly unconditional, however, over the course of his career.

Like Carregal and other early Afro-Brazilian stars, Friedenreich’s mixed-race status was as much a curse as a blessing. Being “a mulatto with green eyes” could only open so many doors, and the striker sought to whiten his appearance throughout his career by straightening his hair and wearing hairnets while on the playing field.[22] At times he would mesh seamlessly into white status, while at other times his maternally-inherited blackness limited his opportunities. Two years after helping Brazil win the South American championship, Friedenreich fell victim to the sporadic policy of selecting all-white teams for away matches in Argentina and Uruguay. Fearing the notion that fielding a black player would reflect poorly on Brazil, president Epitácio Pessoa allegedly lobbied for Friedenreich’s exclusion from the 1921 South American championships despite his critical role two years earlier.[23]

After the Brazilians failed to defend their title without their star striker, Friedenreich was back on the team for the 1922 championships.[24] Even then, the striker only appeared in one of Brazil’s six matches on its course to a second South American championship. After appearing in the opening contest against Chile, Friedenreich was sidelined for the rest of the tournament.[25] Even as the Brazilian press attempted to universalize the appeal of the national team’s victory as the work of a truly representative national side, the exclusion of Friedenreich and other Afro-Brazilian stars was conspicuous.[26]

The actions of sports and government officials, alternating between the inclusion and exclusion of black and mulatto players from the national team, marginalized the place that Afro-Brazilians played in a key realm of national identity. Friedenreich was just one victim of these policies, though the continued success of black and mulatto players limited the extent to which this group could be ignored.

In this regard Friedenreich was no different than other upwardly mobile Afro-Brazilians in all walks of society, who were expected to assimilate into society but to do so within a social hierarchy predicated on assumptions about race and wealth.[27] To secure one’s position in society through sport was rare, and cases like Friedenreich were exceptional regardless of race or color distinctions. Just as other players felt the need to present their best possible presence, so too did Friedenreich concern himself with accentuating his white identity throughout his career.

This broader drive to marginalize black and mulatto workers can be seen in Friedenreich’s treatment throughout the 1920s, as his importance to the national team fluctuated during the prime of his career based on the shifting opinions of the ruling elite toward Afro-Brazilians. In exhibition matches in São Paulo between representatives of white and black teams, Friedenreich was perceived as white due to his lineage and the teams for which he played; when he was considered for national team play, this perception shifted based on whether the international tournament was contested locally or on foreign soil.[28] Despite the quantifiable advantages he offered to Brazil on the pitch, his mother’s legacy as a former slave influenced how much of an impact he could have in the development of Brazil’s international soccer reputation.

Friedenreich’s reputation as a critical actor in Brazil’s soccer history waned due to this uneven treatment throughout his career. Variously celebrated and shunned during the course of his quarter-century in the game, Friedenreich faded into obsolescence as the 1930s yielded new Afro-Brazilian stars like Domingos da Guia and Leônidas da Silva emerged in the public consciousness. Heralded as one of the greatest scorers in soccer history, his exploits have become more legendary and at once more apocryphal over time, a possible consequence of his importance to the myth of racial democracy.


Early trendsetters like Carregal and Friedenreich paved the way both for future generations of Afro-Brazilian soccer players as well as for the development of Gilberto Freyre’s racial democracy theories. This myth came to pervade both the sport and, by extension, Brazilian society. The cooption of soccer as a nationalist enterprise under Getúlio Vargas allowed for books such as O Negro no Futebol Brasileiro to rescript the story of soccer in Brazil as the rise of racial democracy. Through Mario Filho’s writing we can track the concretization of this narrative as well as the holes that potentially exist within that narrative.

Players of this era, like so many other Afro-Brazilians, adopted white sociocultural norms when they worked their way into organized soccer. As Freyre and Filho both subconsciously recognized throughout their treatments of soccer, racial democracy was predicated on whitening not just future generations but acculturating present ones to Eurocentric cultural norms of dress, work, and leisure.

This led to a whitewashing of the real lived struggles of early players, at a time when younger generations of Afro-Brazilian players such as Leônidas da Silva and Domingos da Guia capitalized on the increased identification of soccer with Brazilian nationalism and the career benefits of full professionalism to leverage their unique skills against a still-prevalent racial hierarchy that continues to shape Brazilian soccer a century later.[29]

Zachary R. Bigalke is a graduate student in the Department of History at the University of Oregon focusing on the impact of immigration and industrialization on the early development of various forms of football in the Americas. He is a regular contributor to the college football website Saturday Blitz and an editor at Sports Unbiased, and can be reached at bigalkez@gmail.com and followed on Twitter at @zbigalke.


All translations are by the author unless otherwise noted.
[1] Tiago Maranhão, “Apollonians and Dionysians: The Role of Football in Gilberto Freyre’s Vision of Brazilian People,” Soccer & Society 8, no. 4 (2007): 515-516.
[2] Gilberto Freyre (1938), as quoted in Tiago Maranhão, “Apollonians and Dionysians,” 514. (Translation by Maranhão.)
[3] Edward E. Telles, Race in Another America: The Significance of Skin Color in Brazil (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2004), 37.
[4] Mário Filho, O Negro no Futebol Brasileiro (Rio de Janeiro: Editôra Civilização Brasileira, 1964), 7.
[5] Filho, O Negro no Futebol Brasileiro, 7.
[6] Filho, O Negro no Futebol Brasileiro, 9.
[7] “The Bangu Athletic-Club,” Jornal do Commercio (Rio de Janeiro), March 23, 1911, 5.
[8] Filho, O Negro no Futebol Brasileiro, 10. Manuel Maia, the child of two Afro-Brazilian parents, was a Bangu goalkeeper that joined the club in 1906. Maia and Carregal were among four black starters for the 1911 Bangu squad that won the Carioca second division.
[9] Nina Rodrigues, as quoted in Maranhão, “Apollonians and Dionysians,” 512. (Translation by Maranhão.)
[10] Anthony W. Marx, Making Race and Nation: A Comparison of South Africa, the United States, and Brazil (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 252.
[11] David Goldblatt, Futebol Nation: The Story of Brazil through Soccer (New York: Nation Books, 2014), 29; “Conheça a verdadeira história sobre a origem do pó de arroz do Tricolor,” Fluminense Football Club, May 13, 2015, accessed March 17, 2016, http://www.fluminense.com.br/site/futebol/2015/05/13/conheca-a-verdadeira-historia-sobre-a-origem-do-po-de-arroz/.
[12] Filho, O Negro no Futebol Brasileiro, 43.
[13] Leonardo Affonso de Miranda Pereira, “Domingos da Guia: A Mestizo Hero on and off the Soccer Field,” in The Human Tradition in Modern Brazil, ed. Peter M. Beattie (Wilmington, DE: Scholarly Resources, 2004), 152-154.
[14] Pereira, “Domingos da Guia,” in The Human Tradition in Modern Brazil, 160-161.
[15] Gregory E. Jackson, “Malandros, ‘Honorable Workers’ and the Professionalisation of Brazilian Football, 1930-1950,” in The Country of Football: Politics, Popular Culture & the Beautiful Game in Brazil, ed. Paulo Fontes and Bernardo Buarque de Hollanda (London: Hurst & Company, 2014), 62-63.
[16] Martin Curi, “Arthur Friedenreich (1892-1969): a Brazilian biography,” Soccer & Society 15, no. 1 (2014): 20.
[17] Curi, “Arthur Friedenreich,” 20-21.
[18] Marcelo Leme de Arruda, “Pré-Seleção Brasileira (Pre-Brazilian National Team) 1906-1913,” Rec.Sports.Soccer Statistics Foundation, updated July 16, 2014, accessed March 17, 2016, http://www.rsssfbrasil.com/sel/brazil190613.htm.
[19] Marcelo Leme de Arruda and André do Nascimento Pereira, “Seleção Brasileira (Brazilian National Team) 1914-1922,” Rec.Sports.Soccer Statistics Foundation, updated September 12, 2015, accessed March 17, 2016, http://www.rsssfbrasil.com/sel/brazil191422.htm.
[20] De Arruda and Pereira, “Seleção Brasileira (Brazilian National Team) 1914-1922,” http://www.rsssfbrasil.com/sel/brazil191422.htm.
[21] Filho, O Negro no Futebol Brasileiro, 54.
[22] Filho, O Negro no Futebol Brasileiro, n.p. (Nota à Segunda Edição); Curi, “Arthur Friedenreich,” 25.
[23] Jackson, “Malandros, ‘Honorable Workers’ and the Professionalisation of Brazilian Football, 1930-1950,” in The Country of Football, 50-51; Curi, “Arthur Friedenreich,” 24.
[24] “Los uruguayos empatan con los brasileños sin abrir el score,” La Vanguardia (Buenos Aires), October 2, 1922, 7.
[25] De Arruda and Pereira, “Seleção Brasileira (Brazilian National Team) 1914-1922,” http://www.rsssfbrasil.com/sel/brazil191422.htm.
[26] Goldblatt, Futebol Nation, 44.
[27] Marc A. Hertzman, “Making Music and Masculinity in Vagrancy’s Shadow: Race, Wealth, and Malandragem in Post-Abolition Rio de Janeiro,” The Hispanic American Historical Review 90, no. 4 (2010): 602-603.
[28] Curi, “Arthur Friedenreich,” 24.
[29] For more on the modern impacts of racism in modern Brazilian socce, see Astrid Prange, “Brazilian football plagued by racism,” Deutsche Welle, May 23, 2014, accessed March 21, 2017, http://www.dw.com/en/brazilian-football-plagued-by-racism/a-17646244.

One thought on “Early Afro-Brazilian Soccer Stars and the Myth of Racial Democracy  

  1. Great Article Zach Bigalke! I could feel your passion for history while reading this article. Very well written. I look forward to future writings.


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