Black people in Brazil are beaten to death in supermarkets on Black Consciousness Day, routinely harassed and brutalized by the police, and even cropped out of marketing photos for private schools so only their white peers are shown. The football field is usually one of the few places where black Brazilians are not subjected to prejudice and racism, a stage that provides a form of escapism from the harsh realities of everyday life. Yet two incidents over Christmas showed that the game is far from immune to racism, either at the grassroots level or the professional ranks.
First, a clip of an 11-year-old boy Luiz Eduardo went viral. At the conclusion of a match in Caldas Novas, in the rural state of Goiás, the youngster was left distraught and in tears after the opposition’s coach repeatedly told his players to “close down the preto”, which is a highly offensive racial slur in Portuguese. Corinthians wore Luiz Eduardo’s name on their shirts in solidarity in their game against Goiás a few days later and he received videos of support from players such as Gabriel Jesus and Neymar. Santos, the club that nurtured Neymar, have even offered him trials.
In a land home to one of the world’s most racially unequal societies, where public education is poor, access to private schooling is expensive and the minimum wage is miserly, football stereotypically offers one of the few avenues to a better life for young black kids and their families, making professional employment in the industry the dream of millions. Yet, as shown during a fiery clash between Flamengo and Bahia in December, escaping poverty does not mean players are free from discrimination.
During a tussle in a keenly contested league game, the Flamengo midfielder Gerson says he was told to “shut your mouth, negro” by the Bahia player Juan Pablo Ramírez. Speaking after the game, Gerson said: “I have played many games as a professional and I’ve never said anything because I had never suffered prejudice. But after conceding one of the goals, Ramírez started arguing with Bruno Henrique and I went to talk to him and he told me: ‘Shut your mouth, black.’ He has to learn to respect people.”
Various high profile players commented on the incident, with Everton striker Richarlison, who played alongside Gerson for various Brazil youth teams, telling his former teammate on Twitter: “They won’t shut us up. We will scream louder and louder! We are together brother! Burn the racists!”
After the game, the Bahia manager Mano Menezes argued with Gerson on the side of the pitch and accused him of “malandragem”, a form of rogue trickery that could be translated as shithousing. Menezes – who had a stint as the Brazil manager a decade ago in which he led his country to the Olympic final at London 2012 – was effectively suggesting that Gerson had only accused Ramírez of racism to gain an advantage in a tight game.
The furor has been hugely embarrassing for Bahia, who have proudly cultivated a reputation as one of Brazil’s most progressive clubs on issues such as racism and homophobia. Amid the fallout after the final whistle, the club announced that they had suspended Ramírez and dismissed Menezes. The club said they had sacked their manager because of the team’s poor form – their 4-3 defeat to Flamengo left them 16th in the Brasileirão table – but his remarks seem to have played their part.
“His attitude certainly weighed heavily on Bahia to take the decision to fire him on the same day,” says Brazilian football journalist Breiller Pires. However, Pires points out that not every club would have acted so quickly or decisively in punishing their staff. “Were it another club, we would have probably seen different conduct. Bahia have been a pioneer in creating a core of affirmative actions and carrying out major social actions, which has contributed to the club adopting a zero tolerance attitude towards the case in removing the player and avoiding blaming the victim.”
“Despite this, they still need to improve on their progressive fronts. Replacing Roger Machado, a black and socially engaged coach, with Mano was a mistake. The club left social responsibility in the background and looked only at the sporting side of things. And, due to the sullying of their image due to this case, they have paid dearly for it. Bahia must make their players and employees more aware of their stance, by showing them the importance of demonstrating anti-racist attitudes and that racism will never be tolerated by the club and its fans.”
Gerson has made his complaints to the police official and Ramírez has subsequently offered an apology in a video posted by the club on its social media channels. Although he maintains that he did not tell Gerson to shut his mouth, did not say anything racist and might have been misunderstood.
Bahia hired a language specialist, who concluded that there had been no wrongdoing on the part of their player. He has since been reinstated to the team. The club say they will take steps to prevent further incidents, including writing “anti-racist, xenophobic and homophobic” clauses in their players’ contracts and putting players through structural racism immersion courses in pre-season. They have also proposed an anti-discriminatory protocol for matches and supported the idea for a national anti-racism in football day in Brazil.
Dani Alves, who started his career at Bahia, played for Menezes in the Brazil team and is now back in Brasileiro at São Paulo FC, has been critical of the punishments given to Menezes and Ramírez. “It seems a shame to me that we have evolved in so many banal things, but in the things that we really should have evolved, we have been getting more stupid,” he wrote on Instagram. “As long as there is no severe punishment, it will never end.”
Pires agrees, saying: “Dismissal is little for what Mano did. The coach’s conduct was reprehensible. A football professional cannot behave like him in the face of a report of racism, in blaming and discrediting the victim. It was the most shameful episode of his career.”
Pires says the cases of both Luiz Eduardo and Gerson “are reflections of the structural racism of society, which still marginalizes black people, as happened with João Alberto at the Carrefour supermarket on Black Consciousness Day. In football, there is an even greater tolerance for racism. Racist offenses are seen as part of the ‘sporting culture’ – something evident when Mano Menezes treats an accusation of racism as a footballing provocation. The absence of black people in commanding positions – such as coaches, directors and club presidents – is normalized, even though football is full of black idols and great athletes. The lack of representation in the sport’s most powerful roles is one of the reasons why racist offenses generally go unpunished, and why victims are blamed.”