‘The beautiful game’

English professor discusses impact of soccer in Brazil in Brown Bag Series

The second installment of this semester’s Brown Bag Series discussed the impact of soccer on Brazilian culture and emotion amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

The seminar, titled “Plus Minas: Profiles in Brazil’s Beautiful Game” and led by English professor David Faflik, focused on his book project of the same name. Faflik sought to profile observers and supporters of Clube Atlético Mineiro (CAM), the largest and oldest soccer club in Brazil, in order to chronicle the change in emotions towards the game.

By looking at the emotions behind the “play” of the game throughout history, and then comparing his findings to contemporary Brazil, Faflik aimed to “examine heritage in the perspective of sports.”

According to Faflik, he received a Fulbright Distinguished Chair award to teach 19th-century American literature in Brazil at the Federal University of Minas Gerais in Belo Horizonte. This research opportunity was originally supposed to be in 2021, but was postponed until the latter half of 2022 due to the pandemic.

Faflik taught an undergraduate course and a graduate course during his residence in Brazil from May to September. This was also the time when he collected material for his Plus Minas study.

Plus Minas, funded in part by a Center for Humanities Faculty Research Grant, was organized as a series of profiles on people who were impacted emotionally by “the beautiful game.”

Brazillians call soccer, or football, “jogo bonito,” meaning “the beautiful game,” according to Faflik. This game, in addition to being Brazil’s favorite sport, is the country’s national identity.

Professional football was among the earliest games to return to organized and televised competition in the late spring of 2020, according to Faflik. Leagues across Europe, Asia, North America and South America began to allow players to return to the pitch despite the social distancing goals — resuming games with or without supporters in the stands. 

All of Brazil’s 26 states have felt both the fervor and the fear attending football’s return to normalcy, according to Faflik. His book project has the goal of characterizing Brazil’s sporting culture through this perspective, demonstrating that both before and during the pandemic, players did not go untouched by “hardship and uncertainty.” 

“Traveling [in Brazil], I was ready to embrace the opportunity that my trip afforded me for thinking about why so many fans of the sport should regard football as at once something to live for, and also something to potentially die for,” Faflik said. “In my own case, thousands of miles from the place I call home.”

Brazillians have experienced a number of infectious diseases, according to Faflik. Disease impacted “the beautiful game” directly during the influenza epidemic when an outbreak in Rio de Janeiro postponed the 1918 South American Championship games to the following year.

In addition, the country faces issues of systemic racism, poverty, crime and environmental degradation, according to Faflik. 

Citing German cultural theorist Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht, Faflik said that maintaining a certain distance from athletic performances creates a form of physical, material and aesthetic pleasure. 

“Plus Minas serves as a timely reminder that we don’t have to be world-class athletes to think of ourselves as players,” Faflik said. “We’re all in ‘the game’ simply by virtue of being here — by being alive and in the web of relations and emotion that sport ideally forges, not least in times of crisis.” 

Brazil’s CAM team confronted the pandemic by playing with raça and amor, according to Faflik. “Raça” means inner strength and grit, and “amor” means love.

Many Brazillians believe “the game” is indicative of freedom and joy, according to Faflik. To play is to exercise a “centralized Brazillianness.”

While the passion and grit attached to raça remains, cultural plight and struggle from the pandemic have demonstrated a range of negative emotions. Faflik contends this negative substratum of feelings, including envy, anxiety and irritation, is what CAM draws from at times of political, cultural and social uncertainty.

As he discussed the racial stereotyping and post-de facto segregation present in Brazil’s ideas about football, Faflik expanded on this bridge between raça and the perception of rage in football.

Faflik’s Brown Bag Series talk was the first time he had shared anything about this project with the world, according to English and gender and women’s studies professor Kyle Kusz.

The book that inspired this talk, “Plus Minas: Profiles in Brazil’s Beautiful Game,” is under review at Temple University Press in preparation for publication, according to Kusz.

The next Brown Bag lecture, entitled “The Silenced Other: Narratives of Undocumented Asian Americans,” is at noon on April 5 in the Multicultural Student Services Center and the discussion will feature English professor Sue Yon Kim.