The Black Power Movement and Afro-Brazilian Soccer Players

Rio de Janeiro-Brazil March 24, 2022 World Cup qualifiers, match between Brazil and Chile at Maracanã stadium Vinícius Junior celebrates his first goal for the Brazilian team along with Neymar (A.Ricardo/Shutterstock)

One of the phenomena of the modern world, sport is a great research field for studies on social aspects. In addition to being a social, political, and cultural manifestation, it can produce extraordinary characters through the figure of the athlete, who, in some cases, manage to go beyond the sporting sphere when they express themselves on latent themes of society.

José Reinaldo de Lima is one such example. A Black athlete, he excelled in and out of the sporting arena. Born in Ponte Nova in 1957, Reinaldo was one ofthe most lethal strikers of Brazilian football in the 1970s and is still considered by many fans as the greatest player in the history of Clube Atlético Mineiro, a popular and traditional soccer team of the South American country.

Reinaldo was a top scorer in the 1977 Brazilian Championship playing for Atlético. He made 37 appearances in the national team and was part of Brazil’s squad for the 1978 World Cup, held in Argentina. Due to a serious knee injury, his career was compromised, but he is undeniably one of the greatest players of his generation, which included some of the biggest talents in the rich history of Brazilian soccer, such as Zico, Sócrates, and Falcão. Reinaldo is remembered as the “king of Mineirão.” Mineirão is the largest stadium in the state of Minas Gerais and where, for a long time, Atlético Mineiro played its matches.

The peak of Reinaldo’s career coincided with the years of the Brazilian Military Dictatorship (1964-1985). Due to his political position, he was one of most watched athletes by the military government, mainly because of his characteristic celebration at each goal: the arm raised with a closed fist, the salute of the Black Panthers. Inspired by the American anti-racist group from Oakland, California, Reinaldo began to use the gesture as an act to combat racism and as a manifesto against the Military Dictatorship.

In 1978, the act of raising one’s fist in protest was displayed to the entire world. When he scored the goal for Brazil in the tie against Sweden, in the World Cup opening match, Reinaldo made his characteristic celebration. The then deputy director of football at the Brazilian Sports Confederation (CBD), André Richer, had “recommended” that the forward not make the gesture. Reinaldo ignored him and as a “punishment” he lost his place in the team to Roberto Dinamite.

His celebrations and an interview for the newspaper “Movimento” criticizing the military and racism, asking for amnesty, and calling for the population’s right to vote, made him a public enemy of the censors. He was investigated and closely monitored by the National Information Service-SNI. However, Reinaldo never stopped taking a stand and after ending his career he was elected state deputy in Minas Gerais state by the Workers’ Party (PT). In 2021, during a tribute he received at the Bola de Prata award, he repeated the raised fist gesture and said the famous phrase: “Como povo brasileiro, devemos sempre lutar, lutar e fogo nos racistas” (“As Brazilian people, we must always fight, fight and fire on the racists”).

A contemporary of Reinaldo, Paulo Cézar Lima, popularly known as Paulo Cézar Caju, was another player who made history on and off the field. Born in Rio de Janeiro in 1949, he was a talented midfielder and was part of the historic squad of the Brazilian national team that won the 1970 World Cup, held in Mexico. In a career that spanned more than 15 years, Caju played for the four main clubs of the city of Rio de Janeiro: Botafogo, Flamengo, Fluminense and Vasco da Gama, in addition to Olympique de Marseille from France. For the Brazilian national team, he played 78 matches, and besides the 1970 World Cup, he was also part of the team that played in the 1974 edition of the championship.

Caju also had a strong and authentic personality. There are several stories about the player that entered the folklore of Brazilian football, such as when he participated in a friendly football match that involved the singers Chico Buarque and Bob Marley. He was also a very politicized player. In fact, his nickname, Caju, that means cashew in English, comes precisely from a political act, as he himself wrote in his column for Placar magazine:

On a trip to the United States, also with Botafogo, I met the Black Panthers, who defended armed resistance against the oppression of black people, I met the philosopher Angela Davis, famous for her militancy for women’s rights and against racial and social discrimination, and I was enthralled by the work of Malcolm X, one of America’s greatest advocates of black nationalism. Before returning to Brazil, I entered a hairdressing salon and dyed my black power (afro) cashew. I also bought bell-bottom pants. I just didn’t adhere to the thick laces that the Panthers used. I was never fully influenced by their thinking, but they were very important in my formation and perhaps, for that reason, I was never a “yes sir, black man.”

This admiration didn’t stop with the hair. Several times throughout his career, Caju spoke out in support of the Black movement, questioned the football system and the authoritarianism of the Brazilian military dictatorship..

After ending his career, Caju had financial problems and issues related to drug abuse. He had to sell part of his assets but managed to abandon his addiction to cocaine and alcohol. He worked for many years as a sports commentator, was a newspaper columnist and in 2016 the then French president François Hollande awarded Caju the Legion d’Honneur medal, one of the most important decorations in France.

But not only were athletes like Reinaldo and Paulo Cézar Caju inspired by the US Black Power Movement to demonstrate in favor of the racial struggle or against the Brazilian military dictatorship. In the city of São Paulo, an amateur soccer team called “Negritude” also drew attention to these causes in the same period. Negritude was founded on October 10, 1980 by young Black residents of Cohab I, a popular housing complex in the Artur Alvim neighborhood, on the east side of the city.

The team’s shield is the face of a Black man with a Black power (afro) style hair, which makes its inspiration from the Black Power Movement very clear. Nelson Mandela, the former South African president, and, of course, the French-Caribbean movement of Black intellectuals “Négritude” are also strong influences. At Negritude’s matches, fans usually carry banners with anti-racist messages and flags with the faces of historic Afro-American leaders like Malcom X and Martin Luther King.

Since the team’s creation, anti-racism has been on the agenda of Negritude and its supporters, as well as the fight against the Military Dictatorship. In order to be able to play matches and championships organized by the Paulista Football Federation (FPF) during the authoritarian period, the name of Negritude had to be changed to “Alvinegro Futebol Clube.” With the end of the dictatorship and censorship, the club returned to the original name, which it is still carrying today.

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Guilherme Silva Pires de Freitas and Felipe Antonio Honorato

Guilherme Silva Pires de Freitas and Felipe Antonio Honorato are both PhD candidates in the Social Change and Political Participation Post-Graduation Programme of the School of Arts, Sciences and Humanities of the University of São Paulo, Brazil.