Close to the geographical heart of Brazil, in the little-known state of Tocantins, soccer players argued with a referee over a decision.
Tensions ran high at the state championship match in the small town of Peixe, and in the midst of the ruckus, an official observer called Silvio Santana Ribeiro, an Afro-Brazilian player, a “monkey.”
The incident barely made a ripple outside the town of 9,000, and police ignored the victim, a middle school teacher.
But as Brazil pulled behind its defender Daniel Alves after a banana was thrown in his direction while he was playing for Barcelona, the episode in Tocantins revealed the country’s complicated relationship with racial identity.
While a long history of intermarriage created an impression of racial tolerance, soccer is one area of life in Brazil in which scratching beneath the surface reveals lingering prejudices.
“We are men of science and principles, and we know how to deal with people,” said Santana Ribeiro, 36, from Paranã. “I was armed with substantiated arguments that I imagined would be enough, but he used a weapon that knocks down any science — prejudice — and called me a monkey.”
He said he wanted to believe the insult was not aimed at him, but his teammates refused to ignore it.
“People are indignant,” said Enedino Neto, director for the promotion of racial equality at the City Hall in Paranã, after the incident last month. “It rarely happens here.”
This was the response of many when Alves was targeted in Spain at about the same time: Racism was a foreign problem, whereas Brazil was a tolerant nation.
The proliferation of black Brazilian footballers was cited as evidence of equality when President Dilma Rousseff promised Brazil would show during the World Cup that “our strength … comes from our ethnic diversity.”
But Alves’ mother, Lúcia Ribeiro, hinted at ongoing intolerance in Brazil after her son generated a worldwide anti-racism campaign by eating the banana aimed at him.
“For sure, he’s suffered prejudice here in Brazil,” she said, speaking at the family home in Juazeiro, a town in the state of Bahia, a former slave trade center. “There’s no one who hasn’t suffered from prejudice.”
Even a publicity campaign based on the slogan “Somos todos macacos” (“We are all monkeys”) divided commentators over its appropriation of so crude an insult.
In a play on the Portuguese word “banalização” (“trivialization”) and “banana,” some described the campaign as the “bananização” of racism.
“I was a little worried with this type of acceptance of an insult, that all black people are monkeys,” said professor Flavio de Campos, coordinator of the University of São Paulo’s Ludens interdisciplinary research center for football and recreational activities.
“It’s the dehumanization of a black player, a dehumanization of a country.”
According to the 2010 census, about 8 percent of Brazil’s population identifies as black, and more than 40 percent declare themselves “pardo,” a historical census category that includes those who define themselves as “mulatto” (“mixed”) or “moreno” (“brown”).
In Brazil at one point, there were 136 terms used on the census to denote race, including “mestiça,” “mista” and “escuro.”
A survey in 1996 found a greater proportion of black players in the top division than in the population in general, at 30 percent.
In 1905 Francisco Carregal, a weaver at a textile factory, became the first black athlete to officially play for a team in Brazil when he played in a friendly for Bangu AC, beating Rio’s Fluminense, 5-3.
In the team picture, he is photographed clean-shaven and sitting on the ground surrounded by his white and mustachioed teammates.
According to the president of Bangu AC, which was awarded the Tiradentes medal in 2001 in recognition of Carregal’s place in history, the percentage of black players is now as high as 60 percent.
Sitting in his office at the clubhouse on the outskirts of Rio de Janeiro, Angelo Marques Pereira was unwavering. “Black players dominate the sport now,” he said. “Racism doesn’t exist in football. Everything is equal.”
Asked whether Bangu had ever had a black coach, he paused. “There have been black coaches,” he said, “just not at Bangu.”
Last month a match between Rio’s two biggest teams — fierce rivals Flamengo and Fluminense — took on a greater significance when both were led by black coaches for the first time.
In the days that followed, Flamengo dismissed Jayme de Almeida, but Cristóvão Borges, the Fluminense manager, said the day would go down in history.
“Because of the difficulties that exist — and football reflects society — because what is a racial question is a social question as well, the ascension of black people is difficult in all areas,” Borges, 54, said.
“So for us, on that day, it was a demonstration of an advancement because it was two important roles in terms of football, and they were occupied by two black men.
“I believe that in time, it is going to represent a part of history because it was a demonstration of advancement, and also this is important because we represent the race in that moment. These are two clubs with a lot of tradition, so it had a lot of significance.”
Coming from Bahia, a northeastern state heavily tainted by the slave trade and with a majority black population, Borges faced his own battles while playing for clubs in the white-dominated south of Brazil.
“I lived in these places a lot, and like in the majority of Brazil, prejudice is obvious,” he said. “People will say that it doesn’t exist, but it does. And I was aware of this. For example, I like music, I like theater, I like nice restaurants, and in these places in the south of Brazil, I would appear as something different, someone noticed — people would look because it wasn’t something that was common. I really felt this.”
But Borges acknowledged that when it came to occupying positions of power, like coaching roles, the barriers for black people remain.
When he took charge of one of Rio’s oldest teams, Vasco da Gama, in 2011 after the manager’s health problems, he faced racial abuse from the most vocal core of fans.
“I was really criticized. This is normal — I’m criticized everywhere, and not everyone will agree with everything you do. It’s normal. It’s natural,” he said. “But the way they protested and the things they were saying — they didn’t just disagree with something I did. They used some phrases aimed at my color.
“It was only at this moment that I felt it directly. After I left, other coaches arrived, and I saw that Vasco had some difficulties with the results, but I saw that the behavior wasn’t the same. And so with me, I realized the tolerance was less because of this.”
According to the University of São Paulo’s de Campos, not only have coaching roles been dominated by white Brazilians but directorships and federation presidencies as well.
The incumbent president of the Brazilian Football Confederation (CBF), José Maria Marin, is the son of a Spanish immigrant.
“Those who say there is no racism in Brazil are either badly informed or badly intentioned,” de Campos said. “Those who say this are not black. They are white.”
Asked whether he thought there could ever be a black CBF president, Borges barely hesitated.
“Yes, there could be,” he said. “We have this in politics. Of course we can have it in football. I don’t know how long this will take, but I have no doubt that this will happen.”
In Tocantins, schoolteacher Santana Ribeiro was not so sure. “Before this incident, I’d experienced racism,” he said. “More in the indirect way, like the majority of Brazilians.
“It’s unacceptable. I believe prejudice will only be eradicated if there is a … revolution, although we will always be fighting against it.”
Originally published by Al Jazeera America