As five-time World Cup champion, the Brazilian national team has become known the world over not just for winning, but for winning with a joyous panache that has become synonymous with the beautiful game. However, behind every one of Ronaldinho’s toothy grins and camouflaged by the color-shocked mohawk clinging to Neymar’s head lies an intensely complicated relationship between nation and sport.
Over the course of the 20th century, the average Brazilian’s rabid devotion to football allowed the game to be manipulated – serving as an opiate to anesthetize the Brazilian people toward the actions of their government. This wicked transformation has never been more apparent than during the 1970’s. Then, the military dictatorship under Emílio Médici spared no expense to ensure that its brutal totalitarian measures were shaded by the blinding brilliance of joga bonito.
Though Humberto Castelo Branco and the military dictatorship had arrived in 1964, it was the term of Médici, starting in 1969, that kick-started unprecedented levels of government involvement and control of Brazilian football. Facing fomenting levels of public unrest following the heightened use of arrest, kidnapping, and torture, Médici sanctioned the construction of thirteen new stadiums nation-wide and began attending Flamengo matches on a weekly basis – even occasionally dictating team selection.
With the national team, Médici fired manager João Saldanha – when told of Médici’s preference to include the striker Dario in his squad, it is alleged Saldanha replied “I do not mess with his cabinet, he will not mess with my team” – and replaced him with the capable, and controllable, Mário Zagallo. Zagallo proceeded to manage a side widely considered one of the greatest national teams in history to victory in the 1970 World Cup. The football played by Pelé, Jairzinho, and co. was spectacular – equally so the government’s desperate efforts to associate itself with the squad.
Brazil’s 1970 World Cup victory can arguably be considered the biggest public relations movement in sporting history. Spearheaded by Médici, the Brazilian government connected Brazil’s sporting success to Brazil’s domestic “success” at every opportunity imaginable. First, Médici delivered a victory speech that even a Hollywood filmmaker would consider over the top:
“I feel profound happiness at seeing the joy of our people in this highest form of patriotism. I identify this victory won in the brotherhood of good sportsmanship with the rise of faith in our fight for national development. I identify the success of our [national team] with…intelligence and bravery, perseverance and serenityin our technical ability, in physical preparation and moral being. Above all, our players won because they know how to…play for the collective good.”
A national holiday was declared upon the team’s return to Brazil and the players’ first stop was in Brasilia to meet with Médici. Following a photo shoot used in the next day’s papers, each player in the squad gratefully accepted a gift of $18,500 dollars. Not done yet, the dictatorship adopted the team’s World Cup tune, “Forward Brazil,” as its official song and plastered the regime’s slogan “no one will hold back Brazil now” on photos of Pelé in action. The objective of this campaign was to conflate Brazil’s footballing victory with the government’s “economic miracle,” presumably the two items of greatest interest to the average Brazilian.
Meanwhile, the government’s blatant propaganda did not go unnoticed by its leftist opposition. Indeed, many political activists made the agonizing decision to support Brazil’s opponents, believing that “the cheers of the fans drown out the screams of the torture victims.” Equal parts individual expression and collective determination, Brazil’s 1970 World Cup triumph endures as the pinnacle performance in football history. Regrettably, it also doubles as a testament to the dictatorship’s masterful ability to apply the sport as a sugary coating to its own bitter pill.
Unable to see the inherent contradiction between the dictatorship’s oppressive methods and the free-flowing beauty of joga bonito, the government unwittingly went about destroying its great opiate. In 1974, one of the parting shots of the Médici administration was to hand the presidency of the Confederação Brasileira de Desportos (CBD) to retired Navy Admiral, Hélio Nunes. The appointment of Nunes – who simultaneously served as president of the government’s ARENA party in Rio – saw accusations fly that in areas of faltering ARENA support, the government ensured the local team a place in the championship. Hence the popular phrase:Aonde a Arena vai mal, um time no campeonato nacional (Where ARENA is doing badly, a team in the national championship). Aonde ARENA vai bem, um time tambem (Where ARENA is doing well, a team as well).
Although the domestic league was successfully serving its purpose in currying support for the regime, the national team was no longer pulling its own weight. In 1974, Brazil travelled to the World Cup hosted by West Germany. Despite a squad composed of many of the 1970 squad, including the same manager in Zagallo, the team could not overcome the retirement of Pelé and failed to impress in the tournament. To the military regime still working to quell popular dissent, this failure denied them the opiate they had so craftily administered in 1970. In turn, they ratcheted up their militarization efforts of the squad and the government, through Nunes, set about rebuilding the national team in the mold of the dictatorship.
The year 1975 saw a change in the executive office from the brutally repressive Médici to the marginally less wicked Ernesto Geisel. Though not a serious fan like Médici, Geisel’s public relations team cast him as a big follower of Rio’s Botafogo in addition to being a hometown supporter of Porto Alegre’s Internacional. Considering his relative disinterest in the sport, it is unsurprising that Geisel did not take the hands-on role with football as had his predecessor. It was during Geisel’s term however, that Nunes and the regime remade the national team with more militaristic qualities. The teams built upon“’samba soccer’ and its emphasis on “improvisation, individual effort, and irreverence,”  represented qualities that stood in direct contrast to those the government hoped to instill in the nation. Instead, the CBD/government strode to build the team upon discipline and physical strength and attempted to do so by replacing Zagallo with former army captain, Claudio Coutinho.
In hindsight, Coutinho’s methods were laughable. The new manager likened his squad to a “light armored unit” and furnished the training facilities with military slogans and pro-government banners. Having taken over the government, then football’s governing body, and finally the national team itself, it was only a matter of time before the regime and its heavy-handed methods trickled down into the Seleção. Soon, bodyguards were used to prevent players from speaking openly with the press, while the players themselves were threatened with suspension for negative comments. Meanwhile, Paulo César Lima made the mistake of publicly denouncing Brazilian racism – resulting in his exile from Coutinho’s team.
Despite its best efforts, the government’s attempts to shackle joga bonito inevitably blew up in its face. The failure of the 1974 team was followed by a third place finish – again considered a failure – in 1978, and the public’s ire was now squarely directed at the CBD and its enforced militarization of the squad. By this time, the nation was becoming disillusioned not just with the military’s failed football experiment, but with the dictatorship itself. The “economic miracle” soon gave way to a devastating marriage of hyper-inflation and massive foreign debt. Geisel’s successor, João Figueiredo, began the long slow road to re-democratization and football, through Socrates and Corinthians Democracy, played an important role in the ensuing Abertura. The effects of the squad’s militarization however, were long lasting. It would not be until 1994, a five-tournament gap shocking only for a nation of Brazil’s stature, that the Seleção would reclaim its throne as world champion.
By Matt Averna
This article originally appeared in In Bed with Maradona
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