Illustration: Two football goals stand in front of a yellow background. Spectators are seated behind the larger goal on the left, behind the smaller goal the stand is empty. The picture is covered by the writing "Mulheres no campo".

The Taxpayers’ Burden and Dribbling Prejudices

For many years football in Brazil was perceived as a symbol of democracy, of Brazilian culture and identity. But in the run-up to the 2014 men’s football World Cup, Brazil’s cities were overtaken by a process of public politicisation and protest. Why? And what is the role of women’s football in Brazil?

At the time of the 2013 Confederations Cup, initial demonstrations had already been triggered by price increases in public transport in São Paulo and other Brazilian cities. Social media was used to spread information and organise nationwide protests. Protesters criticised the high expenditure of taxpayers’ money on the men’s football World Cup, in particular because there was a lack of state investment in public health and public education. Not all investments, for instance in some of the new football stadiums, seemed reasonable in the eyes of Brazilians.

Furthermore, poor neighbourhoods in Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo were displaced from the urban centres to the peripheries. These urban changes were justified by the construction of infrastructures for sport events. It is not surprising that the slogans ‘World Cup for the rich’ and ‘There won’t be a World Cup’ were prevalent during the demonstrations. The fact that only a small well-to-do section of the Brazilian population could afford local ticket prices and watch the games at newly built or renovated football stadiums seemed to confirm the critical slogans.

Individuals and groups who had condemned the corruption and violence of Brazil’s police force before 2013 felt their criticisms were confirmed by state policies during the World Cup. Some of them felt that the public attention attracted by the mega-events, particularly in the international media, was advantageous for demanding political and social change. Others were sceptical about the positive impact of international events on the political situation in their country. Another group disagreed with the criticisms or even felt disturbed by the protesters. As the opening ceremony drew nearer, the protests in Brazil’s cities began to drop off, but social discontent and political tensions did not disappear.


A man with clothes with Brazil's flag passes by riot policemans during a protest against the money spent on the FIFA 2014 World Cup in Paulista Avenue in São Paulo Brazil, on June 23, 2014.
Protesters criticise the high expenditure of taxpayers’ money on the men’s football World Cup, photo: Tiago Mazza Chiaravalloti / Pacific Press via picture alliance

The 2014 World Cup 2014 – in economic terms the world’s biggest sporting event – symbolically manifested another area of social conflict: the deep gender inequalities in Brazil’s national sport. Since the beginning of the 20th century, women have represented a minority in Brazilian football.

Female players did not receive social support. From 1941 to 1979, a law even prohibited Brazilian women from playing football. Nowadays, despite positive changes, a lack of knowledge about women’s football and prejudices about female players are still prevalent in Brazilian society. As is the case in many other countries, media reports on international women’s football tournaments, such as the women’s football World Cup, is still rare in Brazil. Despite football’s huge popularity, professional female players receive little public attention.

Women’s football is frequently represented as less attractive and inferior to the men’s game. However, in 2014 and in 2016, representatives of women’s football clubs and civil society tried to benefit from the publicity attracted by the male dominated mega sports events in their country. In the following passages, I will analyse these strategies and show how mega sports events have an impact on women’s football in Brazil. To begin, I will explain the history and current situation of women’s football in Brazil.


An Unequal Story

A few words on the history of Brazilian women’s football: at the end of 19th century, football was introduced in South America and Brazil by English traders. In the early years, the game was played solely by white Brazilian middle and upper classes. In the decades that followed, primarily in the 1920s, football clubs increasingly opened up to members of lower social classes and people of Afro-Brazilian origin. This was remarkable in view of the yawning chasm between different social classes at that time. Only a few decades before, through the abolition of slavery in 1888, Afro-Brazilian people had become Brazilian citizens. In the 1920s, Afro-Brazilians were still not fully integrated and suffered discrimination in Brazilian society. However, from the 1930s and 1940s onwards, football gained in popularity and was increasingly regarded as a space where people from different social classes and with different skin colours could come together. Brazilian football was perceived as a symbol of democracy, of Brazilian culture and identity. Nevertheless, almost since football was first introduced to Brazil, women were excluded. Yet, there were women who played football at the beginning of the 20th century.

The prevalence of prejudices against women’s football and the dominance of male representatives are obstacles to the further development of women’s football in Brazil.

Newspapers in São Paulo reported for the first time in 1913 about football matches between female teams, but women represented a minority and were not supported by society. When the media reported on female football matches, as was the case in the 1940s in Rio de Janeiro, journalists employed mockery and double entendre in their reports. Women’s football was not taken seriously.

At the same time, women’s position in society and their participation in sport was being discussed in the Brazilian public sphere as well as in other countries worldwide. The majority had a patriarchal mindset, deeming women to be physically weak and generally inferior to men. The practice of physically demanding sports, such as football or boxing was perceived as incompatible with the ‘female nature’. In 1941, the National Brazilian Sport Council prohibited women from playing football by law.

The law remained in force for almost 40 years and caused a stigmatisation of female football in Brazilian society. Even after the law was abolished in 1979, women’s football was still strongly criticised. In the 1980s and 1990s, narratives on players’ physical appearance were prevalent in media reports on matches between female teams. On the one hand, journalists presented sportswomen as sexual objects, but at the same time female football players were described as ‘male’ and speculations were voiced about their sexuality. Their sporting performances received little attention.

Nevertheless, from the 1980s onwards, female amateur football teams and tournaments were founded in many Brazilian cities. In a few places, such as São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, even professional or semi-professional women’s teams were founded. In the 1990s and 2000s, Brazilian national women’s football team participated successfully in international competitions, such as the 2004 Olympic Games. The Brazilian Marta Vieira da Silva won World Player of the Year five times.

In 1941, the National Brazilian Sport Council prohibited women from playing football by law. 

Nowadays, despite the very positive results in international competitions, representatives of Brazilian women’s football associations still criticise skill levels in women’s football. The prevalence of prejudices against women’s football and the dominance of male representatives are obstacles to the further development of women’s football in Brazil.

In the context of the men’s 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympic Games, media attention has been drawn to Brazilian sportswomen. In Rio de Janeiro, the NGO Rede de Desenvolvimento Humano (REDEH) and the social football club Estrela Nova organised an exhibition and youth sports activities in June and July 2014. REDEH was founded in 1990 and advocates environmental policies and women’s rights. In the 2000s, the NGO started to work on sports issues. REDEH identified football as a space in Brazilian society that is still characterised by gender hierarchies; so the men’s World Cup seemed a favourable moment to discuss these inequalities publicly. Since its foundation in 2009, Estrela Nova has been fighting for the strengthening of women’s football in Rio de Janeiro. The football club offers practice sessions for boys and girls from poorer neighbourhoods.


Engaging in Poor Neighbourhoods

In their exhibition ‘Mulheres no campo: driblando o preconceito’ ('Women on the football pitch: dribbling prejudices') at the Museu da República in the centre of Rio de Janeiro, REDEH and Estrela Nova recalled the history of Brazilian women’s football.

For instance, the female team Esporte Clube Radar was the first female team in Brazil to participate successfully in international football competitions in the 1980s. However, the team from Rio de Janeiro went unmentioned for a long time in historical narratives about Brazilian football, in monographs and in the national football museum. The exhibition’s organisers tried to make the accomplishments of female teams more visible.

REDEH and Estrela Nova also organised tournaments for boys and girls. During these football matches, the usual gender separation in football was suspended.

Three female players of the Brazilian national soccer team are standing on the pitch and cheering.
In the context of the men’s 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympic Games, media attention increasingly has been drawn to Brazilian sports women, photo: Pressefoto ULMER via picture alliance

By letting boys and girls play together, the NGOs tried to dissolve prejudices on the football field. The boys should see the girls as equal players. As it took place in Rio de Janeiro, the site of several World Cup matches, the exhibition and sports activities attracted the attention of local and international journalists.

Other NGOs and public institutions have also benefited from the mega sports events held in Brazil. In May 2015, the national football museum in São Paulo, Museu do Futebol, opened a new exhibition area displaying the history of women in Brazilian football. Until that point, the museum, which had been founded in 2008, had almost exclusively presented men’s football and male Brazilian players. Now, new exhibits present the history of women’s teams and female athletes. Newspaper articles illustrate the years when male journalists and doctors pleaded for the exclusion of women from Brazilian football and when women were banned from playing in the 1940s. In a similar way to the exhibition curators in Rio de Janeiro, the academics at the museum in São Paulo took advantage of the recent mega sports events in their country to gain public attention.

In the run-up to the Olympic Games 2016, REDEH is pursuing a similar gender-political strategy to that followed during the World Cup. Brazilian women have been discriminated against in many Olympic disciplines in the past. Nowadays, female athletes are still a minority in many sports – in Brazil and many other countries worldwide. In the context of the Olympic Games in August 2016 the NGO is planning to turn the spotlight on female potential in sports through an educational programme.

Not only Brazilian activists, but also international civil society organisations are also using the mega sports events in Brazil to discuss social and gender inequalities in football and society. The German NGO Discover Football, for instance, organised an exhibition and a training camp for girls from socially marginalised neighbourhoods in Rio de Janeiro during the men’s World Cup in 2014. Afterwards, Discover Football published information on these events on their website. The NGO is continuing its international struggle for women’s football and women’s rights in Brazil. Hence, Brazil and Rio de Janeiro in particular have become stages for national and international gender policy commitment.

Brazilian women’s football not only benefits from the mega sports events through the added media and political attention, but also on a material level. The international football federation FIFA provided Brazil with additional funds for hosting the men’s football tournament, but a part of the funds had to be used for to develop gender-specific sports programmes, including women’s football.

Along with organising tournaments for up-and-coming women players, the Brazilian Football Federation promoted football projects for girls, such as Estrela Nova, with in-kind donations. From the perspective of Estrela Nova, the donations also had an important immaterial value and a motivational impact. For the first time, the NGO gained public recognition for its social commitment from a Brazilian football institution. But the gender-specific promotion through FIFA is only envisaged for a limited period. As similar funding from the Brazilian Football Federation is rare, it is likely that support for women’s football organisations will decline once again. In this case, the 2014 World Cup will have had only a limited positive effect.

Brazilian activists and international civil society organisations use mega sports events in Brazil to discuss social and gender inequalities in football and in society.

Nevertheless, the Olympic Games in 2016 also have a positive effect on Brazilian women’s football and in particular on the national women’s team. Since its creation at the end of the 1980s, the Brazilian national women’s team has received little support from Brazilian football institutions, making it difficult for them to participate in international competitions such as the Olympic Games. Discontinuities in the Brazilian professional women’s football league and the dissolution of women’s teams due to lack of funding in women’s football were behind the lack of practice and tournament experience. Despite the existence of talented female athletes in the Brazilian team, it was difficult to compete against countries with highly competitive national leagues, such as the USA or Sweden. However, today the Brazilian female team is undergoing much more intense preparation than in previous competitions. The chance of putting in a convincing performance at the Olympic Games in Brazil has encouraged funding for the women’s national football team. Yet, it is unlikely that women’s football will continue to be funded and sustain positive effects after the international competitions are over. Besides, women’s local amateur football will probably not benefit from these incentives.

To sum up: in 2013 and 2014, in the run-up to the World Cup and Olympic Games in their country, Brazilians protested against social inequalities. Gender inequalities strongly affect different spaces in Brazilian society. These inequalities were voiced by a smaller group of protesters. Women’s football clubs, local and international NGOs and academics created political programmes on gender issues and benefited from national and international media attention during the men’s World Cup and before the Olympic Games.

[...] it is unlikely that women’s football will continue to be funded and sustain positive effects after the international competitions are over.

They have managed to raise public awareness about gender inequalities in Brazilian sports, and especially in football, and to discuss women’s rights. Women’s football has also benefited from Brazil being the host country for international mega sports events, as some groups and organisations have received additional funding. However, despite the positive effects thesse events, it is probable that the promotion of women’s football is not long term. And anyway, investment in women’s football remains insignificant in Brazil compared to investment in men’s football. In light of previous mass political protests, many social and political issues seem to have been left unresolved in the run-up to the Rio Olympics. It is still unclear how the political and social dynamics will develop by August 2016. In the case of new protest movements, mega sports events might again play a significant role.

About the Author
Julia Haß
Cultural Anthropologist

Julia Haß is a cultural anthropologist specialising in Latin America. She is writing her doctoral thesis on gender relations in women's amateur football in Brazil and is an associated PhD student at the international graduate school ‘Between Spaces’ at the Institute of Latin America Studies at the Freie Universität Berlin. Until January 2022 she was working on a research project on football, gender and transculturalism in Brazil.

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