Updated: Saturday, 10 May 2014 02:39 | By Agence France-Presse

Playing on left once a risky game in Brazil

As Brazil considers reviewing military era amnesty laws, former footballers have recalled how, even in the days of Pele, the 1964-1985 dictatorship regarded the game as a tool to keep popular revolt in check.


Playing on left once a risky game in Brazil

Brazilian football legend Pele's face painted on a phone booth at Paulista Avenue, in Sao Paulo, Brazil, on May 8, 2014 - by Nelson Almeida

Next month, Brazil will embark on their quest for a sixth World Cup crown in a country where the cost of the event has angered many and where the relationship between the game, the fans and politicians has been a balancing act down the years.

The 'Selecao' won their first World Cup in 1958 and added another in 1962, just two years before the generals seized power.

For Afonso Celso Garcia Reis, better known as Afonsinho and a former midfielder with Rio de Janeiro side Botafogo, football and politics were difficult to reconcile in those days.

Strong leftist views marked him out. So, too, did a flowing beard which the authorities dubbed a sign of dangerous non-conformism.

Though he won domestic titles, a national side picked by a confederation stocked with military placemen ensured Afonsinho never wore the national colours.   

"I had principles and paid a price," Afonsinho told AFP. "They labelled me a possible leader of a subversive movement," reminisced the white-haired 66 year-old. 

- Cultural icon; Bosman forerunner -

At the height of the dictatorship, Afonsinho entered popular culture as the subject of a Gilberto Gil ballad, Meio do Campo, and the focus of an Oswaldo Caldeira film, Passe Livre.

The film highlighted how Afonsinho, decades before the Jean-Marc Bosman case revolutionised the European transfer system for out-of-contract players, in 1971 became the first player under the regime to negotiate himself a move.

Botafogo had frozen him out and he won a court case for the right to move on.

Caldeira told AFP his film on the "capitalist exploitation of football, which is so dear to our people" sought to showcase a player "who was not just fighting for his own interests but who wanted to change society and fight injustice."

Afonsinho explained: "Football meant so much to me. But I was socially engaged during that tough period.

"Thankfully, I had another career to fall back upon," said the psychiatric doctor -- who, as a mere club player never earned the status of another Brazilian footballing medical man, the late Socrates, star of Brazil's 1982 vintage.

Writer Joao Maximo, author of the history of the Maracana Stadium, explained in a Rio debate on how football fared under the dictatorship that "the influence of the military regime extended far into football.

"To cheer for the team was almost to cheer for the regime. But there was such passion for the game that people put everything else to the back of their minds," said Maximo of an era which saw the military pull the strings all the way to the dugout and the dressing room.

Former Botafogo coach Joao Saldanha led the national team to the 1970 World Cup in Mexico but was cast aside in favour of Mario Zagallo, who duly led Brazil to glory.

Saldanha had refused to bow to demands of then-president Emilio Garrastazu Medici on squad selection and, as a known Communist sympathiser, his fate was sealed.

Today, Afonsinho says "football helped the military in that it gave people something to hold onto."

- Opium of the people -

Documents released last year showed the military even kept tabs on Pele to probe potential leftist sympathies and fellow Brazil legend Tostao says in those days football was infused with a disturbing political undercurrent.

"Though I am proud to have been a champion with one of the greatest teams in history I do sometimes feel uneasy when I hear the 1970 team referred to as the opium of the people and that it was used by the dictatorship" to underpin social morale, Tostao, 67, said in his Folha de Sao Paulo column. 

"But all governments across the world, dictatorships and democracies -- as Brazil's is today -- do the same and still more when the Cup is in their own country," the former striker suggested.

Tostao said stars of the era did not speak out for good reason.

He revealed he once tried to in an interview to an anti-regime magazine.

"Days later, a stranger told me to watch what I said. I didn't know if it was a piece of advice or a threat..."

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