Maracanã – May 1, 1964

Gabriela Pinilla, Still from Bairro Policarpa, Acrylic on paper, 20 X 25 centimeters, 2011, Bogotá Colombia


The possibility of insubordination in football meant that the sport, in addition to being an advertising tool, was a constant source of concern. 

Pelé – the greatest football player in history –, under the eyes of the largest crowd grouped around a club shield: Flamengo fans. The setting, worthy of a sunny day at Maracanã, did not lend itself to chants for a goal or the passion of the fans. The game started strangely before the teams entered the field. Other characters paraded across the green of the field, with no skill with the ball at their feet, to a soundtrack that was far from the brass fanfares that, at that point, filled the rhythm of the stands.

It was May 1, 1964, the first Labor Day after the offensive against President João Goulart. In one month, since the coup that brought together civilians and the military to interrupt the democratic calendar, the support of the representative of the Brazilian Labor Party (PTB) was the primary target of attacks by the newly established regime. Therefore, the unions became the main persecuted in the thirty days that separate the deposition of the government through arms and that date, in the largest stadium on the planet.

During the period, workers' organizations suffered from violence: absurd closure of union activities, arrest of leaders and even torture were used as a strategy to silence the dissatisfaction of different sectors. The hunt rips apart the rhetoric that Brazil experienced a mild dictatorship – a contradiction in terms already at first –, before the intensification of political aggressiveness at the end of 1968. The reports of the truth commissions, published by the Union and state governments, conclude the overcoming this lie.

On the commemorative date, Flamengo and Santos were in Rio de Janeiro to compete in the Rio-São Paulo Tournament. Pelé's team, an idol at that time two-time World Cup champion with the Brazilian team, visited Maracanã in a campaign that would end with another cup in the trophy room in the coastal lowlands of São Paulo. The performance of the main Brazilian player's teammates loses value, as does that of the red-and-black rivals. The event in question is, above all, political.

It would not be the first time that a stadium was used by the dictator Humberto Castelo Branco or his gang. The most dramatic initial milestone was the improvised concentration camp at Caio Martins in Niterói. The sports square was used as a collective prison for the first wave of people persecuted by the regime. In most cases, those who suffered from this mass violation of human rights were the same trade unionists. Especially because the regime's concern was with the crowds.

On a daily basis, there was no consensus on the streets of the country. Before being overthrown, Jango gave public demonstrations of popularity – not only focused on his figure, but also on the reforms that representative parts of Brazil defended. The spread of ideas was great and there was a rush to suffocate the groups that forced the advancement of these agendas. This justifies the priority against trade unions. It is also necessary to state that there was, simultaneously, great approval of the coup in the cities.

Equally numerous demonstrations stimulated a counteroffensive, in the name of national traditions. The disputes meant that, even after the move towards power, the group that had settled in Brasília took quick action. But the actions would not be able to achieve silencing on such a large scale. It was, above all, necessary to create a climate of normality so that sources of conflict would no longer be apparent and more effective control could be carried out.

From Labor Day 1964, not even the fan parties stood out: before the match started, it was an extravagant civic act that occupied the Maracanã. Presentation of marching bands, military parades and flag raising are, in today's eyes, more eye-catching – what Flamengo, owner of the most numerous fans in the country, and Santos, multi-champion squad of the 1960s, did in the background. it was not just the chance to propagandize the dictatorship that attracted the actions.

Contestant movements would emerge from the popular sport until 1985 – when the last of the generals, João Baptista Figueiredo, would leave the presidency. Not to mention the symbolic gestures that Pelé himself made throughout his life against the exclusionary nature of Brazilian society. Whether in valuing blackness or in defending childhood in the country. The possibility of insubordination in football meant that the sport, in addition to being an advertising tool, was a constant source of concern. 

The event at the stadium, in the same year as the attack against the democratic regime, was also a way of decoupling the date from the workers' historical demands. Cold and formal, the ceremony distanced itself from the vibrancy of the crowds who, truth be told, maintained their momentum as they jostled in the stands. Nothing more different from the orderliness and discipline on the field during the military's civic celebration than the behavior of the fans during both halves of the match.

The event, rescued due to the policy of publishing the National Archive's audiovisual collection on digital platforms, serves as an example for 2024 – when the federal government's willingness is to forget that exactly six decades have passed since the civil-military coup. The beginning of the exception period for football took place on May 1st precisely to try to mute popular dynamics, something that in fact was unable to do. Politics is not limited to offices.

*Helcio Herbert Neto is a postdoctoral fellow at the Department of Cultural and Media Studies at UFF. Book author Words at play. []

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