For Latin America's largest nation of 207 million, soccer is a religion. It's myths and legends invoke spiritual energies as imposing as the monumental statue of Christ the Redeemer overlooking Rio de Janeiro. At the center of the controversy is whether Brazil will succumb to playing a status-quo European-style game or return to its native Ginga roots.
Love them or hate them, Brazil is soccer's global standard of greatness. Brazil has won more World Cups (5) than any other country and gave soccer the greatest footballer on the planet; Edson Arantes do Nascimento, known to all as Pele!
It was Pele, the Afro-Brazilian who brought a new style of playing and winning to the Euro-centric sport. It was sensual and culturally subversive, and it originated in Africa. It is called "Ginga," and it is the "Ginga" style that elevated Brazil to the pinnacle of the soccer universe.
Just as Pele, the aspiring phenom had to choose between playing traditional European-style soccer or his native enrooted Ginga style, Pele chose Ginga. Brazil's national team must now choose, and it will matter.
Social critic Pulasta Dhar's commentary on the movie "Pele: Birth of a Legend" provides a riveting insight into the cultural milieu and controversy surrounding Brazilian soccer and Ginga.
Dhar says "Pelé's football style derives from Ginga. As explained by the character De Brito: "It is primitive, but it has a long and rich history... It all started at the beginning of the 16th century... The Portuguese arrived in Brazil with African slaves. But the African's will was strong, and many escaped to the jungle. To protect themselves, the run away slaves called upon the ginga, the foundation of Capoeira, the martial art of war. When slavery was finally abolished, the capoeiraistas came out of the jungle, only to find that capoeira was outlawed throughout the land. They saw football to be the perfect way to practice ginga without being arrested. It was the ultimate form of ginga. And before long the ginga evolved, adapted, until it was no longer just ours, but all Brazilians. But at the 1950 world cup, most believed our ginga style was to blame for the loss, and turned against anything associated with our African heritage. And just like your coach has been trying to remove ginga from your play, we have been trying to remove it from ourselves as a people ever since."
Dhar's likens Brazil's current state of international football after the 2014 World Cup and the 2015 Copa Americana as comparable to the "1950 World Cup Moment"- they are tepid, regimented and mechanical. "Writers and directors Michael and Jeff Zimbalist" he said, "have made sure that there is a clear lesson for Brazil: Brazil cannot, and should not, play the sport the way Europeans play it. Not then, not now.
THE ORIGINS OF GINGA
Ginga combines finesse, flair, agility, and takes inspiration from samba dancing and capoeira fighting. The Ginga; literally rocking back and forth to swing is the fundamental footwork of capoeira (a martial fighting style).
Its main purpose is to prepare the body for any number of movements such as evading, feinting, or delivering attacks while continuously shifting stances all while providing confusion. The Ginga places the capoeirista in constant motion, making them a frustrating target for a forward-advancing opponent.
Pele's genius was incorporating Ginga into football in a way that revolutionized the game.In a broader sense, however, Ginga is a far more than martial arts and dance applied to soccer. It is a life force.
Gingas' origins are in the Kikongo language, one of the languages spoken in part of Angola today and in part of the Congo Kingdom, where the Portuguese arrived in the early fifteenth century. Via the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade, millions of Africans were brought into Brazil to work the tobacco and sugar plantations.
Through the cultural contact Ginga came into the Portuguese language in many aspects: first, as a metonymic effect of Nzinga, a Mbundo Queen –the first woman to lead the Mbundo Kingdom– who fought and endured strong opposition from healers, farmers, Portuguese and Imbangala warriors– a secret male society that initiated youths inside the Kingdom to war and were called Jaga or Yaka by the Portuguese.
Second, as a reference to Ngingas warriors, also called ginga by the Portuguese according to Joseph Miller, an African historian. Third, as Jinga, a Mbundo word whose semantic universe is centered around the idea of constant movement, and articulation.
In Brazilian Portuguese, Ginga is a slang word that means to shake the body, to shake with skill. Ginga performs as a search for a balanced form of life represented by flow and rhythm through motion ideas. Ginga is the perception that catches the rhythm of life.
Ginga has manifested as the life force/energy of the Afro-Brazilian people and is shared by the Afro-American as well as the American Natives whose culture also reflects many of the fundamental aspects of Ginga.
As one Rio de Janeiro native said, "Ginga" for me is my way of walking, speaking and dressing. This is the black Brazilian Ginga. Ginga is a slow way of speaking, a sort of dancing, a way of walking and wearing light clothes.”
Music plays a very big role in the essence of Ginga. Everything is rhythm. There’s a rhythm in the sea, a rhythm in the sounds of nature, in the wind blowing through the trees, in anything that you can think of – rhythm is always in-between, on the border of everything, scattered, fractal and universal all at once.
Tuning into this rhythm elevates us to a place where we can move our physical being into complete harmony with our spiritual self and thus achieve a level of excellence that is manifest in any undertaking. This is why the Brazilian footballers are the best in the world today. They use the power of Ginga to play with a style, and fluency of motion that sets them apart from others who are unknown to Ginga.
WHO INHERITS THE LEGACY?
In the 1960's and 70's, two men dominated the international sports scene as few men have; Muhammed Ali and Pele; one a Black man from the United States, the other an Afro-Brazilian. They will likely be remembered as the greatest that ever laced up a pair of soccer shoes and boxing gloves.
Muhammed Ali left a legacy, but no successors. Many have tried, but all failed to replicate his style, innovation and the rhetoric he imparted to the boxing world. Perhaps its because boxing is an individual sport.
Pele, on the other hand has inspired a tradition in Brazil and beyond its borders. His soccer style is emulated and revered across the globe. And his play has spawned two great successors leading their generations.
"Reynaldo" Luis Nazario de Lima (1993-2011) is second only to Pele in goals scored. He was the guiding force leading Brazil to capture the 2002 World Cup. His nickname was "The Phenomenon."
Today, the mantle of Pele's legacy has passed to Neymar da Silva Santos, one of Brazil's greatest players. Neymar, 27 captained Brazil's national team in the 2015 Copa Americana and clinched Brazil's victory against Germany with a penalty kick in the 2016 Olympics to win its first Gold Medal. He is now the third leading scorer among all Brazilian footballers behind Pele and Reynaldo.
Flashy, flamboyant, fiery, mercurial and intensely emotional on the pitch, like Pele and Reynaldo, Neymar embodies the spirit of Ginga. But can he inspire his team to conjure up Ginga's African roots in the 2018 World Cup?
The challenge of maintaining and refreshing the Ginga spirit grows as soccer and culture evolves. Unlike Pele, who played for the Santos Club in Brazil for 19 years before going to the New York Cosmos, todays' Brazilian stars sign multi-million dollar contracts to play in Europe.
Brazilian culture, like all "developing" nations is being invaded by the Global North's consumer driven and secular culture. In as much as Ginga is spirit-based and was cultivated in soil of Brazilian resistance to slavery and non-conformity to the status quo, Ginga must be fought for.
As Brazil's national team gathers its sons together for the World Cup, it is a special time. A time to take off the European club shirts and leave the sportswear endorsements and commercials in the rear view mirror. Its a unique opportunity to revive and refresh the spirit of Ginga, of paying homage to the past, and to invoke the gift Pele gave to Brazil and the world. It is a time to conjure up the sacred spirit of Ginga or what Pele called playing "The Beautiful Game."
In the film, [Pele: Birth of a Legend] the youth team in your village plays best when you take off your shoes and express yourselves on the field. So does your Brazil national team in 1958, when you use ginga [the traditional term for the Brazilian style of play, one rooted in the martial art of capoeira and defined by rhythm and dance as a way of moving with the ball and deceiving an opponent]. Is soccer at its best when players express themselves?
PELE: I think it depends how you see the game. From my point of view, what's beautiful in the sport is something you don't need to know too much about tactics or anything to see. If you find something beautiful, you don't need to be an expert to know it. It's like ballet.
The film deals a lot with the effort to suppress ginga when you were on the 1958 Brazil team. The coach wanted you to play a more rigid way, like the Europeans were—
PELE: The reason it was nicknamed ginga was that normally, when we'd play against a European team—now it's changed a bit—but back then, the European teams were very tough and physical. They were big, and defensively solid. Even the English, who invented football, were like that starting out. There were some in Brazil who thought we should make that our football culture.
We would say, "We want to dance. We want to ginga. Football is not about fighting to the death. You have to play beautifully." And so we did, and that's the reason that Brazil created more of a show, more of a ballet, than the European style.
Is that battle between freedom and expression versus the formations and rigid tactics still there today for the Brazil team? Are they still trying to find their way in that sense?
PELE: Yes, unfortunately. The style of football—all over the world, not just Brazil, also Europe—has changed, has become more similar. Brazil has a problem keeping the good players in the country. Almost all the best players, as soon as they come up, are taken elsewhere. We don't have the same Brazilian style—the ball control, the same way of playing—like we did in my time.
Because they go to Europe now?
PELE: Yeah. Because now they appear on the scene when they're 15 years old and go to Europe. Another thing that's changed is that in my time, all of the players used to belong to the team. Now, the majority of players, the best ones, belong to the impressarios, not to the team. The agent who has the rights to the player, and he wants to make money. So he wants them to get sold to Europe. Neymar, for example. In the last five years, Neymar is the best player to come out of Brazil. He used to play for my club, Santos. But when he was transferred to Barcelona, Santos got just 20 percent of the fee. 80 percent went to the manager. It's a big change.