Ginga: Brazil’s football and cultural DNA


Max Haining has a look at the evolution of ginga, the distinct style of play that is part of Brazil’s football and cultural DNA. 


A glance toward goal, a hip swerving, samba style shimmy on the edge of the ‘D’ and a gormless, bedazzled Ricardo Carvalho depict the milliseconds before a pony-tailed Ronaldinho toe-pokes the ball in a trigger like motion past a helpless, static Petr Cech, momentarily rooted to his spot, incapacitated, and rendered a mere spectator in the 38th minute of the 2005 Round of 16 Champions League clash between Chelsea and Barcelona. The cheek, artistry and technique involved by the then FIFA World Player of the Year on that night under the Stamford Bridge lights, served to exemplify the distinct Brazilian style of play, often referred to as ginga (pronounced jeen-gah).

Why is it that football fans feel their pulse race a little faster when their team is linked in the gossip columns to a Brazilian footballer? Although some will no doubt cite their extensive knowledge on a player as the basis for this reaction, the majority of fans including myself can attribute this feeling of excitement to a preconceived perception of how Brazilians play futebol: easy on the eye, skilful, creative, unpredictable, the list goes on. What they are really describing is the aforementioned ginga, something Brazilians have in their ‘blood’, a perceived ‘gift by God’ as Ronaldo put it. It reflects their sway, swagger, movement, rhythm, ambidexterity and ‘wit’. But it is not only expressed on the pitch, it can also be seen as an essential way of life in everything they do from walking and talking to dancing and cooking- something integral to their culture, just like swing is to jazz.

We hear many a pundit, player, blog writer and fan refer to football as the ‘Beautiful Game’. While the precise origins of the term are disputed, Brazilian footballer Pelé is largely credited with making the phrase synonymous with football, after scoring two goals for the Seleção in the 1958 World Cup Final against Sweden, in a performance widely heralded for its beauty and flair, in stark contrast to the structured tactical rigidity of the Europeans. The ‘King’ himself has even said that ‘you have to play beautifully’ and put on ‘a show’ for the audience. In other words, Pelé is advocating ginga, Brazil’s ingrained footballing philosophy. But how has this way of thinking become so embedded in Brazil’s football and cultural makeup?

To trace its roots, we need to take a detour and rewind a little. Its origins date back to the colonial period when millions of slaves arrived from West Africa to Brazil in the 16th century to work the tobacco and sugar plantations. From Angola and Mozambique, the African slaves brought with them the Candomblé religion. This involved the summoning of Orisha gods through chants and dance accompanied by a drum beat, from which the music genre and dance style of Samba arose. Also, introduced was a cultural practice known as capoeira; a martial art combining aspects of dance, acrobatics, and music. However, by the end of the 19th century, capoeira came to be used in unconventional, violent ways leading to its suppression and eventual prohibition in 1890. Four years later, Scottish expatriate Thomas Donohoe introduced the game of football to Brazil, a timely entrance precipitating its widespread uptake, somewhat viewed as the evolution of capoeira, not its downfall; a key juncture at which both disciplines merged into one, a development that would go on to shape Brazilian football as we know it. Crucially, a capoeirista used the ginga movement; a back and forth side-to-side swinging motion, as the spring board from which other moves including fakes and fades could develop to fool or trick an opponent; tantamount to the trickery and unpredictability displayed by Brazilian footballers today. Rivellino, Romário, Ricardinho, Rivaldo, Ronaldo, Robinho and Ronaldinho to name but a few, all share one commonality, that being, apart from the letter ‘R’, their unique ability to contort their bodies around the ball, a skill inherently rooted in the sway and movement of capoeira. This is why they are a special breed of footballer, one that neutrals love and opposing fans simultaneously hate but also applaud, one that play with joy like kids in the back yard, one that have a natural disposition to Joga Bonito (play beautifully).

But Brazil’s relationship with the ginga style of play has not always been plain sailing; it’s certainly had its hiccups along the way. Although, the 7-1 semi-final loss to Germany at the 2014 World Cup springs to mind, it is the Maracãnazo defeat at the hands of Uruguay in the 1950 World Cup final, deemed a national tragedy, that inflicted by far the deepest psychological wounds ever felt not only by Brazil’s footballing community, but by the wider community, the country’s identity, and its self-esteem.

Picture the scene: an open air Maracana Stadium in Rio de Janeiro packed to the rafters with 200,000 spectators in attendance, a samba band sit pitch side ready to blast out ‘Brazil the Winners’, local newspapers headlined ‘Champions of the World’ lay ready for distribution while fans dance, sing and relentlessly hurl their handkerchiefs. A scene depicting such happiness and pride was soon to become one of despair and embarrassment. After Brazilian striker Friaça scored in the 47th minute, the air of inevitability turned up another notch, so much so that it almost became a procession for the ‘World Champions-elect’ before Uruguayan winger Juan Alberto Schiaffino drew the sides level in the 66th minute. Silence descended upon the Maracanã, as doubt crept into Brazilian consciousness; an atmosphere frozen by a state of shock, compared to by 11-year-old fan Joao Luiz de Albuquerque in attendance that day as like ‘going to the house of a friend whose father or mother had died’. Such doubt was vindicated in the 79th minute when Uruguayan winger, Alcides Ghiggia, scored to make it 2-1; a sucker punch like no other in what became the final nail in Brazils’ coffin, marking Uruguay’s victory as one of the greatest ever upsets in World Cup history. ‘Drama, Tragedy and Farce’ was O Mundo Sportivo’s headline the morning after; a succinct but telling reflection of a country in mourning, consumed by a great sense of loss that would haunt it for evermore.

Left in its wake was a growing sentiment in Brazil to scrap the ginga style of football played at the 1950 World Cup. Of course, this wasn’t unanimously felt, but many Brazilians wanted to restore their dignity and pride, favouring a more structured, organised and perhaps more effective European style at the expense of what brasileiros knew best- the ginga. Such was the negativity surrounding ginga, it became a taboo like word identified with the ghosts of ’50 and frequently dubbed a ‘primitive’ style. From then onwards, coaches across the country embarked on a new era for Brazilian football, one stylistically unrecognisable to its ‘predecessor’. But such an approach was so regimented, so robotic and so incompatible with the ‘Brazilian way’ that it nearly forced players including Pelé amongst others, to quit the game. A step too far some would say and rightly so.

Yes, ginga got knocked down but more importantly and it must be noted, not without struggle, it bounced back up. Cushioning down the ball, he audaciously loops it over an onrushing defender, ‘something the Europeans weren’t used to’ before volleying it past Sweden’s keeper into the left-hand side of the net. Pelé’s goal, described by himself as ‘one of the most beautiful goals’ of his career against Sweden in the 1958 World Cup Final, was evidence enough that ginga was firmly back on the menu, a comeback spurring Brazil on to win another World Cup in 1962, confirming their status as a footballing behemoth.

Elimination from the 2016 Copa America group stages, after a controversial 1-0 defeat to Peru, was the Selecao’s latest blip. Under the tutelage of Tite, the newly appointed manager replacing Dunga, the ship has been steadied with Brazil experiencing somewhat of a renaissance. An exciting crop of players, exuding the ginga style, including Neymar, Jesus, Coutinho and Willian are coming of age, most recently demonstrated in their 4-1 thrashing of old foes Uruguay; a game, of course, with added bite and extra sweetness for the victors- another demon buried from that fateful day in ’50. With the Russia 2018 World Cup lurking around the corner, more of those demons can be put to bed and another opportunity exists for Brazil to show what they are really about, what they know best and what’s in their footballing and cultural DNA- the ginga.

Max Haining

Max Haining

Big big Tottenham fan. Enjoy reading and writing about the history, culture and politics of football. Also love watching Serie A.
Max Haining

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