Stealing the ball

Marilene Felinto
Ignacio Carvajal

Who is the black John Kennedy? A Brazilian footballer.

Fluminese fans. Image credit Alexandre Pinheiro via Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 3.0.

John Kennedy is a young black man and Brazilian soccer player for Fluminense, a team in Rio de Janeiro. There is nothing like the fatal association between men and football, even though today women also represent this sport.

The title of a news piece called my attention to the name of Kennedy, 21 years old and whom, until then, I had never heard of. I went to read it holding back a laugh, but at the same time, restoring a secret and bitter childhood memory.

In Brazil, these players continue to emerge from the same unique lineage of the formation of Brazilian football, the “primordial kid,” moving onto “virile masculinity,” passing through a process of “Macunaíma and his other” as José Miguel Wisnik observes in his impressive and passionate book Veneno Remédio—Football and Brazil published in 2008. (Macunaíma is the name of a classic novel by the Brazilian writer Mário de Andrade, in which the character named Macunaíma, who was born black, turns white. The novel is one of the landmarks of Brazilian literary modernism).

To my amazement, the player’s name was not a nickname, it was a real name. I found the biographical entry on Wikipedia, in English: John Kennedy Batista de Souza, born in Itaúna, Minas Gerais, in May 2002. That the Internet entry appeared only in English would already be indicative of a demarcation of territory, against that kind of linguistic cannibalism, so typically Brazilian?

Who had included the player’s name in the digital encyclopedia? It was probably to distinguish him from the original “honored” character: John Fitzgerald Kennedy (1917-1963), former president of the US, who was assassinated at the age of 46.

In his brilliant book—such a deep analysis of football and its relations with Brazilian culture and man—Wisnik comments on the use of nicknames or diminutives adopted on a large scale by Brazilian football players, “almost unimaginable for a foreigner.”

Wisnik states that these nicknames of family treatment that are transferred to the public domain—Garrincha, Pelé, Pinga, Bigode, Tostão, Grafite, Magrão, Dedé, Dadá, Didi, Dodô, Zito, Zico—hide the father’s surname as a symbol of public identity, and establish an identity that fosters not the transmission of the vertical model of authority and hierarchy but rather a horizontal and playful bond.

In the view of Brazilian historian Sérgio Buarque de Holanda, according to Wisnik, this procedure circumvents both the solemnizing weight of impersonality and the individual’s confrontation with himself. But the case of John Kennedy Batista de Souza seems to me to have something of that (the playful, the comical), and something beyond that: the nickname that becomes a name and adds solemnity to the father’s surname, status, and foreignness.

Ever since I read the news about this John Kennedy from Minas Gerais—a new “primordial kid”—I feed the desire that everything turns out well for him (already in his “virile maturity,” giving another meaning to Wisnik’s expression), that he remains a decent man, far from the macho arrogance, the superb nouveau riche of certain shameful types of Brazilian football, almost always black young men from poor backgrounds and invariably married to white women, today even accused of rape, or even already convicted, around the world (coach Cuca and the players Robinho and Daniel Alves). Wisnik also observes in his text how alcoholism sealed Garrincha’s social death. A “social death” that perhaps (my conclusion) will affect these alleged rapists mentioned here. But this theme does not appear in Wisnik’s text, written before most of these events.

Returning to my secret and bitter memory evoked by the discovery of the John Kennedy from Minas Gerais, it is an ephemeral but powerful passage that the former US president had in my childhood. When he died, I was only six years old, but I used to watch him in the black and white images on television at the time.

We still didn’t have a TV set at home in the early 1960s, given our family’s poverty in Recife, the capital city of the state of Pernambuco, in the northeast region of the country. My sisters and I watched TV on a neighbor’s set, sitting on the floor of the women’s balcony (although we weren’t always accepted there, and we stayed on our sides, on top of the low wall).

Well, since then I watched the former president on the news of the “Alliance for Progress” with his two young children, next to his wife, Jacqueline: he looked so affectionate, hand in hand with his children, all of them so elegant in those winter coats from the US and seemingly living in an intriguing happiness.

That scene left a deep impression on me. Sometimes I almost cried, wanting that American John Kennedy to be my father, instead of the brute we had at home, a rustic, threatening man, incapable of showing any affection.

It was with this mixture of bitter memories and a smile on my face that I came to know the name of John Kennedy Batista de Souza, the black Brazilian player of the 21st century, whose figure was the anthropophagic incorporation of the white, foreigner, and president of another world in other times.

A kind of Macunaíma in reverse, the young Batista de Souza did not become white like Mário de Andrade’s character, he became more than that: a foreigner and soon president! He really became the father I had engendered as a girl, he (the player) who could be my son or my grandson, who is of my race and class origin.

In his Veneno Remédio, Wisnik deals very well with the role of this “primordial kid,” the “ball-boy” from the beginnings of the formation of Brazilian football. Citing a description by Brazilian journalist Mário Filho, Wisnik says that the ball boys are “the kids on the fence, with big eyes, waiting for a ball to go out of bounds, watching training, picking up burrs, willing to do anything to clandestinely enter the game.”

And then one day, however, says Wisnik, the ball-boy steals the ball, which was English—in the same way as the player from Minas Gerais steals the name and position of the president—and goes to set up his own team on the banks of the “Ypiranga river!” (The Ypiranga river, also written “Ipiranga,” is a river in the city of São Paulo, on the banks of which the independence of Brazil from Portugal was proclaimed, in 1822).

Well, here’s my identification with the Kennedy boys: wasn’t I also a ball-girl, a black stowaway sitting on the white neighbor’s porch, me with wide eyes, waiting for the foreign president to jump out of the screen and embrace me tenderly? I started learning English very early, at the age of 12, when my family moved to São Paulo; this is my stealing the ball, my cannibalism, my linguistic cannibalism, my useless revenge.

Adapted from John Kennedy Preto. (Gama Revista)

About the Author

Marilene Felinto is a writer and journalist. She is the director of Fazendaria, and author of The Women of Tijucopapo (The University of Nebraska Press).

About the Translator

Ignacio Carvajal is an assistant professor of Spanish and Comparative Literature at UC San Diego.

Further Reading

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