Forged by a history of social injustice, the beautiful game is inseparable from the rebellious spirit and deceptive artistry of its people. In this article, James Vaughan explores the development of the beautiful game by highlighting the fundamental role of culture.

Football is not the beautiful game; the beautiful game is only one form of football ­­– a form devised within a particular movement culture and shaped by a unique combination of socio-cultural constraints and movement opportunities. In Brazil, poverty, unstructured street play, samba and capoeira have all played their part, creating a perfect storm to infuse Brazilian play with Ginga – a deceptive swaying movement 1.

However, there are deep, dark roots that anchor the beautiful game to the colonial corruption and slavery that characterised a young Brazil1. For the Brazilian masses, oppression bred a rebellious mindset, a mindset that shaped their way of life. In the following paragraphs, we explore the origins of this mindset and use the idea of affordances to better understand the relationship between players and their environment.

Football is often described as a ‘way of life’ and Dutch philosopher Erik Rietveld suggests that our ‘way of life’ and our movement culture are linked, creating what he calls a ‘form of life’2. It is each ‘form of life’ that holds the unique opportunities for movement or action in its particular environment – these opportunities for movement are called affordances2.

Rietveld and Kiverstein2 suggest it is the socio-cultural practices of humans that define a ‘form of life’ or a way of doing things: Something they describe as the regular movement patterns that come about in the normal behaviours and customs of our communities and cultures.

“Within football the dominant ‘form of life’ can be understood as the dominant ‘playing style’.”

Social injustice and the rise of the Maverick Malandro

“Brazillian football diffused mainly from the elite British society which was soon joined by the coffee oligarchy… In the early years, the poor, mulatto, and black people were not accepted in their teams”1.

In spite of early elitist constraints, football soon spread to the masses. Its popularity was due, in part, to the democratic values that rule the game, values that stood in stark contrasts to those driving the laws and reality of a Brazil, forever shaped by its often corrupt, colonial upbringing. Mason describes football’s uniqueness, suggesting that success (and feelings of competence) required quality and good performance rather than skin colour and social position – football became the embodiment of rebellion, a chance to inspire social change3.

This created a unique rebellious mindset in the masses, people had to adapt, becoming street smart to the point whereby being sneaky became synonymous with being smart and clever.

Corruption and oppression were a way of life for the lower classes, a way of life that created a ‘form of life’ dictated by the need to ‘take advantage of every situation wherever you can’. Reinforced by the recognition that if ‘they’ – politicians and the social elite – exploit every situation for personal gain, then the average person has to do the same in order to survive1 (a type of prisoners dilemma of exploitation). This created a unique rebellious mindset in the masses, people had to adapt, becoming street smart to the point whereby being sneaky became synonymous with being smart and clever. In Portuguese these attributes are surmised in one word: ‘malandragem’ roughly meaning cunning1, or to be a malandro – to be ‘a trickster’. The positive role of the malandro is explained:

“When the individual malandro uses malandragem as a tool for justice against the corrupt socio-political system, which indulges the rich and oppresses the poor, then the malandro is portrayed as a typical Brazilian hero”1.

Over the years the meaning was expanded to imply a person who is a quick thinker, or someone who will find a solution to any problem – particularly useful when identifying and solving in-game football problems. A malandro therefore could be the creative trickster, breaking down a deep lying block (the ‘parked bus’) and liberating the people from the injustice of game dominated by defence. In many ways, the malandro is characterised by the modern #10.

Cultural assumption and evident truths go some way to explaining the emergence of traditional playing styles.

Malandragem is not consciously taught; it has become so fundamental that it subconsciously infuses and shapes many aspects of Brazilian culture, including football. The value in Malandragem is an underlying cultural assumption, a subconscious force that shapes the group norms and accepted behaviours, which guide people’s perception and actions4. Within a society or culture, if a football problem is solved repeatedly in the same way, then that solution (it could be a pass, dribble, long ball etc.) becomes an evident truth accepted by those football-playing members of that culture. In other words, it becomes a criteria to define the competence, success, skill or ability of the players in that culture.

Cultural assumption and evident truths go some way to explaining the emergence of traditional playing styles. For example, Brazilians solve football problems with flair, creativity, flamboyant dribbling and intricate passing. Solutions that originate from, and which reinforce, their own ‘form of life’ infused by the cultural institutions of Malandragem, Samba and Capoeira. In contrast, the traditional British solutions are direct long balls, hard tackles and no-nonsense football, built on that classic stiff upper lip mentality – another ‘form of life’ within the movement context of football.

These playing styles evolved from the repeated success that created socially accepted truths about the ‘best’ way to play the game. However, such entrenched cultural beliefs create a ‘confirmation bias’ in coaching. Essentially, this means that even when these accepted truths no longer apply, they still dominate our thinking and constrain the creative development of our players.

A perfect example is the long ball game. The bog like pitches of England in the 1970s and 80s created a distinct football problem, to which long balls were a solution. However, this wasn’t the football problem in Brazil, therefore (alongside many other socio-cultural constraints) a far more flamboyant expression of football was developed.

Of course, the evolution of the beautiful game is far more complex and involves the dynamic interaction of many systems within which – importantly – Malandragem is ingrained. Going back to Reitvelds ‘form of life’ and recognising this as a ‘playing style’ can help us understand how the relationship between the environment and athlete creates opportunities for movement. These opportunities are called affordances, because they afford movement, but they vary depending upon the ‘form of life’ within a particular environment: the style of play within a particular game.


Affordances are opportunities for action that emerge as players interact with information from the environment. However, within ecological psychology, this ‘information’ is perceived as relational, this means it is constantly emerging as the dynamic relationship between the environment and the player unfolds. However, the affordances – opportunities to act within the environment – a player perceives are dependent upon the action capabilities (skills) of that player. As a very simplistic example: we won’t see the opportunity to make a certain pass if we don’t have the skill set or technique required to play that pass. Put another way, if you can’t consistently do a rainbow flick, you wont see the opportunity to do this in a game – unlike Futsal’s Falcao.

Ingold5 states the variety of affordances is as rich and varied as the abilities (skills, technique) and socio-cultural practises humans are socialised into through the process of “enskillment” – the socialisation of skill. Therefore, one of our goals as coaches must be diversification of skill and expansion of player’s technical repertoire, their own unique playing style.

Players’ openness to, and discovery of, novel affordances is at the heart of creative movement, allowing the application of skill within new aspects of the environment. In football this is best depicted by the beautiful game and was particularly evident in players exposed to the enskillment of samba and capoeira (alongside the value in malandragem) in the 1970s and 80s. These socio-cultural forces were seen to infuse Brazillian play with an element of each discipline; the small quick steps and hip swing of samba; the deceptive, swaying movement pattern of capoeira, known as ‘ginger’; and the street smart, cunning problem solving of the cultural value in malandgrem1. The resulting set of skills was often portrayed by Ronaldinho at Barcelona.

Rietveld & Kiverstein1 state that affordances are good deal more extensive than we recognise. However, they are limited by the skillsets of players, which is often dictated by the very nature of the dominant playing style.

“By acquiring abilities that flourish in different socio-cultural practises than one’s own, one can come to see new possibilities for action provided by the material environment.” 2

We are all born into worlds of meaning, whereby our culture brings things – affordances, skills, values and mindsets – into view and endows them with meaning, while ignoring other things. This cultural conditioning may create the mental maps (affordance landscapes) we use to direct our lives and interpret the in-game scenario or football problem we see in front of us6.

By recognising that we are each born into societies with dominant cultural memes (values transmitted over centuries through cultural socialisation), we take the first step towards facilitating the development of creative players. By recognising that such values shape our worldview, our paradigm and the way we play and coach the game, we free ourselves from their subconscious controlling influence, we free ourselves from our own ‘confirmation bias’.

Perhaps the key is that culture facilitates an open mindset, and openness that breeds adaptability and movement evolution.

Not all cultural values are created equal; Malandragem is a rare example, that, in conjunction with other key socio-cultural constrains, has facilitated the creative playing style we know as the beautiful game. Other cultural values have given us the ‘win at all cost’ meme and reinforced the (now) aimless long ball game for decades.

Perhaps the key is that culture facilitates an open mindset, and openness that breeds adaptability and movement evolution. As an example, research has shown periods of immigration, exposure to new customs, difference, novelty and even traumatic experiences have been followed by eras of exceptional creative achievement in open-minded cultures10. Perhaps the emergence of the beautiful game in Brazil is an example?


1: Uehara, L., Button, C., Falcous, M., & Davids, K. (2014). Physical Education and Sport Pedagogy Contextualised skill acquisition research : a new framework to study the development of sport expertise. Physical Education and Sport Pedagogy, (December), 37–41. (excepts also from the PhD of Uehara, L. from otago university)

2: Rietveld, E., & Kiverstein, J. (2014). A Rich Landscape of Affordances. Ecological Psychology, 26(4), 325–352.

3: Mason, T. (1995). Passion of the people? Football in South America. London: Verso.

4: Coulter, T. J., Mallett, C. J., & Singer, J. A. (2016). A subculture of mental toughness in an Australian Football League club. Psychology of Sport & Exercise, 22, 98–113.

5: Ingold, T. (2011). The perception of the environment: Essays on livelihood, dwelling and skill.London, UK: Routledge. (Original work published 2000)

6: Crotty, M. (1998). The foundations of social research: meaning and perspective in the research process. St Leonards: Allen and Unwin Pty Ltd.

Cover Image:

Brazil vs Chile, International Friendly, 29th March, 2015, Emirates Stadium, London.  Photo: DSanchez17

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