Analyzing migratory waves through sports and leisure practices in the 21st century: The Refugees and Immigrants Football Cup in São Paulo


Guilherme Silva Pires de Freitas
University of São Paulo

Nigeria wins second Refugees World Cup title in Brazil, 2017. Sixteen teams with a total of 250 players took part in the annual football knock-out tournament in São Paulo. (© UNHCR/Gabo Morales)

In 2014, Brazil hosted the men’s FIFA World Cup. Months after the final at the Maracanã Stadium, in Rio de Janeiro, a group of refugees and migrants gathered in a small public field in the city of São Paulo, to compete in their “World Cup”. The Refugees and Immigrants Football Cup was born there, an amateur football tournament conceived, played and organized by forcibly displaced people.

This tournament was my research object during my PhD studies in Sciences at the University of São Paulo, concluded in February 2024 and entitled Analyzing migratory waves through sports and leisure practices in the 21st century: the Refugees and Immigrants Football Cup in São Paulo (Freitas, 2023). The thesis sought to investigate, through interviews with individuals in a situation of displacement in the city of São Paulo who participated in the event, how sports and leisure practices served as an element of integration of refugees and migrants into Brazilian society, in addition to how the football tournament impacted the identity of these individuals.

The first edition of the Refugees and Immigrants Football Cup took place on a simple sports field in São Paulo where refugees competed in the tournament that had Nigeria as the champion of the inaugural edition. This first Cup was supported by the Catholic Church and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the UN agency that deals with refugee issues. With the tournament being well received by the public, it began to be organized in the following years by the NGO Pacto pelo Direito de Migrar. The dynamic is like the FIFA World Cup, where migrants have the opportunity to represent their countries of origin.

The private sector started to support the Refugees and Immigrants Football Cup, covering part of the costs and the public authorities provided public spaces for the games.

From 2016, the tournament began to be played in other cities in Brazil, in addition to São Paulo. Big cities such as Rio de Janeiro, Porto Alegre, Curitiba, Recife, Belo Horizonte and Brasília also became host to football matches. The private sector started to support the Refugees and Immigrants Football Cup, covering part of the costs and the public authorities provided public spaces for the games. As the tournament grew, the organization began to hold a first regional phase and the champions of this phase began to compete in a national final round, approaching migrant and refugee communities spread across Brazil even closer. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, some editions were not played, but the tournament remains part of the cities’ schedule.

Seeking to understand more about the event and the impacts it has on those involved, I conducted interviews with ten individuals who competed in or worked in the organization of the sporting event. The choice of semi-structured interviews was made because this methodology is applied essentially to achieve specific objectives, as it delimits the volume of information and directs the conversation towards the objectives that are intended to be achieved (Boni & Quaresma, 2005). In fact, the interview methodology is something that has been increasingly used in migration studies in Brazil, an interdisciplinary area with broad scope for new research (Magalhães, 2019).

The ten individuals interviewed answered questions regarding (i) reasons that made them seek refuge in or migrate to Brazil; (ii) difficulties encountered in adapting to Brazil; (iii) perception of how Brazilian society evaluates the issue of welcoming refugees; (iv) whether the Refugees and Immigrants Football Cup was important in the adaptation process in Brazil and brought these subjects closer to other refugees in a similar situation; (v) if it is believed that sports and leisure activities for refugees can help with the social integration of the refugee population in Brazil.

To analyze these responses, the Collective Subject Discourse Analysis was used as a methodology, a study method developed by Lefevre & Lefevre (2005) which aims to “rescue social representations and preserve individual and collective dimensions in an articulated way, in addition to describe and express a certain opinion or position on a topic present in a given sociocultural formation” (Lefevre & Lefevre, 2005).

This methodology also allows you to understand the thoughts, representations and values of a community on a given topic, using scientific methods to achieve these results. The majority of responses collected in the interviews were very similar and can be analyzed collectively. As Lefevre & Lefevre (2012) point out, the Collective Subject Discourse aims to make collective thought speak directly through the first person singular.

Five refugees and five migrants were interviewed, all living legally in Brazil, nine of whom are men and one is a woman, showing how the event is still an extremely masculine environment.

An attempt was made to achieve greater diversity among the individuals interviewed, since according to the National Committee for Refugees of Brazil (Conare), at the end of 2022, more than 60 nationalities had requested refuge in Brazil (Junger da Silva et al., 2023). The study included interviewed with ten individuals from nine countries: Angola, Cape Verde, Cameroon, Colombia, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Mali, Democratic Republic of Congo and Syria, all fluent in Portuguese, having lived in Brazil for more than five years and who signed a Free and Informed Consent Form. Five refugees and five migrants were interviewed, all living legally in Brazil, nine of whom are men and one is a woman, showing how the event is still an extremely masculine environment.

The interviews carried out brought some convergences and divergences in relation to the topics questioned. The greatest similarities occurred regarding opinions what the football tournament means for their lives, how actions involving sports and leisure practices can be important in the adaptation and integration process and the vision they have about Brazilians. The biggest differences found throughout the interviews occurred during the journey to Brazil. Using Collective Subject Analysis, the collective of refugees and migrants is approximately 33 years old; has lived in Brazil for almost ten years; knew little about the country when he requested asylum or migrated; says that the process of applying for asylum or regular documentation was lengthy; defines the Brazilian citizen as a welcoming person, but who does not know immigration laws; is adapted to the Brazilian lifestyle, and is currently working or studying in Brazil.

When asked about the reasons that made them seek refuge in or migrate to Brazil, the collective reports that they knew little about the country, but believed that their situation in the new place would be better than in their place of origin, which can be interpreted as a construction in the imagination of these subjects due to the representation that Brazil has abroad, mainly thanks to its culture and popular traditions (Rizental, 2017). Regarding the difficulties of adaptation, the collective reports to have gone through some moments of adversity, mainly due to cultural and linguistic differences.

The collective defines Brazilians as welcoming and receptive individuals, but with limitations on the cause of refuge and migration, including replicating prejudiced behaviors and reinforcing stereotypes, going against what Rizental (2017) defines as pre-constructed discourses linked to nationality from abroad. Regarding sports, the collective defends sports and leisure practices as important actions and classifies the Refugees and Immigrants Cup positively, reporting that the event helped in the integration process, brought him closer to members of the migrant community and strengthened his migrant identity, making him feel part of an imagined community (Anderson, 2008).

Through semi-structured interviews analyzed using the Collective Subject Discourse methodology, we sought to present these individuals’ points of view on how the Refugees and Immigrants Football Cup was relevant in helping them  adapt to Brazil, which is in line with what Moreira (2014) points out about the importance of listening to these subjects to better understand this phenomenon.

Because of the football tournament, the collective was able to create strong bonds with people living in similar situations in the country, strengthen their identity as migrants, promote rapprochement with the Brazilian population and consider the event as an important element for the integration of refugees and migrants in Brazil. The thesis also demonstrates that sport is an important element of contemporary society and an excellent area for understanding the complexities of our time. As an interdisciplinary field, sport studies can dialogue with the most diverse areas of knowledge and sport can guide discussions on key contemporary points, thus becoming an essential element for investigations of new research and studies.

Copyright © Guilherme Silva Pires de Freitas 2024


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