A Decapitated Ref, And What It Doesn't Say About Brazilian SoccerS

Just this week, the severed head of a former Brazilian professional soccer player was delivered to his wife's doorstep. This comes on a heels of a horror story over the summer—a soccer game devolved into a double murder, a referee's head hacked off with a sickle. The New York Times has gone deep on that crime and detonates the conventional wisdom; the truth is that soccer violence is rarely about soccer.

The Times's Jeré Longman and Taylor Barnes have fleshed out the most compete account of the June 30 deaths of Josemir Santos Abreu and Otávio Jordão da Silva Cantanhede, and it's still frustratingly, and necessarily, vague. Here is what is certain. On June 30, in the small northeastern town of Pio XII, 19-year-old Cantanhede arrived to join a pickup soccer game. It was extremely informal—young men from the neighborhood, who often played in shirts vs. skins. In the first half he suffered a minor injury, and became the matchup's referee. In the second half he issued a yellow card to the 30-year-old Abreu. Abreu had only planned to watch the match, but was recruited at the last moment to fill out the teams.

The two argued. They were separated, but continued verbal sparring—one witness says the trigger was Abreu calling Cantanhede's dead mother a whore—led to a physical fight. Abreu punched and kicked Cantanhede; Cantanhede drew a knife and stabbed Abreu twice. He was driven to a hospital, where he died.

A Decapitated Ref, And What It Doesn't Say About Brazilian SoccerS

Players and spectators tied Cantanhede to a tree with a rope to prevent his escape. In this part of Maranhão, more than nine in 10 murders go unpunished; no one trusts the police. (One player says he called the police seven times before Cantanhede was killed, but the recording said they were out of service range.)

Luiz Morais de Souza was blindingly drunk—he had left the game because he could barely stay on his feet. A childhood friend of Abreu, he hit Cantanhede with a liquor bottle and beat him with a wooden stake. Raimundo da Costa Marçal, a farmworker just passing by on a motorcycle, stopped to see what the fuss was about. He rode over Cantanhede's body three times. Josimar de Sousa, another passerby, stabbed Cantanhede in the throat. Both Marçal and de Sousa were drunk as well. Francisco Edson Morais de Souza, a known alcoholic and drug user, fetched a curved sickle from home. He cut off Cantanhede's head.

Of the four, only the first two have been arrested.

Cantanhede was taken to the hospital, where gruesome video (extremely NSFW) shows his bloody corpse lying on a table, his head and his lower legs detached from his body, his arms hanging on by skin and sinew.

Despite Longman's and Barnes's reporting, so many details remain murky—considering the town's isolation, the indifferent and impotent justice system, and the region's high levels of violence, they probably won't ever be cleared up. It's not clear why Cantanhede brought a knife; the Times notes that some referees have feared for their safety, but Cantanhede was not planning to be a referee that day. We don't know why he issued a yellow card to Abreu. We don't know what underlying issues motivated the two. A friend said Cantanhede had been acting differently since being stabbed at Carnival in February, and harbored resentment since his mother was killed by a truck driver in 2011; Abreu suffered from a medical condition that included epileptic seizures, and was reportedly prone to angry outbursts.

The story deserves every one of the 6,000 words the Times devotes. And that complexity points to one takeaway: This didn't have to happen at a soccer match. It could have been a at a bar, or at a party, or anywhere emotions run high and alcohol flows freely. A man was stabbed because a fight got out of control; a teenager was mutilated because locals didn't trust the official channels of justice. This is a story about Brazil, not about soccer.

Causal factors are frustratingly intertwined—the sociology case study that could be written about the murders will never get the same popular pickup as the easy narrative, especially ahead of the 2014 World Cup: that Brazilians are soccer-mad to the point of psychosis. You can point to poverty, to alcohol and drugs, to an impoverished region with undermanned and ineffectual police, to the psychology of mob justice. But soccer's only role in these killings is that it's is a common venue for social gatherings in Brazil. Local ubiquity, then, is the only cultural indictment of the game.

A Yellow Card, Then Unfathomable Violence, in Brazil [New York Times]