It took Charles Fabian a good few minutes to get the full picture.
The young forward had just finished dinner at Brazil’s team hotel in the north-eastern city of Salvador when the president of local side Bahia stormed in.
“You can pack your bags because you are not staying here,” yelled Paulo Maracaja as he grabbed Charles by the arm.
It was June 1989. A home Copa America was about to begin and Charles, then 21 and a Bahia player, had not long since broken into the national set-up. He didn’t know what to do. Unable to find anybody from the Brazilian FA, he ended up following the order to leave.
As it turned out, Maracaja had taken matters into his own hands after being told that Charles was among three to be cut from the final 20-man squad. He was furious his player had been dropped.
The omission would have dramatic consequences. What happened next lives on in the national consciousness as one of the darkest moments in Brazilian sporting history. It felt like just another betrayal to a people who had long felt marginalised – and who continue to feel so today.Charles was a local icon, and it had been years since a player from one of the region’s teams had been picked for the national side.
Only 13,000 fans turned up for the 3-1 win over Venezuela – less than half capacity – but the message sent could not have been clearer. Supporters burned the Brazilian flag, booed the national anthem and forced coaching staff to flee from the dugout by throwing flares in their direction. Outrage spilled out from the stands.
“I had mixed feelings that day,” Charles says. “On one hand I was happy with the support I received, but on the other I was sad because of what happened. No-one wants to see your country’s flag in flames.
“The protest was valid, although, in my opinion, it could have been done differently.”
Clearly, this wasn’t just about football. Charles ended up being dragged into a debate that has been around for decades, the Brazilian divide between its two major population centres – the wealthy south-east and the impoverished north-east, which trails behind in every social and economic indicator.
This is a part of the country where millions earn less than £20 a month, where millions suffer from hunger, where unemployment has soared over 50% during the Covid-19 pandemic.
It is such hardship that forces many north-easterners to migrate to places like the south-eastern cities of Sao Paulo or Rio de Janeiro. But once there, often life doesn’t get much easier – among the obstacles that still persist is prejudice.
For almost his entire career, Barcelona legend Rivaldo complained about not being treated by the media in the same way as other Brazil superstars such as Romario and Ronaldo. According to him, there was only one reason for that: he was from the north-east. When he officially retired in 2015, the general feeling was that his talent had never been truly appreciated.
In Rio de Janeiro, people from Brazil’s north-east are stereotyped and universally referred to as “paraibas” (someone from Paraiba state) regardless of where they’re actually from. To some extent, the same happens in Sao Paulo, where they’re called “baianos” (from Bahia state).
One episode is particularly famous in Brazil – the reaction of former international Edmundo, who is from Rio state, to being sent off in a match in 1997.
He said: “We come to play in Paraiba [the game actually took place in another north-eastern state, Rio Grande do Norte] and you put a ‘paraiba’ [the official was in fact from the north-eastern state of Ceara] to referee the game. It could have never worked out.”
There are examples from the country’s highest office, too – in 2019, Brazil’s far-right president Jair Bolsonaro, born in Sao Paulo state, was caught referring to the governors of the north-east states as “paraiba governors” in a leaked audio recording.
In the south, people from the north-east are often considered socially or intellectually inferior. It’s not unusual to see their local accents mocked and laughed at.
Former Porto and Zenit St Petersburg star Hulk, who is from the state of Paraiba, went through that at a national team news conference before the 2014 World Cup.
The 35-year-old forward was asked by a journalist, referring to people from the north-east, whether “it’s their accent that makes them funny”. As a passionate son of the region, he couldn’t believe his ears.
“Unfortunately, we know that prejudice is still around, no matter your area of work or profession,” says Hulk, who is now back in Brazilian football with Atletico Mineiro.
“But the north-easterner is a fighter, a winner, and can overcome all this. I am proud of being from the north-east, carrying our banner and defending our people anywhere in the world. I am very grateful for all the love and support I’ve always received.”