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The day a naked Swedish footballer caused an unexpected scandal

In 1949, a Swedish football player made international headlines when he dared to bare in Brazil.

The day a naked Swedish footballer caused an unexpected scandal
Scroll down for the whole image. Photo: PrB/TT

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Brazil would seem to be one of the last places in the world where a bit of nudity could cause offence, never mind create an international uproar. And yet that is exactly what happened 70 years ago when Swedish football player Sven Hjertsson dropped his drawers during a match in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. 

Faced with a broken waistband and unwilling to depart the field and leave his team a man down during the close match with Fluminense FC, the 25-year-old defender for Malmö FF made the decision to do a quick change near his team's goalpost.

From the Swedish point of view, the brief nudity this entailed was insignificant. Based on what the Swedish players, coaches and journalists had seen on Brazilian beaches during the 1949 tournament, they clearly assumed the Brazilians would feel the same way. What happened next proved just how vastly different the two countries' views of acceptable nudity were.

“The next day, the Swedish 'Naked Shock' took up full pages in the [Brazilian] megacity's newspapers. The upper-class Fluminense… had never been involved in anything like this,” journalist Henrik Jönsson explained in a 2009 article in the Swedish newspaper Sydsvenskan.

Recommended reading for Swedish history buffs:

In retrospect, it's difficult to say who was more shocked: the Brazilians by Hjertsson's mooning or the Swedes by the Brazilian reaction to it.

“It was a scandal! The Swedish journalists who were on the trip told us about the uproar. People went and confessed after the game. Dad thought it was ridiculous. On the beach, the Brazilians had minimal swimwear,” recalled former Swedish football player Bertil “Klumpen” Nilsson, whose father Sven Nilsson was a Malmö FF coach, in the Sydsvenskan article. “Hjertsson's white butt became the big topic of conversation when Dad came home. No one understood the Catholic double standard.”


The incident laid bare Sweden's and Brazil's different approaches to nudity. Photo: PrB/TT

In the end, Malmö FF lost the match 2-1. The team – the first from Sweden to be invited to Brazil – did not have an easy time in the tournament. The effects of a long flight, difficulty adjusting to the hot and humid climate of Brazil, and a serious bout of diarrhoea that decommissioned half the team during the first week, had all taken their toll. Champions at home in Sweden, the team nonetheless left Brazil without a win.

READ ALSO: Ten rules for getting naked in Sweden

As for the “Naked Shock”, it seemed only to burnish Hjertsson's reputation back in Sweden, and perhaps even overshadow his legacy to some extent. During his 12-year career at Malmö FF, the team won gold four times in the national championships. He also played 13 times for the Swedish national team, which was considered one of the world's greatest football teams between 1945 and 1950. In 1950, the year after the incident in Brazil, Sweden ranked third in the world ranking, ahead of Brazil in fourth place.

Hjertsson died in 1999, but the photo of him from 1949 lives on as a singular glimpse into international football seven decades ago.

Victoria Martínez is an American historical researcher, writer and author of three historical non-fiction books. She lives in Småland county, Sweden, with her Spanish husband and their two children.

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HISTORY

‘Lost’ manuscript of pro-Nazi French author published 78 years later

A book by one of France's most celebrated and controversial literary figures arrives in bookstores this week, 78 years after the manuscript disappeared

'Lost' manuscript of pro-Nazi French author published 78 years later

It is a rare thing when the story of a book’s publication is even more mysterious than the plot of the novel itself.

But that might be said of Guerre (War) by one of France’s most celebrated and controversial literary figures, Louis-Ferdinand Celine, which arrives in bookstores on Thursday, some 78 years after its manuscript disappeared.

Celine’s reputation has somehow survived the fact that he was one of France’s most eager collaborators with the Nazis.

Already a superstar thanks to his debut novel Journey to the End of the Night (1932), Celine became one of the most ardent anti-Semitic propagandists even before France’s occupation.

In June 1944, with the Allies advancing on Paris, the writer abandoned a pile of his manuscripts in his Montmartre apartment.

Celine feared rough treatment from authorities in liberated France, having spent the war carousing with the Gestapo, and giving up Jews and foreigners to the Nazi regime and publishing racist pamphlets about Jewish world conspiracies.

For decades, no one knew what happened to his papers, and he accused resistance fighters of burning them. But at some point in the 2000s, they ended up with retired journalist Jean-Pierre Thibaudat, who passed them – completely out of the blue – to Celine’s heirs last summer.

‘A miracle’
Despite the author’s history, reviews of the 150-page novel, published by Gallimard, have been unanimous in their praise.

“The end of a mystery, the discovery of a great text,” writes Le Point; a “miracle,” says Le Monde; “breathtaking,” gushes Journal du Dimanche.

Gallimard has yet to say whether the novel will be translated.

Like much of Celine’s work, Guerre is deeply autobiographical, recounting his experiences during World War I.

It opens with 20-year-old Brigadier Ferdinand finding himself miraculously alive after waking up on a Belgian battlefield, follows his treatment and hasty departure for England – all based on Celine’s real experiences.

His time across the Channel is the subject of another newly discovered novel, Londres (London), to be published this autumn.

If French reviewers seem reluctant to focus on Celine’s rampant World War II anti-Semitism, it is partly because his early writings (Guerre is thought to date from 1934) show little sign of it.

Journey to the End of the Night was a hit among progressives for its anti-war message, as well as a raw, slang-filled style that stuck two fingers up at bourgeois sensibilities.

Celine’s attitude to the Jews only revealed itself in 1937 with the publication of a pamphlet, Trifles for a Massacre, which set him on a new path of racial hatred and conspiracy-mongering.

He never back-tracked. After the war, he launched a campaign of Holocaust-denial and sought to muddy the waters around his own war-time exploits – allowing him to worm his way back into France without repercussions.

‘Divine surprise’
Many in the French literary scene seem keen to separate early and late Celine.

“These manuscripts come at the right time – they are a divine surprise – for Celine to become a writer again: the one who matters, from 1932 to 1936,” literary historian Philippe Roussin told AFP.

Other critics say the early Celine was just hiding his true feelings.

They highlight a quote that may explain the gap between his progressive novels and reactionary feelings: “Knowing what the reader wants, following fashions like a shopgirl, is the job of any writer who is very financially constrained,” Celine wrote to a friend.

Despite his descent into Nazism, he was one of the great chroniclers of the trauma of World War I and the malaise of the inter-war years.

An exhibition about the discovery of the manuscripts opens on Thursday at the Gallimard Gallery and includes the original, hand-written sheets of Guerre.

They end with a line that is typical of Celine: “I caught the war in my head. It is locked in my head.”

In the final years before his death in 1961, Celine endlessly bemoaned the loss of his manuscripts.

The exhibition has a quote from him on the wall: “They burned them, almost three manuscripts, the pest-purging vigilantes!”

This was one occasion – not the only one – where he was proved wrong.

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