Sport has long been undeniably intertwined with politics, but rarely has the conflation between the two been to such a striking extent as in this month’s Brazilian Presidential election.

As is the case universally within contemporary politics, the Brazilian election was one of intense partisanship between two opposing sides – with the divisive incumbent President Jair Bolsonaro facing former leader Lula and his Workers’ Party.

Coming off the back of the COVID-19 crisis, Bolsonaro faced widespread criticism for his handling of the government’s pandemic response. The Liberal Party leader fought local governors over lockdown restrictions for the entirety of the pandemic, with the former military officer even quoted as telling the Brazilian populace to “stop whining” over the nation’s alarming infection rate.

It was this laissez-faire approach to battling COVID-19 which saw Brazil, a nation containing 3% of the world’s population, amass a staggering 11% of the total number of global Covid-19 deaths. Furthermore, it was this issue which became the focus of his opponents’ political jibes. 

Despite the barrage of pressure placed on Bolsonaro, he found refuge in the unexpected form of some not only the country’s, but the world’s biggest football stars. Players such as Brazilian national team captain and Chelsea defender, Thiago Silva, former Barcelona and PSG player, Dani Alves, and Tottenham Hotspur’s, Lucas Moura, all shared quotes from Bolsonaro across social media. 

Although, the most notable backing for the 67-year-old politician came from PSG star and Brazil’s second highest goal-scorer of all-time, Neymar Jr, who shared a video on TikTok in which the 2015 Champions League winner danced along to a campaign jingle being used to promote Bolsonaro’s re-election bid.

But the question remains, what ties so many professional footballers to an ultra-conservative politician accused of crimes against humanity? 

The answer to that question mainly falls under the jurisdiction of religion. Bolsonaro is the face of the ever-expanding Evangelical Christian movement in the country, a movement which is supported by the vast majority of elite Brazilian footballers due to their often-impoverished upbringing, an environment in which the Evangelicals enjoy a wealth of support.

This origin story also lends itself to cultivating a shared conservative attitude by the majority of the Brazilian national team. With most reaching stardom thanks to their own talent and dedication, the concept of meritocracy is embedded within many, resulting in a resonance with much of Bolsonaro’s key talking points, such as governmental spending limits and increased privatisation.

Brazil’s famed yellow kit even took on greater political significance over the course of the election, as it was hijacked by Bolsonaro supporters in a manner akin to the adopting of the star-spangled banner by Trumpists in the US. 

However, even the backing of football’s biggest stars couldn’t stave off Bolsonaro’s defeat at the hands of Lula, who reclaimed the Brazilian Presidency following a narrow winning margin of 1.8%.

Football must be careful though, particularly in Brazil, where the beautiful game which unites so many, risks becoming the ugly tool of the political elite.

Rory Fleming – Politics Correspondent

Featured image is credited to Marcello Casal JR/ABr, Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Brazil.

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