Brazilian Soccer Fans Give Boot to Bolsonaro’s  Favorite Brand

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Football, I’ve learned after many years in Latin America, is no church for half hearts. “God is round,” author Juan Villoro wrote in his panegyric on the beautiful game. So even I, a gringo transplant to Brazil and (full disclosure) a nondenominational aficionado, was upset when the Flamengo Regatta Club cut a deal with the dark side.

So it was last week when club officials announced a sponsorship agreement for the remainder of 2021 with the Brazilian department store Havan SA. On the surface, this was just sport business as usual. Flamengo, while flusher than other clubs, needs the cash, which has been scarce after a bruising pandemic year that emptied stadiums and tabled tournaments for months. The club finished 2020 some $37 million (R$200million) in the red. For Havan, a regional department store eager to go national, there’s nothing like hitching your logo to a legacy champion like Flamengo.

Here’s the rub: Havan is not just any sponsor, but the darling brand of Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, the growling right-winger who took political hooliganism retail and never misses a chance to flog his sectarian screed. He found a soulmate in Havan controlling partner Luciano Hang, an early convert to Bolsonarismo, who has kept close even as other moguls turn squeamish.

In times of pandemic partisanship, the furies afflicting the Brazilian body politic were perhaps bound to reach the football pitch. Yet for Flamengo fans, even the Flamenguista Lite (pardon the oxymoron) like me, this deal was heresy. The storied Rio de Janeiro side boasts a devout global following – 33 million to 42 million fans,  depending on who’s counting, who flaunt their black and red shirts on game days, and most other days as well, and view every match as Armageddon on grass. So when someone messes with the family vestments, or “sacred mantle,” as boosters know it, cue the red cards.

Even as 74% of the club’s counselors signed off on the deal, Brazilian fans wouldn’t hear of it. Indignant devotees swore they would never don the red and black again as long as the controversial retailer’s logo emblazoned the hallowed sleeve. Meme makers had a field day. Songwriter Edu Krieger’s send-up of the team anthem went viral. “After Havan, Flamengo closes sponsorship deal with Hydroxychloroquine,” tweeted the irreverent website O Sensacionalista about the useless anti-Covid medication touted by the Brazilian government. “Despite what it may appear, saying ‘NO’ is not about politics or ideology. It’s about safeguarding Flamengo’s image,” Flamengo contrarian Walter Monteiro, who sits on the club’s board of counselors, told me. Folha de Sao Paulo sports columnist Juca Kfouri was blunter. “What’s next, a sponsorship from North Korea?” he said.

What gets many footballers in a lather is how cravenly Hang has toed the line of Brazil’s provocateur-in-chief, flaunting social distancing, scoffing at masking and hawking snake oil-like potions for Covid-19. True, he tamped down the denialism after falling ill himself and then losing his mother to the virus earlier this year, but not before putting multitudes in harm’s way at the grand opening of a Havan outlet in northern Brazil last October amid a pandemic second wave. (Police shut him down the same day.)

An unabashed circus barker, the 58-year-old retailer buffooned his way to riches, making his outrageous shtick indistinguishable from the brand he has been grooming for an IPO. Less auspicious are Hang’s collisions with civility — including allegations of defamation, spreading fake news and flaunting health protocols — which the company’s IPO prospectus admits could “negatively affect the company’s reputation” or be “potential” cause for lawsuits. “When you associate with a company like Havan, you are buying into reputational risks, and putting the name of the club in jeopardy,” said Monteiro, who is heading a rival slate for club president this year.  

Not only did Flamengo endorse Bolsonaro’s damn-the-pathogens, full-stadiums-ahead drive to restart football in mid-pandemic, it also passed up a R$18 million (nearly $3.5 million) transmission rights deal with TV Globo at a time when Bolsonaro was feuding with the Brazilian broadcaster over purportedly unflattering coverage. (Bolsonaro returned the favor, by proposing an alternative transmissions law favored by the club — the so-called Flamengo bill — which ran aground in Congress.) The sponsorship with Havan would bring in just a third of that purse.

Brazilian football has played both ends of this game. In 2013, Nissan yanked a lucrative sponsorship after violent fans of Vasco da Gama, another Rio club, rampaged in the stadium with the automaker’s logo on their jerseys. The tables turned in 2019, when Vasco cancelled its deal with a financial services company caught out in an alleged pyramid scheme. “Reputational risk also cuts both ways,” notes Brazilian sports economist Cesar Grafietti.

How much lasting damage Flamengo’s partisan gambit portends for the centennial club is less clear. “People want to see their team win,” said Martin Fernandez, a sports reporter for O Globo, a Brazilian paper. In the stadium, as on the political stump, success can wash away a multitude of sins.

Yet in times of rising consumer awareness, such indulgence is past its sell-by date. “Signing a deal with a company so clownishly aligned with the government at a time society is utterly polarized not only could jeopardize the team’s image,” political scientist Sergio Abranches, who is also a Flamengo fan, told me. “The association could also drive away other potential sponsors, who are increasingly worried about their public standing. Fans are also consumers.” Of the sins Flamengo’s aficionados are loath to forgive, own goals may be the worst. Even mere fellow travelers like me get that.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Mac Margolis is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering Latin and South America. He was a reporter for Newsweek and is the author of “The Last New World: The Conquest of the Amazon Frontier.”

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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