Soccer Fans Must Pick Sides in Brazil’s Bitter Political Contest

(Bloomberg) -- So bitterly divisive are Brazil’s presidential elections that even the country’s usually apolitical soccer fans are being dragged in.

In recent days, supporters clubs from the biggest teams, including Corinthians, Palmeiras and Flamengo, have issued statements slamming Jair Bolsonaro, the far-right former paratrooper leading opinion polls.

Soccer Fans Must Pick Sides in Brazil’s Bitter Political Contest

Rodrigo Gonzalez Tapia, president of the Corinthians’s Gavioes da Fiel, Brazil’s largest fan club at more than 100,000 members, wrote on Facebook that anyone who supports the candidate “can quit the organization.” He warned that Bolsonaro is an authoritarian and that the club was founded in 1969 not only to support the team but to oppose dictatorship.

“Our founders suffered a lot of oppression for raising the flag in favor of democracy and people’s rights," he wrote.

Jogo Bonito

Polls point toward a showdown between Bolsonaro and leftist Workers’ Party candidate Fernando Haddad -- who also have the highest disapproval ratings. Critics of Bolsonaro believe he’s a threat to democracy and human rights, while Workers’ Party opponents fear Haddad would wreck the economy. The bad-tempered debate is bleeding into every aspect of Brazilian life, from show business to soccer.

“This movement now is unprecedented,” said Juca Kfouri, a Brazilian sports journalist. “It’s a demonstration of a growing awareness of citizenship.”

The ideal of free-flowing, joyful soccer is ingrained in Brazil’s culture -- its beautiful game, or jogo bonito. The fan clubs, thousands strong, organize trips around the country or abroad to help supporters follow their team. Over the years they’ve also branched out into marketing club merchandise and many help bankroll so-called samba schools, the huge dancing organizations that define carnival. But some have also been linked to organized crime.

Soccer Fans Must Pick Sides in Brazil’s Bitter Political Contest

In the stadiums, the clubs organize chants and demonstrations to spur their favorites and mock -- often crudely -- hated opponents. But since the end of Brazil’s military dictatorship in the mid 1980s, the clubs have largely steered clear of politics.

Nasty Chant

One fan group that issued statements against Bolsonaro, Inter Antifascista, told Bloomberg via WhatsApp message that this was the first time it had taken sides in an election.

“Bolsonaro represents absolutely everything we’re fighting to ban from football and society: repression, machismo, homophobia, racism and fascist ideas,” Inter Antifascista member Ricardo wrote. He didn’t wish to give his surname as he said the group, which supports the Porto Alegre team Internacional, operated as a collective.

But Edvande Alves de Sousa, a fan of Santos, another team with a supporters’ club that has criticized Bolsonaro, took exception to the group’s position. "I thought it was inappropriate," he said. "I think that saying you have to vote for candidate A or B in order to be part of the club flies in the face of the democracy that we are fighting for."

To date, no fan club has come out in support of Bolsonaro and the teams themselves remain studiously neutral. The presidents of both Corinthians and Gremio told Bloomberg that they wouldn’t make political statements. A video of Atletico Mineiro supporters singing a homophobic, pro-Bolsonaro chant went viral, prompting a backlash that led the club’s directorate to apologize.

Mad Dog Speaks

Bolsonaro, an ex-army captain, polls strongly among wealthy Brazilians, and has long ridiculed affirmative-action quotas for black students, a position that has hardly endeared him to many football followers, many of whom come from poor, black and mixed-race backgrounds. The candidate’s campaign didn’t respond to repeated requests for comment.

Bolsonaro himself is a fan of Palmeiras. Over the weekend, a campaign video showed him wearing the Sao Paulo team’s jersey as he recovered in a hospital from a stabbing at a rally. But when Felipe Melo, a player known as “Mad Dog,” dedicated a recent goal to "our future President Bolsonaro," the club quickly issued a statement clarifying that the opinion was entirely personal.

Lucas Moura, a Brazilian player at the English Premier League Club Tottenham, has also irked and delighted his fellow citizens in equal measure with his outspoken support for Bolsonaro on Twitter.

Corinthian Democracy

Not since the 1980s, toward the end of the dictatorship, have so many Brazilian soccer fans advertised their politics. Then, Corinthians player and polymath Socrates crusaded for the “Direct Elections Now” movement and mobilized players in favor of democracy. He threatened to play abroad if the vote wasn’t restored.

Soccer Fans Must Pick Sides in Brazil’s Bitter Political Contest

“One of the reasons people still talk about Corinthians democracy is the fact that it’s never been reproduced,” said Andrew Downie, author of a biography of Socrates. “This is the first time in a long time that fan groups have taken a political position, and that shows how polarized this election has become.”

To be sure, politicians have long tried to take advantage of Brazilians’ love of soccer. In 1958, Brazil’s so-called bossa nova president, Juscelino Kubitschek, rolled out the red carpet for the country’s first-ever World Cup-winning team. Twelve years later, in the middle of the dictatorship, the government tried to parlay the national team’s victory into popular legitimacy. And President Fernando Henrique Cardoso went so far as to appoint Pelé, one of the greatest players of all time, as sports minister in 1995.

Players themselves have often leveraged their popularity into electoral success. Romario, a FIFA World Cup winner in 1994, won election to the lower house in 2010, and became a a senator. He’s performing strongly in the race for the governorship of Rio de Janeiro in this election.

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