Faith a rite of passage to world domination for devout Brazilians

When Brazil have lifted a trophy in recent times they have usually done so hand-in-hand with Jesus

David McKechnie visited Our Lady of Aprecita Basilica, which contains the unusual 'Room of Promises', where Catholics come to ask for divine intervention - especially in matters of football. Video: David McKechnie

Sat, Jun 7, 2014, 10:00

In the corridor of souvenir shops near the vast, red-brick hangar of the Basilica of the National Shrine of Our Lady of Aparecida, just down from the temple of McDonald’s in the food court, traders ordinarily unwinding for the day have a final piece of business to attend to: Brazil v Panama. In fact for some, this pre-World Cup friendly is the only action they have seen on a sleepy Tuesday at Aparecida, 160km from Sao Paulo on the road to Rio, and so there is the awkward self-consciousness of a mistimed tackle when we disturb Marcelina, glued to the small screen in the corner, just as Neymar puts Brazil ahead with a tasty free-kick.

As the commentator exhales a hackneyed howl of “gooooooooooool!” – sounding so inappropriate during a friendly – Marcelina skips in her seat. “Gol de Neymar!” she beams. Mutterings and yelps leak through from neighbouring stalls. It is the first visible manifestation of World Cup fever in this retail area surprisingly uncluttered by national team tat. What kind of people come to the national shrine? “All kinds,” she says. “Some of them make promises.” She does not mean promises to buy or to return, but promises to Our Lady of Aparecida – Brazil’s mother of promises – in the most ancient kind of scratch-my-back transaction: Our Lady answers prayers, and people make an offering in return.

Bizarre museum

Offerings made in the shrine’s “Room of Promises”, in the bowels of the complex, have a sort of literal symbolism, making this an eclectic and bizarre museum for the man in the street’s hopes and dreams. In one corner a collection of wax legs hang from the ceiling like an artist’s abstraction of a choreographed dance routine - presumably offered by people who have recovered from injury. In the glass cases around the room objects are organised into groups: toy planes and cars (for safe travel), dolls and baby pictures, hats, farm animals and sewing machines.

Some of us scan the room hopefully for receptacles with hair.

The main attractions today are the cabinets with sporting paraphernalia (a dancer’s dress, boxing gloves, motorbike helmets by the dozen), especially those dedicated to football: signed boots; club and international jerseys (including Ireland’s); footballs and scarfs; figurines and photographs. Ronaldo the Phenomenon has a case almost to himself, its centrepiece a signed jersey offered after his recovery from serious knee injury before the 2002 World Cup (he flew here, with his mother, by helicopter). Surely new material has been piling up before Brazil’s big kick-off next Thursday?

The old woman behind the desk shakes her head, reaching down for the single football item to have arrived today – a Coritiba club jersey, signed on behalf of the striker Ze Eduardo with the message: “Thank you for the great achievement”. Later we check his stats: no goals this season.

The marriage of football to rites of faith, superstition, ritual and even magic is a phenomenon all round this world and possibly the next, but in no other country is such a diversity of traditions brought together for a sport so central to national self-definition. “Futebol is a sport and a machine, which socialises people in Brazil,” the renowned Brazilian anthropologist Roberto DaMatta writes in his essay Sport and Society. “It is a highly complex system for the communication of essential values and a domain which guarantees cultural continuity and permanence . . . Through futebol we are led to the kingdom of equality and social justice.”

The religious terminology is as appropriate as it is topical. Unusually in recent times, Brazil begin this World Cup without the overt presence of evangelicals, whose prominence at recent tournaments (most notably Kaká and Lúcio) has made them the public and sometimes controversial face of Brazilian celebration. When Brazil have lifted a trophy in recent times they have usually done so hand-in-hand with Jesus. This year, after an admonishment from Fifa, most players are keeping their faith to themselves.

Popular ritual

The story of the evangelical relationship with Brazilian football is as fascinating as the strange tales of popular ritual and superstition which Alex Bellos describes in his book on the game here: frogs buried under pitches; the Botafogo club’s lucky dog; the curse of the number 13. At the 1958 World Cup in Sweden the national squad is said to have panicked when told they would not be wearing their yellow shirts, only to be placated by a pep talk pointing out that the second strip had the good fortune to be in the blue of Our Lady.

It is no surprise that among traditional Pentecostal churches in Brazil football was once known as the “devil’s egg”. Since the 1970s however, the rise of “neo-Pentecostal” churches – coinciding with the explosion in mass media – has brought about a redefining of the relationship. In Shirl James Hoffman’s Good Game, a study of Christianity and Sports with a focus on North America, Hoffman points out that, “among the smorgasboard of cultural expressions tapped by evangelicals to spread the word, sport is arguably the most influential and far-reaching, drawing the attention of millions each year”.

Football’s incredible reach has made evangelicals in the Brazilian national team – as well as those playing club football abroad – what Santa Catarina University anthropologist Carmen Rial calls “global pastors”.

The number of Brazilians who are Protestant rose from 26 million (15 per cent) to 42 million (22 per cent) in the decade up to 2010, with Pentecostal or neo-Pentecostal churches accounting for most of that phenomenal growth. There are many factors at play, but this happens to be the period when evangelicals were most strongly associated with the Seleção.

Striking image

The first direct link between football and neo-Pentecostalism in Brazil came about through the founding of Atletas de Cristo (Athletes of Christ) in 1978 by a pastor and João Leite, then a goalkeeper at club side Atlético Mineiro. It took until the 1994 World Cup for the religious strain to become clear in the national side. There were six Athletes for Christ in that Brazil squad, including goalkeeper Taffarel, with four playing in the final. Jorginho would later open a church in Munich’s central square, while Müller founded his own denomination and had a church built in Belo Horizonte. A striking image from the tournament is of Brazil’s players and technical staff praying in a circle on the pitch at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena after beating Italy in the final.

A more concentrated version of this scene came after the 2002 success when Edmilson, Lúcio and Kaká prayed together, their heads bowed on the grass. But the evangelical influence was most apparent, and contentious, after their 2009 Confederations Cup success in Johannesburg, where many players wore a white shirt that read “I belong to Jesus” as they gave thanks on the pitch. Officials told them to remove the shirts before receiving the trophy, but captain Lúcio stuck his in his shorts so that the words “I love Jesus” were shown to a global audience (in English) as he hoisted the silverware. Fifa, which prohibits “any political, religious or personal statements” on a player’s clothing, intervened and told Brazil’s football confederation not to let it happen again.

Were the modes of private expression in victory as significant as the messages displayed? As Carmen Rial points out in her research, Brazil’s flight home from South Africa in 2009 was peaceful and serene, lacking a party atmosphere. Between Brazil’s Confederations Cup victories in 2005 and 2009, she argues, there was a shift “from a group of players who prayed after victories, but celebrated more intensely by dancing with pandeiros (tambourines) and atabaques (drums), to one that may still samba, but is more likely to be found praying and listening to gospel on their headphones . . . For years, prayers, pagode and samba music co-existed within the national team with no apparent conflict. Although they continue to co-exist, the celebrations of 2009 clearly attest to the new hegemony of religion over samba.”

That may have been true again at the 2010 World Cup, when Jorginho was Dunga’s assistant, Lúcio was captain and pastors visited the camp. Now though, a combination of the wrist-slap by Fifa and the reign of Big Phil Scolari, an old-school Catholic who undertook a 10-mile walk to a pilgrimage site near his home in the city of Porto Alegre after the 2002 success, means the evangelical presence has been low key this year. At least until striker Fred, renowned for his partying and womanising, stunned the country by recently announcing he had become an Athlete of Christ.

He joins three other Athletes of Christ in Scolari’s squad – goalkeeper Jefferson, Hernanes and Fernandinho – as well as other Protestants including Neymar, captain Thiago Silva and David Luiz. Yet the impression that evangelicals are on something of a retreat around the national squad is enhanced by talking to Athletes of Christ president Marcos Grava Vasconcelos, speaking from his home in Campinas in Sao Pãulo state.

Do you think these kinds of rules [by Fifa] are making it more difficult for Athletes of Christ to get members? At a higher level? “No . . . the history of Christianity is growing under persecution.”

Vasconcelos strongly disagrees with the football body’s rule on the display of religious messages, arguing that interfering in the sharing of faith is against a basic human right. “The second goalkeeper of the Brazil team, Jefferson, he is a Christian and some months ago he put in his head – he has no hair – he put in his head a fish,” says Vasconcelos. “A fish as you know is the symbol for Christians. For coincidence, it’s the symbol of Athletes of Christ as well because we are a Christian organisation.

“So he put a fish to say he believes in Christ, he’s a Christian – then the football federation said, ‘No, you cannot do that.’ This is completely incorrect, wrong, it is a great mistake. What are you going to do, ask all the Catholic players not to use their cross? Ask all the Catholic players not to do this moment [make a gesture] when they go into the field? Are you going to prohibit all the expressions of faith that players have? If they say glory to Jesus, or thank God, you’re going to prohibit this? . . . The best thing Fifa or some other organisation should do is not interfere in religious issues.”

Fear of cliques

Carmen Rial admits surprise at the conclusion to her research, for which she spoke to more than 60 Brazilian players and their entourages living or trying to live in foreign countries: that football joins religion in “a perfect matrimony of interests – everyone benefits”. “For the players (especially the neo-Pentecostal adherents), it [Religiosity] offers a cosmology that orders their daily lives, prescribes what they should and should not do, differentiates good and bad, and thus keeps them away from the temptations of a lifestyle seen as harmful to their professional careers.”

Some Brazilian clubs have been wary of evangelical factions for fear of cliques, but perhaps the greatest challenge faced by Athletes of Christ and others like them is to distance themselves from evangelists who are rich. “Personally, I see some of them as a great damage for the image of Christians in Brazil and many other places because what they talk about is money and prosperity,” says Vasconcelos.

In a report last year called The Richest Pastors in Brazil, Forbes magazine suggested Edir Macedo, founder and leader of the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God, had an estimated net worth of $950 million.

For now, all Brazil wants to know is when the World Cup finishes on July 13th, will they be counting their blessings? And if so, which ones?

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