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
Popular ritualThe 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 imageThe 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.”