True Colours

The hopes of the Brazilian left were dashed earlier this month, when the national football team published a statement which criticized President Bolsonaro’s decision to host the Copa America during the pandemic, but confirmed that it would nonetheless participate.

For many in Brazil, this was the latest step in a progressive separation from their fabled national team. Few images are more emblematic of the country than the bright yellow shirt worn by Pelé and the 1970s generation. When Brazilians abroad are asked where they come from, the answer usually invites comments about famous goals and matches. Yet the connection between Brazilians and their seleção is more complex than this might suggest. Football is not easily disentangled from politics, which currently means an affiliation with Bolsonaro.

The ongoing Copa America – the main South American football competition – marks the nadir of the tense relationship that has developed over the last decade between the national team and the general public. So far, the matches have attracted miniscule TV audiences: smaller than those who tune in to watch a Sunday variety show presented by a substitute host, or a second-rate Christian soap opera. That the seleção inspires indifference is all the more striking given its quality, which has improved significantly since its notorious defeat by Belgium in 2018. There is no denying the talent of its current roster – Neymar Jr, Vini Jr, Alisson, Firmino, Gabriel Jesus and so on.

To understand the team’s poor public perception we must go back to the 2013 rebellion. Having won the previous elections with a large mandate, the Worker’s Party (PT) was delivering solid growth rates while reducing inequality and unemployment. It was also preparing to host Brazil’s first World Cup since 1950: an opportunity to redress the historic upset of losing to Uruguay that year. But before the games got underway, a heterogeneous coalition took to the streets under the slogan Não vai ter Copa – ‘There will be no Cup’. The movement highlighted the low level of investment in public services compared to the extravagant cost of the new FIFA-standard stadiums. It challenged the gradualism of the PT’s reforms, stressing the limits of the redistributive model conceived by Lula and continued by Rousseff.  

In an attempt to justify the R$8 billion spent on stadiums alone, the famed former player Ronaldo patronizingly told protesters, ‘You can’t host a World Cup with hospitals, you need stadiums.’ But in the end, the majority of Brazilians got neither. When the stadiums were constructed, exorbitant ticket prices meant that the audiences were overwhelmingly rich and white. Working-class fans were excluded from the sporting cathedrals that their tax money had built. Their absence was supposed to free up space for comfortable seats and new services. The Maracanã, for instance, had once been the biggest football venue in the world, hosting almost 200,000 people – yet by 2014 its capacity had been reduced to under 80,000. (Despite this, the gentrification of Brazilian stadiums has not gone as planned; many of them have proved too expensive to maintain, and now sit half empty during most of the year.) If this sowed disillusionment with the sport, Brazil’s humiliating 7–1 defeat to Germany in the semi-final redoubled it. From that point on, the seleção could no longer be held up as a symbol of national pride.

The 2014 World Cup was also an important moment in the arm-wrestle between football fans and capital. Traditionally, Brazilian clubs are not-for-profit associations; but in practice they are run by privileged groups of amateur managers known as cartolas – or ‘top hats’. Within most clubs, the struggle between this cadre and the fanbase is opaque, and the latter are generally not allowed to vote in internal elections. Even so, Brazilian football has historically resisted the top-down management structures of stock exchange-listed European clubs, which have reduced their fans to mere consumers. Investors saw the World Cup as a golden opportunity to impose this model on Brazil and ‘modernise’ the sport at club level. Business-friendly legislation allowing clubs to become for-profit limited liability companies is currently being considered by the Congress.

After 2014, the national team’s iconic yellow shirt became indelibly associated with the elite layers that swarmed the stadiums. A clear chromatic code separated broadly progressive demonstrations – for better public services, against the parliamentary coup that toppled Rousseff – from proto-fascist rallies against the imaginary communist threat. The first were red, the second yellow and green. Today, wearing the official shirt of the seleção on the streets of Rio de Janeiro or Sao Paulo is an overtly pro-Bolsonaro statement. 

In this context, the 2021 Copa America was an opportunity to redeem the national team. The tournament was originally set to be co-hosted by Colombia and Argentina, but it was relocated due to social unrest in the former and escalating Covid-19 cases in the latter. Brazil was hardly immune from either of these issues. Yet Bolsonaro’s administration unhesitatingly accepted a last-minute offer to host the event, while at the same time failing to answer 53 communications from Pfizer offering its much-needed vaccines. The move was widely condemned, with only 24% of the population supporting it. Opposition from sports commentators was virtually unanimous.

For a brief moment, it seemed likely that the seleção would rehabilitate itself by refusing to participate in Bolsonaro’s vanity project. Following the president’s announcement, the team captain Carlos Casimiro told journalists that the players would issue a response ‘at the right time’. Expectation mounted for a week, with opposition politicians tweeting that ‘Casimiro is our captain!’ Then, on 9 June, just five days before the kick-off, their tepid statement was published. ‘We are against organizing the Copa America’, it said, ‘but we will never say no to the Brazilian national team’.

This was a crushing disappointment. Yet in politics as in football, no defeat is definitive. Patently, Bolsonaro’s Copa America is an attempt to distract from the milestone of half a million coronavirus deaths and the growing resistance to his rule. With the 2022 elections to be held just a few weeks before the World Cup in Qatar, the seleção will undoubtedly return to the national spotlight soon. They may even be called upon to pick a side if, as some commentators are predicting, Bolsonaro uses the spectre of electoral fraud to orchestrate a military coup. At that point, the team’s true colours will be clear.

Read on: Benjamin Markovits, ‘The Colours of Sport’, NLR 22.