Every four years, the district of Caiçara in Belo Horizonte transforms itself. Rows of Brazilian flags dance from lamp-posts and telephone poles; the roads and pavements are slathered in blue, green and yellow paint by an army of volunteers.
It is a tradition that goes back to the 1994 World Cup, and until now has taken place entirely without objection. This time, however, the local community felt it necessary to issue a caveat. And so, in among the bunting and the balloons, a banner reads: “NÃO É POLÍTICA, É COPA.” It’s not politics, it’s the cup.
As Júlio César Silva Freitas, one of the organisers of the display, explained to the local news website BHAZ: “When we started painting we suffered a lot, on both sides. Some passed by shouting: ‘Yeah, Bolsonaro!’ Others said it was absurd. We tried to explain; some accepted it, others didn’t.”
Welcome to the political minefield that is Brazilian football in 2022. And of course, the two have never really been separate. From the moment the game began to catch hold in South America, Brazil’s rulers saw football as an indispensable lever of power, a means not simply of harnessing popular sentiment but articulating their own particular vision of nationhood.
A century ago, the president Epitácio Pessoa sought to ban black players from the national team. The 1970 World Cup win was enthusiastically hijacked by the military government for propaganda purposes. More recently, the rise of the populist Jair Bolsonaro has reanimated the debate over the meaning of Brazil’s national symbols, including the treasured yellow national team shirt.
The president of Brazil since 2018 but the loser in last month’s general election, Bolsonaro and his supporters would often wear the shirt at rallies, an attempt to appropriate it as an emblem of their patriotic far-right movement. To an extent it worked: many progressive Brazilians now spurn the yellow shirt because of its political connotations, or choose the blue change strip instead.
Bolsonaro’s successor-elect, the left-wing Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, has instead tried to detoxify the shirt, declaring he would wear it during the World Cup. “The green and yellow is not a candidate, it’s not a party,” he said. “Green and yellow are the colours for 213 million inhabitants who love this country.”
And really this is a discussion that goes much deeper than one breathable garment. Under Bolsonaro, Brazil has become more divided and politicised than at any point in its democratic era. The nebulous hope is that a sixth World Cup victory – O Hexa – might go some way towards healing some of those rifts, rallying a hurt nation around a single common cause, perhaps even reclaiming the national shirt from the reactionaries and the racists. The harsh reality, of course, is that these days football is simply another arena of the political battlefield, however much those in the setup would prefer it otherwise.
The man with the unenviable task of negotiating this fractured inheritance is Tite, who in his six years as Brazil coach has striven to avoid engaging with politics, with only partial success. Many leftists spy a certain veiled allyship in his measured pronouncements on “social responsibility” and “greater equality” and warnings against the politicisation of the national team.
Three years ago, when Brazil won the Copa América on home soil, Tite’s brusque and cursory acknowledgment of Bolsonaro during the victory ceremony was interpreted as its own small act of resistance. Unlike previous coaches, he has pledged not to visit the president in Brasília if he wins the World Cup, breaking a tradition that stretches back to their first victory in 1958. Still, he has understandably refused to expand on his own political allegiances. “I’m not going to carry this battle,” he said in Folha de São Paulo in October. “I will vote secretly and I have my ideas very clear.”
The problem is not all of his players feel the same way. One of Bolsonaro’s most fervent supporters during the election campaign was Neymar, who as well as offering his endorsement promised to dedicate his first World Cup goal to the incumbent president. The veteran defenders Thiago Silva and Dani Alves have also offered their backing to Bolsonaro in the past, along with the former players Romário, Ronaldinho and Rivaldo. Meanwhile, the Tottenham winger Richarlison has been vocal on a number of social justice causes in recent months, although he has thus far refrained from aligning with any particular candidate.
The rich irony is that on talent and form, this Brazil team goes to Qatar asare one of the favourites. Since the last World Cup they have lost three out of 50 matches, all of them by a single goal. Their forward line – which boasts not only Richarlison and Neymar but Vinícius Júnior, Rodrygo, Antony, Gabriel Jesus, Gabriel Martinelli, Pedro and Raphinha – would be the envy of any team in the world. And yet the question remains: can a side this fundamentally divided ever truly unite?
Tite has already announced that he will step down as coach after the tournament, and has scotched rumours of a ban on discussing politics within the camp. “It does not exist,” he said. “Or else we have democracy only when you agree with me. Democratically, we must respect each other’s positions.”
Yet for a nation feeling exhausted, anxious and bruised by years of political bickering, this World Cup represents perhaps the last realistic attempt at expressing a common vision of what it means to be Brazilian. In victory, the vision of a single unified Brazil may just hold. Defeat, on the other hand, risks opening up old wounds, old divisions, old uncertainties.