SÃO PAULO, Brazil — When the moment came, Neymar was nowhere to be seen. With Brazil needing to score a penalty on Friday to stay in the World Cup, he was stood on the halfway line, eyes shut. When his teammate missed, sending Brazil out of the tournament at the quarterfinal stage, he sank to the ground in despair. The team’s talisman, the undisputed star of Brazilian football, had succumbed to defeat. News of the failure was already flashing around the globe.
At least Neymar is used to making headlines. A boy wonder who became the most expensive player in the world, he had been elevated to the status of footballing icon by his louche style, dazzling skills and striking appearance. But lately, he’s become noted for something else — as an avatar of the union between the national side and the far-right politics of Jair Bolsonaro, the departing Brazilian president.
Neymar hasn’t been shy about his stance. For the presidential election in October, he posted a video expressing his support for Mr. Bolsonaro and underlined it later, saying, “The values that the president carries are very similar to me.” For all his maverick energy, Neymar is very much following a trend. In 2018, several top names in Brazilian football, the legends Ronaldinho and Rivaldo among them, announced their endorsement of Mr. Bolsonaro. Bolsonaro supporters, for their part, have taken to wearing the national team’s bright yellow jersey at demonstrations, laying claim to one of the nation’s most significant symbols.
Progressives have sought to rescue the shirt from Bolsonarist appropriation, wearing it at their own rallies. But the damage has been done: One in five Brazilians, according to a recent study, would not wear the shirt today for political reasons. Once the pride of the nation, the football team has become an emblem of polarization. After the side’s surprise exit in the quarterfinals, at the hands of Croatia, the chance for the country to come together as it has done before — in joy over a championship — has been missed.
It’s not the first time the football team has been taken up by politics, particularly of the right. In the 1930s, for example, the dictator Getúlio Vargas built monumental stadiums to house both soccer matches and mass rallies. The two were seen as two sides of the same coin, means to draw the masses into supporting the regime.
Decades later, the military dictatorship that ruled from 1964 to 1985 tried to do something similar. When the military launched its coup, Brazil’s team was one of the world’s best. Led by stars such as Pelé and Garrincha, it had won the last two World Cups, playing scintillating, dynamic football. The military spared no effort in linking itself with the squad — opening new stadiums with players and military authorities side by side, for example — in the hope that the widespread reverence in which the team was held would rub off on the regime.
It meddled, too. In the run-up to the 1970 World Cup, the president reportedly secured the ouster of the coach, a leftist who had spoken openly about the political imprisonments, torture and killings carried out by the regime. That didn’t stop the side from winning the competition in Mexico that year. The triumph was a major public relations victory for the government: Pictures of the president celebrating with the players flooded the country, as did sympathetic statements from the jubilant team. The side’s success was presented as evidence that the path taken by the regime was the right one. In this atmosphere of euphoria, even left-wing militants rooted for the side.
That was the high-water mark of the dictatorship’s use of the national team. In the ’80s, the country’s gradual democratization was accompanied by a transformation of the profile of the team, which included a left-leaning players such as Sócrates and Zico. With the end of the dictatorship in 1985 — followed by a new Constitution in 1988 and general elections the year after — the team was no longer reflective of the military regime, or of the political right more generally. The 1994 and 2002 World Cup victories were widely celebrated by the population. Football belonged to everyone.
In 2013, though, that started to change. As popular uprisings erupted, right-wing groups sought to differentiate themselves from leftist demonstrators by draping themselves in the Brazilian flag and wearing the national team’s jersey. The “green and yellows,” as they became known, mostly protested corruption and targeted the center-left Workers Party, to which the president, Dilma Rousseff, belonged. At the Confederations Cup that year, hosted by Brazil, thousands of fans booed Ms. Rousseff.
That was a sign of things to come. In the demonstrations that led to Ms. Rousseff’s impeachment and removal from office in 2016, protesters clad in the yellow jersey called for military intervention and took selfies with military police officers. By the time Mr. Bolsonaro began his campaign for president in 2018, the football team was firmly associated with a right-wing agenda.
During his tenure, the two became inseparable as supporters took to the streets to demand the closure of the Supreme Court, the lifting of pandemic restrictions and the end of electronic voting. In these gatherings, the national jersey shared space with symbols of the extreme right such as neo-Nazi flags, banners bearing antidemocratic slogans and even tiki torches.
What about the side itself? While a number of players actively welcomed Mr. Bolsonaro to the presidency, it wasn’t clear where the team stood politically. The Copa América in 2021 — controversially hosted by Brazil after Colombia and Argentina had refused, citing concerns about the pandemic — appeared to set things straight. After a meeting, the team decided to go ahead with the competition, stressing that it was not a “political” decision. For many, this acquiescence seemed to prove that the national team had largely fallen under Mr. Bolsonaro’s sway.
That’s not entirely fair. Throughout the four years of Mr. Bolsonaro’s government, explicit support for the president from within the squad was rare. A few players, such as the Tottenham striker Richarlison, spoke out against the politicization of the team. Paulinho, a promising young forward, even declared his support for Mr. Bolsonaro’s election rival, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. The majority of the players, of course, prefer to keep their heads down.
But a national team, as everyone knows, is much more than the sum of the individual players involved — it is a symbol. In Brazil, the entanglement of sport and politics has produced something strange: a national side almost entirely associated with a divisive political project and now, after Mr. Lula’s narrow victory in October, a defeated politician.
Things might not stay that way. In Qatar, it was Richarlison who provided the most memorable moment, with his astounding goal against Serbia; Neymar, after missing two games through injury, was unable to lift the side to triumph. At home, feelings are mixed. The team’s performance, oscillating between sublime and stodgy, flattered to deceive.
In the aftermath of stinging defeat, the question of what Brazil’s team is — and who it is for — remains vexingly open.
Micael Zaramella is a historian of Brazilian football and the author of a book on Palmeiras, a club in São Paulo.
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