The cliché goes that in football’s spiritual home – Brazil – football is a religion, but the relationship between the game and faith has surfaced more than ever in recent years. Outside Write took a look at the apparently symbiotic relationship of football and faith in Brazil.
Have you noticed how some Brazilian players are very open when demonstrating their faith? When Brazil last won the World Cup in Yokahama in 2002, many of the team gathered in prayer on the pitch at the final whistle. Seven years later at the Confederations Cup, attacking midfielder Kaká donned a t-shirt emblazoned with the words “I belong to Jesus”, earning Brazil’s football federation a telling off from Fifa.
How did this recent trend for public shows of faith come about? Does the show of faith on the pitch reflect wider changes in Brazilian society?
The faiths of Brazil
Religion is huge in Brazil, and Brazil in turn is huge: From a population of 190 million people, 123 million are Catholics, making it the biggest Catholic country in the world, plus 44 million Protestants.
500 years ago the Portuguese brought Christianity to Brazil. They also transported in slaves from Africa, who carried their own beliefs with them, forming the basis for Candomblé, which is now followed by an estimated two million people.
In Futebol, an excellent chronicle on the history of football in Brazil, writer Alex Bellos quotes playwright Nelson Rodrigues:
“In football, as in everything else, no Brazilian can exist without a charm around his neck, without his saints and his set of vows – in a word, without his personal and non-transferable God.”
To see a South American footballer cross himself is not unusual, but in recent decades the fastest growing faith has been evangelical Pentecostalism: US-style large group worship.
According to Bellos, six of the victorious 1994 World Cup squad were ‘Athletes of Christ’, an evangelical Christian group formed by former Atlético Madrid striker Baltazar. These included Zinho, Mazinho, Jorginho, Müller, Paulo Sérgio and Taffarel.
Current Brazil and Atletico Mineiro striker Fred is a recent convert.
Bellos writes: “Evangelicals are currently the most visible religious presence in football. Due to the proselytising nature of their worship, they are walking propaganda machines. Football is a great stage to show what God can do. Their hero is never Pelé. It is always Jesus.”
After his football career ended Müller became a pastor, while 2002 World Cup winner Rivaldo founded his own church. [Continues]
Society, social media and faith in Brazil
For São Paulo-based entrepreneur and football fan Carlos Barros, the origins of many players’ faith could be linked to their backgrounds.
“[Many players] fought against poverty and violence during their entire childhood. Since good education is not available, football is the only hope to succeed in life,” he told OW. “Given that all the odds are against them, and every boy in Brazil wants to be a player, the ones who are able to make it really feel blessed by God.”
While Catholicism is still the main religion in Brazil and other Latin American countries, it is losing potency, and Barros believes that new connectedness through TV and social media has helped bring players’ faiths to the fore.
“I would say that this new shows of faith were driven by two things: The first one is a generation of players that is much more exposed on the media and also more connected with the fans through social media, which allows players to communicate with them and show their believes. The second one was the example of other important players like Kaká, who started showing his proofs of faith since he was an youngster in São Paulo back in 2002,” Barros explained. “While Kaká started to succeed in his career other players who admired him and were religious started to follow the movement and them it started to grow around the world.”
Corinthians fan Felipe Romano agrees. “[Players] find gratitude in religion and are very proud of it, hence the public display. I believe it’s much more widespread now because these religions have grown immensely in Brazil in the last two decades,” he told OW.
In Futebol, Bellos sums up the relationship between football and religion: “Religion, Carnival and football form a Holy Trinity of Brazilian culture. Rio de Janiero is the city of the Christ statue, the sambadrome and the Maracanã. It is common to say that football in Brazil is a religion. I think this is incorrect. Football is not an alternative faith, but a platform for Brazil’s religions to express themselves.”
Footnote: For more on religion in Brazil, check out Professor Robert Beckford’s Seven Wonders of Brazil for the BBC.