How football facilitated the rise of Brazil’s new leader, Jair Bolsonaro
On the eve of Brazil’s presidential elections, second met first in the Brazilian championship when Palmeiras visited Flamengo. Towards the end of the first half there was a power cut. The lights went out. It seemed an appropriate symbol.
The new president Jair Bolsonaro owes his first name to a footballer – Jair Rosa Pinto, a magnificent inside-forward, one of the stars of the 1950 World Cup, with a rocket shot in his left foot. Nothing leans left in Bolsonaro, however. And the unlikely rise of the ultra right-winger to Brazil’s top office was surely given a boost by the inept manner in which the country set about staging the 2014 tournament.
During the Confederations Cup of 2013, to almost universal surprise, Brazilians took to the streets in their millions to protest. The amount of money being spent on the World Cup became a focal point for protest – justifiably so. The choice of so many venues, the delay in defining them which drove prices up, the grandiose projects, the scale back of urban transport works – not to mention the level of corruption which was revealed later – all served as potent reminders of a crony state. The protests started from the left – but as millions joined in, this changed. Factor in the opening signs of a strong economic downturn and the moment was ripe for a rebellion against the ruling PT (Workers Party).
Perhaps trying to be a mixture of Clement Attlee and Tony Blair, the PT had made timid though important moves in the direction of an inclusive social democracy. 2013 was the moment when the project broke down, when the cross-class alliance necessary for the project ceased to exist, when large sections of the middle class broke away. 2013 was the first Brazilian mass protest movement in which a significant role was played by social media – used skilfully by the Bolsonaro campaign in 2018. And it was also a point at which the pendulum swung right.
True, the raison d’être of the protests was an indignation with the quality of state services. But the moment was seized by those with little belief in the value of state services – other than those of repression. An already de-politicised environment became more de-politicised. A slogan of the 2013 protests was “my [political] party is Brazil” – a phrase with clear fascist connotations. It was a slogan seized and used relentlessly by the Bolsonaro campaign, one that helped a career politician, 28 years in Congress, to appear as an outsider.
The first time I realised that his message was really getting across was early December 2016, in a football stadium. Vasco da Gama were playing for the right to return to the first division, a huge crowd was drawn to the Maracanã. Bolsonaro put in an appearance, and the way that thousands responded to him left no doubt that he would be a contender in 2018.
In a way, the football ground is his ideal environment. Stadiums in Brazil are frequently angry places, warehouses of mass indignation. And Bolsonaro is the president of anger. The former army captain is a curiously colourless figure. There is no charm or wit about him and he rambles on in a mechanical rhythm. There is something very male and Brazilian about him – the bar-room bore, the taxi driver from hell, or, as a local journalist put it, the dull uncle you are desperate to avoid at family gatherings. This is not the neo-fascism of the hypnotising orator. It is the mere fact that, in the dull depths of the lack of his imagination, he has been angrily saying the unsayable until the wind changed and, under institutional and economical strain, hate speech became normalised.
Part of his anger is directed at corruption. This, though, is synthetic. The military dictatorship (1964-85) he so idolises was a byword for illicit enrichment. When I arrived in Brazil in 1994 – less than a decade after its passing – I gave English lessons to some big shots in the financial market. Young and naïve, I was amazed at the stories they told me of the military days – beachfront houses and free holidays in Paris for the generals and their wives, paid for by state enterprises.
Much of his anger is directed at crime and criminals – and this plays extremely well in a society traumatised by urban crime. Brazil has been brutalised to the extent that the idea that the only good criminal is a dead criminal has mass support. It genuinely seems, though, that Bolsonaro has not given the matter great thought. His project simply seems to entail encouraging the police to kill and making it possible for the population to arm itself.
Indeed, he seems much more animated by the prospect of cleansing the country of communists. Like one of those Japanese soldiers stuck on a remote island, he still appears to be fighting a long dead conflict, in this case the Cold War. It is harder to think of anywhere else on the planet where a red scare could be less plausible – this, after all, is the land where separate lifts and entrances for tradesmen and servants are still the norm. But Bolsonaro and his supporters are convinced that subversion is all around them, undermining the moral fabric of the nation. Even before the election, when it was clear which way the wind was blowing, there was a premature orgasm of authoritarianism, with police invading universities to tear down anti-fascist banners.
Bolsonaro’s self-proclaimed objective is to recreate the Brazil of 50 years ago – before there was talk of lesbian and gay rights, before there was a women’s movement, when Brazil could still lie to itself about its own racism – hell, when everyone knew their place. A huge part of his appeal comes from this pushback against a human rights/diversity agenda that has made considerable progress in Brazil in the last three decades – but has left many behind, especially evangelical Christians. When Bolsonaro talks of putting an end to activism in Brazil, it is an appeal to the old certainties of hierarchy and to traditional conceptions of normality.
Much of this resonates with Brazilian footballers. They are often socially conservative representatives of a socially conservative population. Many are evangelicals, or at least grew up in evangelical households. Check out a photo of a Brazil Under-17 or Under-20 team. They could be military cadets, with their clipped hair and carefully directed testosterone. Once a player makes his name at senior level, there is the possibility of expressing himself through his hair style and his clothes – as, for example, Daniel Alves clearly enjoys doing. But not on the way up. Then he is in a quasi-militaristic environment; long hair makes him a ‘maconheiro’ (dope smoker) or a ‘vagabundo’ (bum), an earring would turn him into a ‘veado’ – literally a deer, but a pejorative word for homosexual, one that reverberates monotonously round Brazilian stadiums. There is little space for thinking or acting differently.
And so some high profile Brazilian footballers lined up obediently behind Bolsonaro. Many of the artistic community, accustomed to a more libertarian environment, reacted with horror to his rise. Ronaldinho (though he kept quiet in the second run-off round), Rivaldo, Felipe Melo and Lucas Moura all declared their support for the right-wing candidate. As a boot prepares to come down on the face of Brazilian society, there may be a few studs on it.