Jair Bolsonaro is a throwback to the dark days of Brazil’s military dictatorship. So why do so many footballers support him?

The first time I realised Jair Bolsonaro would be a serious candidate in Brazil’s presidential election was in a football stadium.

Nearly two years ago, in early December 2016, Vasco da Gama had a huge game at the Maracana that would define their return to the first division. Bolsonaro, in a Vasco shirt, attended the match – and all around me, fans erupted. Granted, the press box is in the middle of the more expensive seats, which is the far-right politician’s more natural constituency. But even so, the level of support he already enjoyed was striking and alarming.

On reflection, it makes sense. Football stadiums in Brazil are frequently angry places, forums for the voicing of mass indignation. And Bolsonaro’s is the campaign of anger. Without even getting into the merits or otherwise of his far-right approach, his campaign has been laughably incoherent and stunningly ignorant. But it thrives on simple anger.

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First, there is anger at the corruption of the Brazilian political system. The corruption is real, and by no means restricted to politics. In this case, however, the anger is synthetic. Bolsonaro’s beloved military dictatorship (which ruled Brazil from 1964 to 1985) was a byword for suspect practices, which flourished in all of those many corners that the press did not cover. Anti-corruption is a powerful rallying call.

Anger on two fronts, though, is very real. One is law and order. Urban Brazil is traumatised by the spectre of violent crime, an issue which blights the lives of the poor at least – if not more – than it does the rich. The latter live with the fear of it all been taken away; at times it seems that some of the wealthier elements of Brazilian society are in a permanent panic over the prospect of a revolt of the slaves. And many of the urban poor are painfully aware of the present possibility of street mugging in areas of their cities which have little police protection. In such circumstances, there is real traction in Bolsonaro’s idea that the only good criminal is a dead criminal.

The other front of anger – which plays well in the smaller towns – is the agenda of social conservatism. Huge swathes of Brazil have more in common with gun-toting, red-neck United States than is widely realised. Traditionally the best selling musical genre, for example, has been Brazilian country.

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Huge progress has been made in recent years on rainbow alliance issues, especially LGBT questions. But in a traditional and macho society, much more ground has been won in the more prosperous parts of the big cities. Elsewhere, the time is proving ripe for a backlash, organised mainly through religion – either the Catholic church, or the many branches of evangelical Protestantism that have flourished in recent decades, and which base themselves mainly in poor neighbourhoods.

Bolsonaro is full of ‘golden ageism,’ openly wanting to restore Brazil to its state of 40 or 50 years ago. One of his most chilling phrases came on the night he was announced as the winner of the first round of the presidential election, when he said “we are going to put a stop to activism in Brazil.” This is clearly aimed at pushing back progress made by the feminist and pro-LGBT agenda.

Much has made internationally of the support given to Bolsonaro by some big-name Brazilian footballers. Former stars Rivaldo and Ronaldinho are enthusiastic converts. Current names, such as Tottenham’s Lucas Moura and the 2010 World Cup midfielder Felipe Melo, have also announced their allegiance.

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This is less controversial in Brazil because, until the last few days of the campaign, Bolsonaro has been less controversial. Even Marine Le Pen, leader of the French far-right, describes much of Bolsonaro’s speech as “extremely disagreeable.” Brazil, though, has become brutalised to the point where open support for the use of torture is now part of normal discourse. And the press have spent the last three years making such efforts to demonise the left-leaning PT (Workers’ Party) that anything from the other side is seen as legitimate. Absurd fantasies about the PT’s aim to install a Cuba-type regime have created the space in which worship of a military dictatorship is seen as an acceptable democratic response.

The feebleness of the political debate, then, is one reason for the position of these high-profile footballers. But there are other explanations. For some it might be seen as a status symbol to support a candidate with obvious appeal to the rich. Others are from evangelical families, and thus might be swayed by the arguments of social conservatism. And all have come up through the authoritarian, perhaps even quasi-militaristic environment of Brazilian football.

In a splendid recent piece, journalist Aydano Motta wrote an in-depth profile of Vinicius Junior and Paulinho, the latest-18 year-old Brazilians to make it to Europe – with Real Madrid and Bayer Leverkusen respectively. The sad conclusion was that both approach their profession with the mentality of soldiers on a mission. There is much more duty than pleasure, and little sense of self-expression.

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It is a socially conservative milieu in which right-wing ideas come naturally – especially those which value obedience and of social conservatism. At Atletico Paranaense, one top-flight club, it appears that the players were ordered to take the field in yellow tops in a clear gesture of support for Bolsonaro. One player refused – Paulo Andre, a vastly experienced centre-back with a long history of political involvement. Among the sheep, he came across as a giant.

Jair Bolsonaro is a throwback to the dark days of Brazil’s military dictatorship. So why do so many footballers support him?
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