Evangelicalism & Brazil: The religious movement that spread through a national team

Taffarel celebrates winning the 1994 World Cup as Roberto Baggio stands dejected
Taffarel celebrates winning the 1994 World Cup as Roberto Baggio stands dejected

It was derby day in Belo Horizonte, but that wouldn’t change anything. Joao Leite believed he had a mission given to him by Jesus Christ: to spread the word of God among other football players.

So on that afternoon in December 1982, as he had done in every game for the past three years, the Atletico Mineiro goalkeeper randomly approached an opponent before the big game started.

“Jesus loves you and I have a gift for you,” he told Cruzeiro goalkeeper Carlos Gomes, presenting him with a copy of the Bible.

At the time, Gomes found it a bit strange given the circumstances. He even admitted to feeling somewhat angry when he was handed the book.

But this initial feeling later changed and he actually joined the religious movement of Leite – Athletes of Christ. He was far from the only convert.

Association of evangelical Christian sportsmen, Athletes of Christ had among its members some of the most influential people in Brazilian football.

When they first met, they were four in number. That would rise to around 7,000 in 60 countries, including top footballers such as 2007 Ballon d’Or winner Kaka and former Bayern Munich centre-back Lucio.

“It all started with Alex Dias Ribeiro, a Formula 1 driver who competed with ‘Jesus Saves’ slogans on his cars,” Leite, who played five times for Brazil, told BBC Sport.

“I decided to do the same and played with ‘Christ saves’ on my shirt, but the Brazilian Football Federation banned it and threatened my team Atletico with a points deduction.

“That’s when I started giving Bibles to other players. But those were tough times – there was so much prejudice against evangelical players. Even the national team didn’t feel like a comfortable environment. It was not easy for me.”

In 1980, around the time Leite embarked on his “mission”, 88.9% of Brazil’s population identified as Catholic. Evangelicalism – a movement within Protestant Christianity – accounted for 6.6%.

The balance has since changed considerably. Research by Datafolha, a polling institute, put these respective figures at 50% and 31% in 2021.

Brazil remains the largest Catholic nation in the world, but by 2032 evangelical churches are expected to attract more worshipers to the country.

When Leite retired from football in 1992, the Athletes of Christ movement was going from strength to strength.

The association had its own television show in Argentina, hosted by former Brazilian midfielder Paulo Silas and broadcast three times a week. They even tried, in vain, to convert Diego Maradona.

One of their most high-profile figures, Brazilian right-back Jorginho, also handed out Bibles to his opponents when he was captain of his club Bayer Leverkusen, which he left for Bayern Munich in 1992.

Two years later, at the 1994 World Cup, he was one of six evangelical footballers in the Brazil squad that beat Italy in a shootout to win the final. Five of them formed a circle in the center of the field and gave thanks to God after Roberto Baggio’s penalty flew over the bar. The sixth member was celebrating in his six-yard box.

“When Baggio won the ball back, I had no doubts about our victory,” goalkeeper Taffarel said afterwards. “Anyone who believes in God will never lose to someone who believes in Buddha.”

The image of Taffarel, now Liverpool goalkeeping coach, celebrating with arms raised skyward in front of a dejected Baggio, a practitioner of Nichiren Buddhism, served as the cover of the book “Quem Venceu o Tetra?” (Who won the fourth title?).

It included testimonials from players paying their respects to God for the win, which was slammed by legendary coach Mario Zagallo. This marked a turning point.

Lucio lifts the 2009 Confederations Cup trophy, with an 'I Love Jesus' t-shirt draped over his shorts
Lucio lifts the 2009 Confederations Cup, with an ‘I Love Jesus’ t-shirt draped over his shorts

The Athletes of Christ movement no longer enjoys the popularity it once had. But evangelism continues to spread rapidly in Brazil and its influence within the national team has only grown since 1994.

While Leite encountered some hostility to his faith in the national organization in the 1980s, nowadays evangelical pastors enjoy special access to team camps. They rely on player donations to travel and hold services in separate venues designated by the Brazilian FA. In some cases, pastors are even part of the players’ entourage.

At the 2002 World Cup – which Brazil also won – defender Lucio, Kaka and former Barcelona defender Edmilson joined in the prayer.

“You could do whatever you wanted on your days off,” Lucio told the magazine. Travel Revistaexternal link in 2010. “For me, those were moments of faith.

“We tried to discuss positive ideas on how to deal with the enormous pressure we had to face in these games.”

After winning the 2009 Confederations Cup in South Africa, Lucio and other players wore white shirts with devout slogans such as “I love God” and “I belong to Jesus”.

The officials told them to take them off, but Lucio resisted and draped his around his shorts as he lifted the trophy. The Danish FA publicly complained about the image and a warning letter was sent to Brazil by FIFA, whose rules prohibit “political, religious or personal statements”.

The following year, voices from Brazil began to question whether evangelism had too much influence on the national structure.

Amid mounting pressure for then-AC Milan player Ronaldinho to be called up for the 2010 World Cup, ESPN magazine wrote on its cover page that he would not go because “to play for the Selecao, football is not enough. You have to be a member of the ‘igrejinha’ (literally ‘little church’, also meaning ‘clique’ or ‘closed workshop’)”.

In the end, Ronaldinho was not included in the squad and after Brazil were knocked out by the Netherlands in the quarter-finals, it was claimed that a long-time performance analyst had been replaced. by someone who had “more evangelistic experience”.

A few years later, in 2015, the head of security was fired by the Brazilian Football Federation for allowing an evangelistic service to take place inside the team hotel without the knowledge of the team. Dunga coach.

“Heaven was celebrating today during our meeting because three lives accepted Jesus Christ and made the right decision,” the pastor posted on social media. Liverpool duo Alisson Becker and Fabinho, former Chelsea and Arsenal defender David Luiz and Tottenham’s Lucas Moura were among those in attendance.

Bolsonaro poses with the Copa America trophy after Brazil win in 2019
Bolsonaro poses with the Copa America trophy after Brazil beat Peru in the 2019 final

It’s not just in football that evangelicals have grown in numbers and power in Brazil. It is also in politics.

Far-right President Jair Bolsonaro won the 2018 elections with the support of almost 70% of the evangelical community, including football stars like Neymar and Rivaldo.

Bolsonaro, born into a Catholic family and later rebaptized in the Jordan by an evangelical pastor, has promised to appoint a “terribly evangelical” Supreme Court justice. And he delivered.

When in December 2021 Andre Mendonça, a lawyer and evangelical pastor, was confirmed for the role, a video of first lady Michele Bolsonaro shouting “Glory to God” and speaking in tongues went viral.

While serving as attorney general, Mendonca had used Bible verses to defend the reopening of churches during the Covid-19 pandemic. He said his appointment was “one small step for man, one giant leap for evangelicals”.

Evangelical expansion in politics dates back to 1986, when a rumor that Brazil was considering making Catholicism its only official religion began to spread. That year, 32 evangelical federal deputies were elected. There are now 105 deputies and 15 senators.

It is not uncommon for some of them to hold office in the Chamber of Deputies. When former leader Dilma Rousseff was impeached in 2016, 58 lawmakers dedicated their vote to God.

Critics link evangelicalism in politics with a strengthening of the conservative agenda and a rise in intolerance that leaves no room for those of other religious beliefs, especially those of African descent, to speak out .

While Bolsonaro’s national approval rating has recently fallen to 22%, with the next presidential elections scheduled for October 2, many evangelical footballers like Neymar remain loyal and are seen as playing a key role in boosting his appeal. .

Former Brazil international Walter Casagrande, now a pundit, has slammed the Paris St-Germain striker, saying he has become Bolsonaro’s “vassal”.

So when Bayer Leverkusen striker Paulinho scored for Brazil in a 4-2 win over Germany at the Olympics last year, it was worth noting his celebration.

Taking a stand against religious persecution, the 21-year-old made the gesture of an archer in homage to Oxossi, his orixa (a spiritual deity) in the Candomblé religion.

A mixture of traditional Yoruba, Fon and Bantu beliefs from different parts of Africa, Candomblé has been practiced for a long time in Brazil, once often in secret. Even now, it is still attacked occasionally by radical evangelicals, who view the religion as satanic.

But Paulinho seemed determined to remind others that there is still room for all religions in Brazil – and in the national team.

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