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Can Brazil’s Divisive Team Unite a Fractured Nation?

RIO DE JANEIRO — Ahead of Brazil’s elections last month, Neymar, the star forward of Brazil’s national men’s soccer team, pledged to dedicate his first World Cup goal to Brazil’s far-right president, Jair Bolsonaro.

On Election Day, Bolsonaro wore a protective vest in case of an attack. Over it, he pulled on the national team’s iconic yellow jersey.

And in the days after Bolsonaro lost, hundreds of thousands of his supporters gathered outside military bases and called on the armed forces to take control of the government. From above, the protesters were a sea of yellow, with thousands wearing national team jerseys.

Few countries have tied their national identity so closely with their national soccer team as Brazil, the most successful nation in World Cup history, seeking its sixth title this month in Qatar. And now there are few countries grappling with such a complicated relationship with their national team.

The jersey has become a political statement. The top star has become politically outspoken. Some fans call the coach a communist. And many others have backed away from a team that has long been a source of national pride.

“We’re divided,” said Jorge El Assad, who has owned a jersey shop in downtown Rio de Janeiro for 40 years. He said sales were down about 20 percent from the last men’s World Cup, the tournament in Russia in 2018. “A lot of people coming here don’t even want Neymar’s No. 10 jersey, because he supported Bolsonaro,” he said. “That has never happened. Never.”

Supporters of President Jair Bolsonaro wore the national team jersey’s as he spoke from a stage at a campaign event in October.Credit…Dado Galdieri for The New York Times

Yet at the same time, Brazil’s famed Seleção — the squad that oddsmakers have favored to win this year’s World Cup — is also maybe the only Brazilian institution that can bring this deeply divided nation together.

That is, of course, if it wins.

Brazil’s fast start, with two straight victories in the group stage, has been a promising sign. After the first match, against Serbia, the nation swooned over the 25-year-old forward Richarlison, who scored both of Brazil’s goals, including an electric volley that has been among the tournament’s most sensational scores.

Still, after the match, talk of Richarlison partly focused on his left-wing politics, as well as his vocal support for Covid-19 vaccines. (Bolsonaro criticized the vaccine and still has not said whether he has received it.)

Celso Unzelte, a Brazilian sports historian, said this was not the first time politics had crept into the discussion around the national team.

In 1970, when Pelé led Brazil to victory in the World Cup, some elites in the country worried that the title would strengthen the brutal military dictatorship that ruled at the time. And in 1984, the team’s star midfielder, Sócrates, drew support and criticism for being an outspoken opponent of the dictatorship.

The national team’s enormous prominence in Brazil has at times gotten it wrapped up in politics, Unzelte said, but never like this.

“If our country has a face, that face is the Brazilian national soccer team,” he said. “There have been moments similar to what we’re living now, but the shirt itself of the Brazilian team had never been appropriated as it has been recently.”

Thamara Gregorio embraced a friend as other Brazilians celebrated a goal against Serbia.Credit…Dado Galdieri for The New York Times

The politicization of the team this year has been amplified by the World Cup’s arrival just after the election. The tournament is usually held in June and July but had been moved to later in the year because of the intense summer heat in Qatar.

As a result, politics have been coursing through Brazil for months, and the national team has been dragged into the debate.

That was largely because the team’s jersey became the effective uniform of Bolsonaro supporters. Right-wing voters have adopted the jersey, Brazil’s flag and the country’s national anthem as patriotic symbols of their nationalist movement.

Bolsonaro rallies were full of the jerseys. Bolsonaro encouraged his supporters to wear them to the polls. And when he lost the election, his supporters blocked highways and protested outside military bases, many wearing the national team’s bright yellow.

In one prominent episode, a Bolsonaro supporter blocking a highway tried to stop a flatbed trailer from passing and clung to the front of the truck as it then sped down the highway, his yellow jersey a sharp contrast against the vehicle’s white and silver grill. The image quickly went viral.

Then the national team itself became entangled in the electoral process. Just ahead of the election, several players, including Neymar, came out in favor of Bolsonaro. Neymar released a video dancing to a sort of anthem for the Bolsonaro campaign, and then he was interviewed by the president on a livestream.

“The importance of this election is that our Brazil is at stake — our homeland, our freedom, our families,” he told the president. “God has a very big plan for us.”

That quickly made Brazil’s biggest soccer star a pariah on the left — and led some Brazilians to do the unthinkable: declare that they would not support their national soccer team.

Neymar has fueled the divisiveness that has shadowed the team because of his support for Bolsonaro.Credit…Dado Galdieri for The New York Times

“I won’t root against the team, but going forward, I won’t root for them when Neymar is on the field,” said Walter Casagrande, a sports commentator and a forward on the 1986 national team. “Why? Because I love my country.”

President-elect Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, the leftist candidate who won this year’s election, then claimed, without evidence, that Neymar gave his endorsement because Bolsonaro had agreed not to target him for tax evasion, something he has been accused of for years. “He’s scared that if I win, I’m going to find out his tax debt that Bolsonaro forgave,” Lula said on a podcast.

After Lula won, supporters at his victory rally chanted, “Hey, Neymar! You’re going to have to declare!”

On Brazil’s right, fans have their own villain on the team: the coach, Tite. He has criticized the co-opting of the yellow jersey as a political symbol, and has said that he would not visit the presidential palace in the case of a World Cup win, regardless of who is president.

“Tite is from the left, so we didn’t want to support the team because of him,” said José de Carvalho, 62, a jeweler in a yellow jersey standing outside a bar in Rio’s beachside Copacabana neighborhood after the team’s first victory last week.

Before the World Cup, Lula encouraged supporters and other Brazilians to wear the yellow jersey and reclaim it as a symbol of national pride instead of partisanship.

Many Brazilians are still uneasy over the shirt. During the World Cup’s opening weekend, a bar in downtown Rio organized a night for people on the left to wear their yellow jerseys and dance. Plenty of people showed up. Few wore yellow. And many of them had “Lula” scrawled across their backs.

Fabricio Neves wore the team’s less-common blue jersey to watch the team’s debut.Credit…Dado Galdieri for The New York Times

Instead, what has become a far more common sight on the streets of Rio is the team’s blue alternate jersey, which it wears in games infrequently. El Assad said he chose to sell the blue jersey for the first time this year, and it sold out before the first game.

“I hope we’re able to go back to using the yellow and green,” said Josi Lima, 46, who was shopping for blue jerseys for her and her daughter. “But today it’s more about the blue.”

Brazil’s politics have made it to Qatar, too. Bolsonaro’s son, Eduardo, a congressman, said in a video that he was distributing mini hard drives there with information in English about what he has called an unjust election. And videos have shown Brazilian fans at World Cup matches chanting that Lula is a criminal.

Yet, back in Rio, even people who said they were highly invested in the election hoped that Brazilians could halt the partisanship once the whistle blew. “I’m going to root for my country, for the happiness of my people,” said Mar Olimpio, 22, a marine biology student in a blue jersey, who was watching Brazil’s first match outside a Rio bar.

She said she was a fierce supporter of Lula, and does not like Neymar, but she was nevertheless screaming at the television. “Politics?” she said. “Man, soccer should have nothing to do with it.”

Brazil’s yellow jersey has become so identified with Bolsonaro’s movement that some shop owners said sales of the shirts were down during this year’s World Cup.Credit…Dado Galdieri for The New York Times

André Spigariol contributed reporting.

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