Brazil’s faith in football: What happens after the apocalypse?

If you know anything about the sport the world calls “football,” then you know that an apocalyptic event took place yesterday in Brazil.

If you know anything at all about the host nation for the 2014 World Cup, then you know — everyone chant the mantra together — that football is the true religion of Brazil. Here is a typical blast of this faith language, drawn from today’s Los Angeles Times piece about Germany’s 7-1 shredding of what is left of this year’s battered Brazilian team.

It had been 64 years since Brazil staged a World Cup at home. And in a country so passionate about the sport it is worshipped like a religion, even now that 1950 final loss to Uruguay is remembered as a national tragedy.

This year’s team, though, was expected to erase that stain. And when the Brazilian government lavished a record $11.5 billion on the preparations for this World Cup, the pressure on the national team increased. A World Cup title was seen as the only way to justify the cost. So hundreds of fans began gathering daily outside the gates of the team’s training facility while hundreds more lined the roads when the team’s bus would pass.

All of them were seeking deliverance as much as they were a championship.

Finally, if you know anything about football in Brazil, if you have watched any of the national team’s matches over the past decade or more, then you know that many members of the team are outspoken Christians. In fact, several of the young superstars are part of the emerging face of born-again and Pentecostal Protestantism in this historically Catholic nation.

In a fine feature before the Germany match, BBC covered the essential facts and added some color, as well. The first statement is crucial:

It is often said that, in Brazil, football is a religion, but it is a much more complicated picture than that. Football is instead a platform for the country’s religions to find a voice.

The Brazil team have been united by their combined belief throughout this World Cup. Scolari has used it to bond and motivate the players. Before the victory over Colombia, he visited a chapel in the grounds of the team hotel in Fortaleza. In the dressing room before the match, the squad repeated the Lord’s Prayer. And at the final whistle, defender David Luiz sank to his knees and prayed again.

“My faith in Jesus gives me strength to keep on going out onto the field and to do my best,” he says. “But I also want to inspire others — that is what God inspires me to do. For me, true life is found in the relationship with Jesus Christ. I believe that everything in life belongs to God and he has a clear plan for us if we follow him.”

There are two clear faiths within the team, the Catholics and the evangelicals. Unlike past World Cups, where the players prayed separately, in Brazil the squad have come together to pray, they have found unity. Luiz and Neymar are among the evangelicals, as are Fernandinho and Fred.

So now it is the day after the apocalypse. Will the press cover this story at the level of faith, as well as covering its obvious implications for sports and politics in Brazil? Are pastors and priests addressing the grief that will follow the shattering of this national idol?

Seriously. You know there are voices out there addressing — from a faith perspective — the social-justice issues in this drama. You know that megachurch preachers, who are the masters of pulling everyday life into the pulpit, will address this national catastrophe. I am sure that they already are.

What will the press do? Well, ESPN has already waved at the topic of Brazilian grief, and missed, offering zero content from actual Brazilians.

And then there was the magisterial story from Sam Borden at The New York Times, the story that so many people are quoting today. This is stunning, stunning stuff and it punches so many buttons that really needed to be pushed.

Here is the top of the story, in all its glory:

BELO HORIZONTE, Brazil – The fireworks began at dawn. All around this city, loud pops and bangs rang out as men and women and children, so many dressed in yellow, set off flares and beeped car horns. It was supposed to be a magical day. The Brazilian national soccer team, playing at home, was one game away from a World Cup final.

No one could have guessed the tears would come before halftime. No one could have imagined there would be flags burning in the streets before dinner. Certainly no one could have envisioned that any Brazilian fans, watching their team play a semifinal in a celebrated stadium, would ever consider leaving long before full time.

It all happened. The 2014 World Cup, first plagued by questions about funding and protests and infrastructure and construction, then buoyed by scads of goals and dramatic finishes and a contagious spirit of joy from the local residents, will ultimately be remembered for this: the home team, regarded as the sport’s superpower, being throttled like an overmatched junior varsity squad that somehow stumbled into the wrong game.

The final score was Germany 7, Brazil 1. It felt like Germany 70, Brazil 1.

Let me stress again: This is awesome writing.

But something is missing. There is more to this story, there is more to Brazilian life, than sports and politics. Brazil is a land in which issues of social justice, hope and the poor are spiritual, as well as political. The Times story is stunning, but note the emphasis is on content that is coming through the lens of the reporter, rather than emerging out of the voices of the members of Brazil’s team and its fans.

So what is the story today? Listen to the voices.

Listen to the voices, including voices at altars, in pulpits and in pews. The line between football and life, between football and faith, is thin in Brazil. If reporters listen to the voices, the religion angle in this theodicy story will take care of itself.

IMAGE: The stadiums for FIFA World Cup 2014.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Julia B

    I’m getting a lot of memes on FaceBook making hay with photos of Francis and Benedict. I don’t know how to link them here.

    1) Actual photo of the two Popes praying next to each other – Francis’ thought bubble is Argentina flag and Benedict’s thought bubble is Germany’s flag.

    2) Photo of Francis looking over his 20 year old car caption: asking a Swiss Guard who might have put that Germany World Cup bumper sticker on his car.

    I’m sure there will be others before Sunday.

    • http://outsidetheautisticasylum.blogspot.com/ Theodore Seeber

      Me too. In fact, I think that Argentina facing Germany in this year’s world cup is a sign that prayer works, regardless of what happens in the final match (though, wouldn’t it be interesting if it went into overtime with a tied score!)

  • Julia B

    OK I found a link to a collection of the World Cup Catholic memes.

    http://www.ucatholic.com/blog/the-best-papal-world-cup-memes/

  • Julia B
  • Julia B

    Here I am again. Sorry. This Globe article is just so cool – humorous and thoughtful and human. Lots of interesting stuff, but I was impressed that she went beyond the obvious jokes and took the trouble to find this: Granted, Benedict XVI didn’t express his love for soccer as openly as Francis does. Yet more than once, the German pontiff referred to the game as a “school of life”. In 2008, he expressed hope that “the game of soccer may always be a means of teaching the values of honesty, solidarity and fraternity, especially among the younger generations”.

  • JohnH2

    It should be pointed out that many of the media outlets in Brazil are owned by churches, in particular the second largest media company (Rede Record, being second to Globo) is owned by Igreja Universal do Reino de Deus, a notorious Pentecostal church.

    There is still a focus in Brazil in getting third place on Saturday. Obviously there are calls for the coach to resign (and the President) and lots of complaints that the coach chose the wrong team (and accusations of the game being rigged, Brazil throwing the game, etc.). The Brazilian players are and have been asking forgiveness for the loss, Neymar credits God with protecting him so that he will be able to play again and isn’t in a wheel chair, apparently if the hit had landed slightly differently then he would be stuck in a wheel chair. http://globoesporte.globo.com/futebol/selecao-brasileira/noticia/2014/07/neymar-da-primeira-entrevista-coletiva-apos-lesao-e-eliminacao-vai-passar.html

    Some of the more interesting comments though have dealt with the hair style and jewelry of the team; The most liked on that link says

    “porque jogador Brasileiro tem que pintar os cabelos e usar brincos , nao
    seria melhor ser apenas homens como os jogadores da Alemanha e somente
    jogar futebol”

    “Why do the Brazilian players have to dye their hair and wear earrings, wouldn’t it be better if they were just men like the German players and only played soccer?”

    I wonder if that is related to the evangelical and pentacostal movements in Brazil, some of them are big into that sort of thing.


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