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Ronaldinho and the Right-Winger

Brazilian football star Ronaldinho’s recent endorsement of a far-right demagogue is another bizarre chapter in the country’s political descent.

Ronaldinho at the Rio de Janeiro Carnival on February 27, 2017. Raphael Dias / Getty

It would be hard to imagine stranger bedfellows than Ronaldinho and Jair Bolsonaro. Ronaldinho became a global icon in the 2000s, his carefree manner on the pitch belying an enormous talent that made him the best footballer in the world before the emergence of Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo. He was the son of a dockyard worker who died when he was just eight and grew up in poverty in Porto Alegre. Bolsonaro, by contrast, is the champion of Brazil’s rich — a bombastic far-right politician who has made his career directing insults at women, gay people, and ethnic minorities.

And yet, in the increasingly bizarre world of Brazilian politics, the two have been drawn together. In December, Ronaldinho met with Bolsonaro and was pictured holding his book — an endorsement for his presidential campaign that drew headlines across Brazil. In the days that followed he was even rumored to be a possible senate candidate for Bolsonaro’s Patriota party, although both parties maintain that has yet to be agreed.

The backdrop to this unlikely story is the turbulence produced by the 2016 parliamentary coup against Brazilian president Dilma Rouseff. For the right wing, her removal was meant to vindicate antipetismo, a fanatical belief that Dilma’s Workers’ Party (PT) was the root of Brazil’s corruption problems. The wave of corruption allegations which followed Dilma’s removal, embroiling even her historically unpopular successor, did little to give credence to their thesis.

For the country’s left, the episode was filled with injustice — trumped-up charges of budgetary mismanagement, cast as corruption by a hostile press, used to depose an elected leader. But it also brought home how much the Left’s popularity had waned in the thirteen years the PT had been in power, with neither the party itself nor other forces on the Left capable of mounting an effective opposition to the coup.

The saga has contributed greatly to disillusionment with the country’s political system. Earlier this year a Fundação Gétulio Vargas survey found that 83 percent disapproved of the government, 78 percent of political parties, and the same figure for politicians in general. 55 percent said they would not vote for an incumbent again. This set the stage for a dangerous new dynamic in Brazilian politics — the rise of anti-politics and far-right populism.

Right on the Rise

To date, Jair Bolsonaro has been the most prominent beneficiary of this trend. A former army captain during Brazil’s dictatorship and seven-term Member of Parliament, he has made a career courting controversy with bigoted remarks. Notoriously, in 2003, he told a PT congresswoman she wasn’t deserving of rape when she raised its use by the dictatorship against women political prisoners. This has been supplemented over the years by incidents in which he described women politicians as “sluts” and “dykes,” pronounced he would prefer to see his son dead than gay, and said black activists were “animals” who should “go back to the zoo.”

Most recently he dedicated his 2016 vote to impeach Dilma Rousseff to Carlos Brilhante Ustra, a colonel who headed the torture program during the country’s military dictatorship. Dilma, a former Marxist guerrilla, had been one of the program’s victims — a fact Bolsonaro knew too well, referring to the colonel as “the source of Dilma’s dread.”

Despite his lack of political program, Bolsonaro is gaining ground ahead of 2018’s presidential election. In the latest opinion polls from Datafolha, he appears in second place behind former president Lula, attracting between 17 and 18 percent of the vote. With the distinct possibility that Lula will be ineligible to run — pending his corruption conviction being upheld by an appeals court this month — Bolsonaro may enter the race as favorite. Without Lula, he leads the field on between 21 and 22 percent.

Bolsonaro’s base is well-defined — younger men from middle and upper-class backgrounds, with greatest concentration among evangelicals, whites, and those in his native southeast. But its narrowness is also likely to prove an obstacle to his progression in any presidential race: three times as many men as women pick him as their preferred candidate, while Lula draws four times as much support among the poor.

This shouldn’t be surprising for a candidate who revels in authoritarianism. Bolsonaro not only justifies the country’s history of dictatorship, he promises brutal solutions to Brazil’s current security problems. In 2016, there were 61,619 violent deaths recorded in the country, the highest number on record. Bolsonaro’s response to this has been to propose an escalation of police violence, saying that officers would receive “medals not trials” for killing criminals. He has also said that police should be given a “carte blanche to kill” and, most recently, that “a police officer who does not kill is not a police officer.”

Bolsonaro has also managed to build a reputation as incorruptible, one of the few politicians in the spotlight not to be affected by the scandals of recent years. This, though, may reflect more his nickname, “the myth,” than reality, given questions about his involvement with a gold mining project during his days in the military.

His political program is no more substantive, offering few solutions for a Brazilian economy that has dipped in and out of recession for a number of years. The flimsy policy platform he presented to Bloomberg in October was intended to provide evidence of his growing sophistication in this area — but instead prompted the business magazine to draw attention to his “superficial understanding” of economics. Despite its lack of specifics, however, its broad contours were clear: Bolsonaro would support privatization, increased US involvement in the Brazilian economy, and continued pension reform.

But getting this message out by traditional means will prove difficult. Due to its minuscule size, Bolsonaro’s Patriota party will only be allocated a small amount of airtime on state-sanctioned political broadcasts. As a result, his campaign will rely heavily on a strong social media presence. Bolsonaro’s official Facebook page has a total of 4.8 million likes, in comparison to Lula’s 3 million, and has 93.4 million interactions to Lula’s 66.4 million since 2014.

This profile is supplemented by his rabid and faithful online following, sometimes known as the Bolsominions. Echoing his demagoguery and aggressive approach to political discourse these followers are organized into massive Facebook groups, often numbering in the hundreds of thousands, and are likely to play a significant role in the 2018 campaign. According to academic researcher Peterson Fernandes, who recently wrote about time he spent monitoring the groups, they are mobilized “as a matter of routine” against stories and personalities that criticize Bolsonaro.

It is with the importance of this social media campaign in mind that Bolsonaro has courted celebrity endorsement — a path which led him to Ronaldinho.

Football and the Far Right

It is difficult to describe just how good Ronaldinho was to people who never saw him play. His skill, creativity, and joyful attitude to the sport mesmerized fans during his heyday in the mid-2000s. Playing for Barcelona, he was far and away the best player in the world, a fact even their fiercest rivals couldn’t deny. In November 2005, Ronaldinho scored twice as Barcelona ran out winners at the Bernábeu, home to their traditional enemies Real Madrid. His performance was so spectacular that after scoring his second goal, in which he slalomed past the opposing defense before curling a shot beyond the goalkeeper, he received a standing ovation from the Real Madrid support.

However, despite his incredible talent, which twice saw him voted World Footballer of the Year, Ronaldinho’s lack of dedication was always his weakness. He loved playing football, but not being a professional footballer. This took its toll when, during his final season at Barcelona, he suffered a string of muscle injuries and showed a general disinterest in returning to full fitness. He lost his stamina and crucial burst of acceleration, and was transferred to Italian club AC Milan in 2008. There, he gained weight, indulged in the playboy lifestyle for which he had become known and lost his place in the Milan team. He later had spells in Brazil with Flamengo and Atlético Mineiro, where he showed some flashes of his genius but struggled to remain fit and consistent. His last good season came in 2013, when he helped Atlético Mineiro win the Copa Libertadores, South America’s most prestigious club competition. But despite his success there remains an asterisk beside Ronaldinho’s football career: he was such a special player and brought joy to millions, but he could have been so much better.

But if his career ended disappointingly, it was nothing compared to his first foray into politics. Throughout his playing days, Ronaldinho never discussed politics, always giving the impression that he had never given the matter much thought. While he has never been associated with the Brazilian left, his lifestyle and attitude towards the game seemed more suited to the bohemian and often left-leaning footballers of Brazil’s history than to the far right.

This was especially the case given his upbringing. Born poor in the Vila Nova favela in the southern Brazilian city of Porto Alegre, a region where only 17.7 percent of the population declares as non-white — in comparison to 52.5 percent nationwide — Ronaldinho grew up with his parents and older brother in a wooden shack. His father held two jobs: working at the Porto Alegre shipyards and moonlighting as a security guard at the stadium of local club Grêmio, where Ronaldinho would get his first professional contract in 1998. He died in an accident when Ronaldinho was just eight.

But his childhood poverty isn’t the only factor that makes Ronaldinho an unlikely ally of Bolsonaro. Ronaldinho, like the vast majority of Brazil’s great players, is black and even suffered racist abuse in his career. In 2014, upon signing for Mexican club Querétaro, a local politician sparked controversy when he referred to him as a “monkey.” While playing for Barcelona, he threatened to leave the field when his Cameroonian teammate Samuel Eto’o was the target of racist chants from opposing fans.

Bolsonaro has a long history of making inflammatory racist remarks. While giving a lecture at a Jewish social club in Rio de Janeiro this April, he commented upon a visit he made to a quilombo, countryside communities originally founded by escaped slaves. He claimed that “the lightest black person there weighed seven arrobas,” a unit of weight used historically for slaves. He went on to say that the quilombo residents “aren’t even good for breeding anymore” and that the government is wasting money by helping these communities.

In 2011, he appeared as a guest on a popular Brazilian primetime TV show and, when discussing the racial quota policy in Brazilian public universities, he declared that he “would not board a plane piloted by a cotista [a beneficiary of the racial quota policy, literally a “quotist”], nor be operated on by a cotista doctor.” He would later argue that the country’s National Indigenous Foundation was stealing land from whites to “give away to blacks and Indians.”

Ronaldinho is far from the first Brazilian footballer to endorse Bolsonaro’s demagoguery. Felipe Melo, formerly of the Brazilian national team and currently playing for São Paulo club Palmeiras, posted a video on social media on International Workers’ Day earlier this year, praising the far-right candidate. “God bless all the workers and beat up the deadbeats, set Bolsonaro on them!” Melo snarled, in a tone befitting his aggressive and often violent personality on the football pitch. Days later, another former Brazilian national team player, Jadson (who plays for Palmeiras’ rivals Corinthians) joined Melo in support of the Patriota candidate, stating that he had “seen some of [Bolsonaro’s] interviews on YouTube and he seems to be a good person.” He went on to say that if Bolsonaro were to run for president, he would vote for him, citing the candidate’s “fight to preserve family values” as his justification.

Melo and Jadson’s support for Bolsonaro could be explained by the fact that both are evangelical Christians, a segment of the population with which Bolsonaro holds significant support. Though Bolsonaro defines himself as Catholic, he recently traveled to Israel where he was baptized in the Jordan River by an evangelical pastor. He has since made Christian fundamentalism a key part of his platform in an attempt to gain support from a group which has, for decades, sought to gain control over the country’s presidency to defend its “Judeo-Christian heritage.”

Left Back

Before they were represented by Bolsonaro supporters Palmeiras and Corinthians had quite a different history. Both from working-class areas and founded by immigrants, the two rivals organized an exhibition match to raise funds for the Brazilian Communist Party in 1945, an event that saw the teams entering the field behind the hammer and sickle.

That story more accurately reflects a Brazilian football tradition which has, for most of its history, been firmly on the Left. In the 1980s, a group of players at Corinthians formed the famous Corinthian Democracy, led by renowned midfielder Sócrates. The movement was based on the idea that everyone at Corinthians should have a say in club affairs, from the president all the way to the players and coaching staff. On the surface, it was a response to the traditionally authoritarian way in which Brazilian football clubs were run at the time, but more importantly it served as a challenge to the country’s military dictatorship and a lesson in democracy.

Even earlier, during the dictatorship’s Years of Lead (1968-1974), Brazilian football’s other famous rebel Afonsinho helped to defy the regime by campaigning against the archaic labor relationships that were the norm between football clubs and their players. At the time, Brazilian clubs held playing licenses for each member of their squad, which allowed for no freedom of contract for players, essentially treating them as club property. In 1970, Afonsinho fell out of favor at his club Botafogo, where he acted as a form of shop steward for his teammates, demanding their salaries be paid on time. He was sent out on loan to small club Olária, during which time he completed his degree in medicine.

Upon returning to Botafogo, Afonsinho showed up for his first day of training with long, curly hair and a scruffy beard. Labelled a “subversive” for his “communist” facial hair, he was banned from playing for the team and, as Botafogo owned his playing license, he was not allowed to transfer to another club. Afonsinho took his fight to court and won, gaining control of his own license and leading a revolution among his peers. Politically active from a young age, Afonsinho very nearly took up armed struggle in 1968 after eighteen-year-old student Edson Luis Souto was assassinated at the hands of the military police in Rio de Janeiro.

The great Brazilian team of 1970 — with its forward line of Jairzinho, Tostão, Pelé, and Rivelino — was coached before the World Cup by João Saldanha, a militant of the country’s Communist Party, Saldanha had replaced Vicente Feola after the team failed to progress from the group stage of the 1966 World Cup and led them to a perfect record in qualifying, with twenty-three goals scored and only two conceded. Recruited to the Communist Party during the uprising of 1935, Saldanha would go on to play a significant role in the country’s trade union movement too, notably during the 1953 Strike of 300,000. During his time as coach of Brazil’s fabled Seleção he fought to limit the influence of the dictatorship over the country’s football association — a campaign that ultimately saw him removed on the eve of the World Cup in 1970.

More recently, former Lyon midfielder Juninho Pernambucano, took aim at Bolsonaro and his followers. Finding himself under siege for sharing a post on Twitter showing concern about Brazil’s right-wing trajectory, Juninho remarked that he didn’t want to be followed by Bolsominions, stating that he preferred to interact with people with more “human qualities.” He followed this by getting into a row with Bolsonaro’s son, who he accused of prejudice and a lack of respect for equality.

But he represents a rare progressive voice among this generation of Brazilian footballers. More well-known for his foray into politics is 1990s striker Romário, who became an MP and then a senator in recent years. Despite his prominent and worthwhile crusades against football corruption, his chosen parties — the poorly-named Socialist Party and Podemos — have been of the Blairite Third-Way variety. He also backed the coup against Dilma, as did a majority of Brazil’s footballers surveyed in 2016.

In the 2014 presidential election Neymar and retired superstar striker Ronaldo backed centrist PSDB candidate Aécio Neves. The transition from the sport’s left-wing roots to a more elite disposition probably mirrors its ascent to a multitrillion dollar industry worldwide, with all the rewards that brings for its Brazilian players. The fact remains that famous footballers in Brazil are very wealthy men who live in big cities, segments of the population most likely to oppose left-wing politics. The most recent Datafolha opinion poll shows Lula polling at 16 percent among the very rich, less than half of the ex-president’s vote share among the general population. Unsurprisingly, Jair Bolsonaro leads the poll in this segment with 24 percent.

It remains to be seen exactly how far Ronaldinho’s journey with Bolsonaro will go. Since retiring from professional football in 2015, he has bounced from one project to another, never sticking around for very long in any of them. He has played for dozens of clubs in the Americas in exhibition matches, dipped his toes into the music business, played in the Indian futsal league (before leaving after two matches), and pioneered the new sport of “teqball,” which is a mixture between table tennis and “footvolley,” itself a combination of football and volleyball.

In April of this year, in an interview with British football magazine FourFourTwo, Ronaldinho was asked whether he had any ambitions of going into politics. With his trademark toothy grin, he replied: “No politics for me at all. I want to do more for footvolley, to make it an Olympic sport.”

If he decides to go back on this and run for senate, Ronaldinho is in for a tough race. The initial Globo news story suggested he would stand in the southeast state of Minas Gerais, where he would be on the same ballot as Dilma Rousseff and presidential runner-up Aécio Neves. Judging by his recent form, that is probably a race he’ll dribble around. But even if he does, his latest intervention into politics has provided another highlight for Brazil’s resurgent right wing.