SAO PAULO – Soon after casting his vote in Brazil’s presidential election in Rio de Janeiro on Sunday, incumbent Jair Bolsonaro was hoisting a silver trophy into the air alongside newly crowned soccer champions.
The far-right leader posed for cameras and snapped selfies with players from the local Flamengo team. On Saturday night, the team won the Copa Libertadores, South America’s most prestigious club soccer tournament. Flamengo is Brazil’s most popular club and won 1-0 against Athletico, of Parana state.
“Brazil champion! Brazil VICTORIOUS!” Fabio Wajngarten, one of the president’s campaign coordinators, wrote on Twitter when sharing the video. “The Brazil of Pr. Jair Bolsonaro!”
Bolsonaro also had lunch with some of Flamengo’s players, before returning to Brazil's capital to watch election results.
It was the latest display of Bolsonaro basking in soccer teams' reflected glory, and a highly visible election-day pit stop, amid an uphill battle against former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva to secure a second term. Footballers' involvement in campaigns can divide fans, especially those who are discomforted by brazen political positioning.
Bolsonaro – who resided in Rio after growing up in Sao Paulo state – was known as a fan of Sao Paulo-based Palmeiras and Botafogo in Rio. That changed after his election in 2018.
The president attends matches regularly, as da Silva did during his days in office. In a nation where hardcore soccer fans would never dream of donning another team’s jersey, Bolsonaro has shown no qualms about sporting dozens of different jerseys from top division teams. The only big exception is Sao Paulo FC, one of Palmeiras’ main rivals. Da Silva, a Corinthians fan, makes a point of rarely wearing another team’s jersey.
Bolsonaro has often shown favor for Flamengo, whose directors are outspoken boosters. Before his meeting on Sunday, several Flamengo players filmed themselves on their team bus expressing support for the incumbent by using their fingers to flash “22” – the number Brazilians must enter on electronic voting machines to cast their ballot for him.
Footballers in Brazil aren’t typically outspoken on politics. Most who have taken a public stand support Bolsonaro.
That includes star striker Neymar and defender Thiago Silva, both of whom are expected to join the country’s squad for the World Cup in Qatar. Former footballers Romário, Ronaldinho and Rivaldo, as well as former national squad coach Luiz Felipe Scolari, have also endorsed Bolsonaro.
Brazil coach Tite said in an interview with The Associated Press earlier this month that he will not travel to Brasilia to meet the president, regardless of the team’s World Cup finish. Tite will leave the job after the tournament.
The canary yellow jersey of Brazil’s national squad has been used as an anti-leftist symbol for nearly a decade; Bolsonaro and his supporters regularly wear them at rallies.
Neymar, an evangelical Christian who said he shares the president's conservative values, is easily Bolsonaro's most prominent supporter from Brazil’s hallowed soccer universe. He has campaigned for the president on his wildly popular social media channels, and posted videos of himself dancing while flashing the “22.”
Video of the Sunday meeting with Flamengo posted by the president’s allies doesn’t show the team’s top players, including strikers Gabriel Barbosa and Pedro. Midfielder Everton Ribeiro, a contender for a spot on the World Cup squad, previously expressed opposition to Bolsonaro and his policies.
Flamengo delayed its celebratory parade due to the election, in light of a request from the nation’s electoral authority.