Politics divides Brazilians in the way football never did

You have probably heard that football plays an important role in Brazilian culture. Pelé, Garrincha, Ronaldo, and many others have all made sure that the world knows that Brazil was “the country of football.” Unfortunately, I have bad news for you – we changed our national sport. Since our thrashing at the 2014 World Cup, where we lost 7-1 to Germany, it seems that Brazil has been looking for another national sport.

Our new national sport can be less entertaining, but it is certainly more radical. Besides that, it is accessible to everybody, anywhere at any time. We see professional association clubs taking shape, with many forceful supporters ready to defend their team at every opportunity. But what is our newest national sport? It is Politics.

Politics has taken football’s place in Brazilian culture. We cannot say exactly when the change started (and if it really happened after the 2014 World Cup) but the enthusiasm Brazilians used to show when football was the subject has rapidly moved to the political field.

In Brazil, : it was common to have casual conversations with strangers about football. If you happened to be more than a minute with somebody you did not know – for example, in a line to the cashier, in an elevator, or in a taxi – the natural subject was football (besides the universal topic of weather). People would talk about the last match, about who they thought would win the league, etc. They would criticise this or that coach, remember the good old times of Pele, and maybe cheerfully provoke each other about their respective clubs.

Nowadays, people will talk about politics – rather than football. They will talk about Bolsonaro’s last tweet, that politician’s remark, how the media covered this and that and so on. It finally seems that we are a serious nation – “we talk about important things.” But even if at first sight it can seem an improvement, that maybe Brazilians finally are upset about their future, actually there are two problems which make this change a serious threat to our culture.

The first problem is that we cannot “cheerfully provoke each other about our respective political parties” as we could with football clubs. And yet, people will try to do it. The result is that most conversations devolve into fierce arguments between left-wing and right-wing citizens. Every line in a market, every waiting-room can easily become a violent debate ring. People quickly identify their club’s supporters and opposers. And instead of talking about ideas, they talk about sides, as if they were talking about football – where it really does not matter what the argument is, the important point is that your team wins. Brazilians used to avoid conflicts at all costs – it was one of our main cultural values – but in the last years it would seem we are enjoying this daily fight.

The second problem is that people really seem to think politics is like sport. Most citizens choose a side because of a vague general identification (“the Left seems to support LGBT people, I do that too, so I am a left-wing supporter” or “the Right seems to support tradition, I do that too, so I am a right-wing supporter”) and then they support their “team” in every subject, without stopping to think about the wider details. Their political movement becomes their sports club.

A curious situation recently happened to me on Facebook. I voted for Bolsonaro in the last elections and all my social media contacts know that. I follow Bolsonaro’s posts, especially because many of them bring important news before the traditional media covers it. But a recurrent problem is that Bolsonaro writes with many grammatical problems. I commented in one of his posts that I agreed with what he was defending, but that he should ask one of his aides to review his posts before publishing them, to avoid howlers.

In a few minutes I had plenty of Bolsonaro’s supporters answering my comment to call me a “socialist.” Those supporters could not understand that this was simple grammatical point – they automatically thought: “this guy must be of the other team, otherwise he wouldn’t see a problem with the president’s writing style.”

This monolithic support for “the team” on all topics is seen also in other political Brazilian movements, showing it is not just a problem with Bolsonaro’s supporters, but with the modern Brazilian mentality. We are approaching politics in the same way we used to approach football – everyone must be fit into one club and support it, no matter what. But politics is a much more serious subject, much more complex, much more emotionally appealing. The result is a growing tribal mentality – shallow ideological battles between clans, without real thought or rational arguments.

If being a serious country is really about defending a team no matter what, about judging people by their political clan, I would rather Brazil was once again “the country of football”.

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