What the Ban on Religious Demonstrations at the World Cup Reveals About Brazilian Christians

In Brazil, the country of football, the relationship between religion and the soccer ball is old. Athletes have long played with crucifixes, medals of saints, or wrist tapes honoring the deities of the local Candomblé cult. But in recent years, explicit evangelical expressions of the faith in Christ have dominated the sporting scene. Perhaps not surprising in a country where nearly 25 percent of the population is Protestant, Brazil’s national team prays before and after games and celebrates goals by displaying T-shirts with Christian messages. At least six athletes on the current national team playing in this summer’s World Cup have declared themselves evangelical, including Fernandinho, Thiago Silva, Alisson, Douglas Costa, Willian and its star, Neymar.

But unlike previous international tournaments, the team has been banned from celebrating any of its on-field successes through religious expression. Just before the 2018 FIFA World Cup, the Brazilian Football Confederation (CBF) banned the team from religiously themed celebrations, claiming that the practice could divert focus on competition and constrain athletes who practice other beliefs or are agnostic. The measure, announced in June, is in line with guidelines from FIFA itself, which controls the world of football and which, since the 2006 World Cup, has been restricting religious demonstrations on the field.

Religious celebrations have long been part of Brazilian soccer. After winning the 1994 World Cup, Cláudio Taffarel and Jorginho attributed part of their victory to divine action. An image of Taffarel in ecstasy, kneeling on the field in front of Roberto Baggio, an Italian player who missed the final kick penalty that gave the championship to Brazil, was used as a demonstration of the superiority of the evangelical faith over Buddhism, the religion professed by the Italian striker. The photo also became the cover of the book Quem Venceu o Tetra? (Who Won the Fourth Championship?), which included testimony of evangelical athletes praising and giving God credit for their win. Not everyone appreciated the book’s implications, however. Veteran footballer Mário Jorge Zagallo criticized it for suggesting that athletic success related to faith, claiming this argument reduced the value of the athlete’s dedication and effort.

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Source: Christianity Today