In less than three weeks, Brazil -- the football team -- head to the 2022 World Cup in Qatar among the favourites to win it all. Not only do they top the FIFA rankings heading into the tournament, but they've lost just two competitive games in the past six years and they boast an established blend of veterans and youngsters, led by a coach, Tite, who is a national hero and a superstar, Neymar, who will likely break Pele's record as the country's all-time international goalscorer in Qatar or soon thereafter.
On Sunday, Brazil -- the nation -- heads to the polls in a bitterly contested runoff election pitting left-wing former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, known as Lula, against the incumbent, Jair Bolsonaro. Even by the usually polarized standards of Brazilian politics, this has been an acrimonious and sometimes vicious contest that has divided the nation.
It's a fairly remarkable juxtaposition of major events in Brazilian life. Neymar has shown his support for Bolsonaro by appearing on a livestream on the president's YouTube channel and posting social media videos -- the Paris Saint-Germain forward has more than 180 million followers on Instagram alone -- backing the incumbent president. While he's not the only member of Brazil's Selecao to back him, few have done it so publicly, and none can match his reach and popularity. This even prompted Bolsonaro's challenger, Lula, to suggest that the current president had struck a deal with Neymar and his father to pardon some of his income tax debt in exchange for his endorsement.
We're in uncharted territory here: one of two presidential candidates is accusing the country's biggest star of effectively selling his political endorsement to his rival on the eve of a World Cup. But it doesn't end there.
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Brazil coach Tite, while not mentioning Neymar by name, has lamented the "politicization" of the national team. The oblique reference to Bolsonaro supporters, many of whom show up at rallies in the famous green-and-gold jerseys, was hard to miss. He also reiterated that he wasn't going to meet Bolsonaro, neither for Brazil's pre-World Cup send-off, nor afterward, even if he returns victorious from Qatar.
If Brazil become world champions and Tite, as coach, does not travel to the capital Brasilia to meet the president, he'd be breaking a tradition that dates to 1958, when they won the first of their five World Cups. It's the equivalent of a Super Bowl winner declining an invitation to the White House, with the added wrinkle that a Super Bowl winner is one of 32 franchises; the Selecao is the footballing embodiment of 214 million Brazilians, and Bolsonaro will be president even if he loses the runoff since his term doesn't end until Dec. 31, two weeks after the World Cup final.
There is a history of tension between Tite and Bolsonaro. In 2019, when Brazil won the Copa America and Bolsonaro handed out medals to players and staff, Tite gave the president only a cursory handshake before quickly walking off. Two years later, he was critical of Bolsonaro for insisting that Brazil host the competition again, at short notice, and in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. Yet Tite insists it's a matter of principle, saying he wouldn't celebrate a World Cup win with Lula either.
"My view hasn't changed," he said. "I see the Brazilian national team as part of our collective cultural and sporting heritage... It's such a beautiful thing, it transcends everything... It is our voice as Brazilians."
We've become accustomed to athletes taking a stand on social issues, but outright political endorsements like the one Neymar gave Bolsonaro remain a rarity, at least among those who are still active. Part of it might have to do with the apocryphal Michael Jordan quote that "Republicans buy sneakers too." Part of it might be a genuine understanding that if you represent a team or a region (much less an entire country), potentially alienating part of that city/region/country is wrong. Whatever the case, Brazil as a nation will go into their biggest quadrennial sporting occasion still bearing the scars of an acrimonious presidential race. And, to some degree -- given the public stances taken by Tite and Neymar -- there's a legitimate fear that they will extend to a national team that, thus far, has been not only successful, but a beacon of unity and patriotism as well.
The irony is that during his six-plus years in charge, Tite has done a masterful job with Brazil, ensuring egos are checked at the entrance of the dressing room and that the Selecao is a genuine unit playing with the spirit of a club team, rather than simply as a collection of the country's best footballers. Sure, it's easier to maintain unity when you're successful, but even during Brazil's rare setbacks -- they were knocked out of the 2018 World Cup at the quarterfinal stage and lost the 2021 Copa America final -- they broadly managed to avoid the recrimination, division and finger-pointing that so often follows national disappointments.
Now the question is whether politics have somehow broken the bonds and unsettled the balance that made Brazil under Tite such a powerhouse. Whether the superstar (Neymar) and the coach (Tite) having different views on Bolsonaro somehow spoils what will most likely be the last World Cup for both men.
Two-hundred and fourteen million Brazilians are hoping it won't, praying that the differences are either purely skin deep or will be stowed to one side in Qatar. Politics can't be allowed to encroach and derail the nation's quest for a sixth World Cup.