Cash-strapped Brazilian players want to get back on the pitch

. May 11, 2020
football Botafogo players enter the pitch wearing masks, in a March 25 match against Bangu. Photo: Vitor Silva/Botafogo Botafogo players enter the pitch wearing masks, in a March 25 match against Bangu. Photo: Vitor Silva/Botafogo

Welcome back to the Brazil Sports newsletter. Football players have come out in favor of bringing back the sport during the pandemic, but mostly for financial reasons. Also, two ex-footballers fight about politics, reminding us how rare it is to see any form of political activism in Brazilian football. Enjoy your read!

Brazilian athletes want to get back to work

As leagues in Europe discuss a potential return for football, it would appear Brazil is far from being able to bring back the beautiful game, as its Covid-19 curve continues to rise. While this hasn’t stopped some state associations and the federal government trying to schedule a return to play as soon as possible, there is far too much uncertainty among fans and players regarding how football can safely be played during the pandemic.

Message from the players. From the players’ point of view, however, the bottom line is that they want to get back on the pitch. In a video released by players’ union Fenapaf, 16 top-flight footballers delivered a message stating they are in favor of returning, but only if they can guarantee their own safety. Beyond their professionalism and “love for the game,” the statement touched on the important point that for many of Brazil’s players, the will to return to playing is a financial necessity. “Most of us only work three months a year, 95 percent earn less than twice the minimum wage,” said the players.

The hidden majority. The vast majority of footballers in Brazil play for clubs outside the national league structure, meaning they only play official games between February and April. As a result, these players have been left without a year’s income already.

  • This is backed up by a recent study carried out by the São Paulo footballers’ union. Out of the 511 men’s and women’s players consulted, almost two-thirds said they were in favor of bringing back regular football — however, over half of these respondents said they “would rather not return, but [they] need the financial return.”

Boots on the pitch, food on the table. The desire to return appears to be inversely proportional to players’ salaries, as, among the top division of football in São Paulo, just 55.12 percent said they were in favor of playing again, against 72.18 percent in the second and third divisions.

Rudimentary safety measures. The biggest concern of all players is how their safety will be guaranteed in a potential return to football. Some suggestions have been made, beyond the no-brainer of playing matches behind closed doors. Players could be forced to wear masks during the game, be forbidden from hugging team-mates during goal celebrations, and Fifa has allowed the use of five substituted per match to cut down physical exertion. 

  • In Brazil, there is also a discussion over a rudimentary coronavirus exam before players are allowed to take the field. Club doctors would measure the body temperature of players and administer what is being called “the coffee test,” having each member of the team smell a cup of coffee, and if they can’t pick up the scent, they would be barred from playing.

Coronavirus in clubs. A number of Brazilian clubs have registered cases of Covid-19 among their ranks. Thirty-eight members of staff at champions Flamengo have tested positive, including three players. Grêmio forward Diego Souza has also contracted the virus, along with two other members of staff at the club.

Bolsonaro and political footballers

A recent political (or non-political?) discussion between two ex-footballers has sparked some reflection on exactly which role sportsmen and women should or should not have in public discourse.

Raí speaks out. The discord began when São Paulo director of football, former World Cup-winner Raí, spoke out against the Jair Bolsonaro administration. Speaking to daily sports show Globo Esporte, Raí called the president “irresponsible” and called for his impeachment in light of his handling of the coronavirus pandemic.

“Stick to football.” Some days later, fellow ex-São Paulo player Caio Ribeiro commented on Raí’s words on a cable TV roundtable show, saying that the speech was out of place, and that the director of football should stick to purely sporting matters.

  • “I didn’t like Raí’s speech, because he talked very little about sport and very much about politics. Though he may say it’s his personal opinion, he is an important figure in São Paulo and his declarations rub off on the institution. I think he should talk about sports.” 

An exception, not the rule. The history of Brazilian football has always been closely tied to politics, especially from its foundation all the way up to the 1980s. However, there have been precious few examples of political activism from within football, meaning that any small instance of political discourse coming from a player’s mouth automatically takes on larger dimensions.

Corinthians Democracy. The most famous example of Brazilian players engaging in politics was the Corinthians Democracy in the early 1980s. As the military dictatorship’s grip on the country began to slip, there was a growing clamor among the population for direct elections and a return to democracy. At this time, led by Raí’s late brother, the midfield maestro Sócrates, São Paulo club Corinthians developed a way to show the public the benefits of democracy, implanting a radical political system within their team. For all club decisions — this encapsulated everything, from tactical choices, when the team would gather before a game, or whether their bus could stop for pee breaks — Corinthians took it to a vote. Players, coaches, and all staff members each had an equal say. 

That’s about it… The fact that the Corinthians Democracy is so celebrated and widely known is an illustration of just how few examples there are of political activism within Brazilian football.

Euan Marshall

Originally from Scotland, Euan Marshall is a journalist who ditched his kilt and bagpipes for a caipirinha and a football in 2011, when he traded Glasgow for São Paulo. Specializing in Brazilian soccer, politics and the connection between the two, he authored a comprehensive history of Brazilian soccer entitled “A to Zico: An Alphabet of Brazilian Football.”

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