The political role of Brazil’s football ultras

and . Jun 02, 2020
The political role of Brazil's football ultras Ultras for democracy. Photo: Pam Santos/FP

Political tensions in Brazil were taken up a notch on Sunday, as protesters for and against the Bolsonaro government clashed on the streets of São Paulo. On one side, there were demonstrators in support of the current administration, who have flouted social isolation measures on a weekly basis to demand the closure of Congress and the Supreme Court. This time, however, they were confronted by an anti-fascist march “in favor of democracy,” headed by organized groups of supporters of São Paulo’s biggest football clubs, representing a show of unity between factions that are traditionally fierce rivals.

The protest was organized on social media by anti-fascist supporters clubs and collectives belonging to the city’s four biggest football teams: Corinthians, Palmeiras, São Paulo, and Santos. While not officially endorsed by the largest organized supporters groups in the city, members of the Corinthians-supporting Gaviões da Fiel, Palmeiras’ Mancha Alviverde, São Paulo’s Independente, and Santos’ Torcida Jovem were seen among the crowd of thousands gathered on São Paulo’s Avenida Paulista.

As the protest converged with pro-Bolsonaro demonstrators, the anti-fascist group was pushed back by the military police’s riot squad, using flash bombs and tear gas.

Football rivals joining forces for democracy

Not only was Sunday’s protest significant as the first time anti-Bolsonaro demonstrators have taken to the street during the Covid-19 pandemic, but it also represented a historic show of solidarity between warring fan groups, more accustomed to facing off against one another in running street battles.

Speaking to newspaper O Estado de S.Paulo, one Palmeiras supporter present at the protest stated that “political ideology comes above any football club.”

Veteran sports journalist Juca Kfouri explains that the protesters comprised anti-fascist wings of existing supporters organizations, which have been around for some time. “But it holds an incredible symbolic weight, seeing bitter rivals like Corinthians and Palmeiras joining together,” he tells The Brazilian Report. “It’s like [former center-right President] Fernando Henrique Cardoso standing alongside [radical left-wing politician] Guilherme Boulos.” 

Coincidentally, both ex-president Cardoso and Mr. Boulos are co-signatories of the broad opposition movement #Juntos (“Together”).

Torcidas organizadas

The presence of football fan groups in political movements is hardly a novelty in world history, and indeed many of Brazil’s largest organized supporters groups — known as torcidas organizadas — were born out of a political cause.

The Gaviões da Fiel, the largest organizada of São Paulo’s most popular club Corinthians, was founded in 1969, during Brazil’s military dictatorship. Fans mounted an insurrection against club president Wadih Helu, who was a state lawmaker for the military regime’s ruling political party.

The main function of these supporters groups comes during the football season, with torcidas organizadas being largely responsible for the chants, banners, and overall atmosphere Brazilian football is famous for.

Outside of the stadium, many of these groups engage in charity fundraisers, supporting vulnerable communities. The Palmeiras-supporting Mancha Alviverde, for instance, recently delivered 100 tons of food and medical supplies to indigenous communities in the north of São Paulo, which have suffered from a recent spike in Covid-19 cases.

anti-fascism football brazil
Anti-fascist demonstrator. Photo: Pam Santos/FP

Bad reputation

Nevertheless, the overarching image of organized fan groups in Brazil is one of crime and violence. Rival supporters have engaged in countless running battles in recent decades, leading local law enforcement to ban all away fans from derby matches in the city. 

Meanwhile, Brazil’s largest supporters groups are rumored to have links with organized crime gangs, particularly in São Paulo. In 2016, a peace treaty agreed among the city’s four largest ultras groups was believed to have been brokered by the notorious First Command of the Capital (PCC) criminal gang, in a bid to take the police spotlight away from their illegal activities.

However, as Juca Kfouri points out, the violent elements within these fan groups “represent the minority of the minority.”

Indeed, studies on organized supporters groups suggest that much of the violence comes in response to the treatment of law enforcement, which is notoriously heavy-handed when it comes to dealing with football fans. “When you treat people like animals, you can expect an animalistic reaction,” says Mr. Kfouri.

The old hostilities between torcidas organizadas and the police were renewed on Sunday, but footage of the protests show riot squads instigating much of the violence. One video, circulating on social media, shows the military police firing tear gas bombs toward the anti-fascist football fans, before one officer appears to exclaim, “is there a more beautiful sight than this?”

football Empty tear gas canisters used on anti-fascist demonstrators in São Paulo. Photo: Pam Santos/FP
Empty tear gas canisters used on anti-fascist demonstrators in São Paulo. Photo: Pam Santos/FP

“It’s curious to see people getting upset over the violence of the torcidas organizadas, but not at the behavior of the police,” says Mr. Kfouri.

Indeed, Sunday was not the first time fans of Corinthians and Palmeiras joined together for a political cause. On October 13, 1945, the bitter rivals, both with working-class backgrounds, took to the pitch for a friendly match to raise funds for the nascent Brazilian Communist Party, which became known as “the Red Derby.” Coming months after the Fall of Berlin and the end of World War II, the two teams took to the field carrying the flag of the Soviet Union. Palmeiras won the game 3-1.

Politicized football fans in Chile

Football supporters groups also played an active role in last year’s wave of protests in Chile. With confrontations between police and protesters resulting in the death of 34 people at the hands of law enforcement, the country was in turmoil — yet the football season trudged along, much to the disgust of players and fans alike.

In November, supporters of Chile’s biggest football club Colo-Colo invaded the pitch during a match between Unión La Calera and Deportivo Iquique, forcing the game to be abandoned. This scene was repeated several times, with the involvement of a number of rival clubs, and the Chilean Professional Football Association reluctantly ended the 2019 championship, declaring Colo-Colo’s rivals Universidad Católica as the winners. 

Whenever taking the field to interrupt matches, fans around the country rallied behind the same chant: “calles con sangre, canchas sin fútbol” — blood on the street, no football on the pitch.

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.”

Lucas Berti

Lucas Berti covers international affairs — specialized in Latin American politics and markets. He has been published by Opera Mundi, Revista VIP, and The Intercept Brasil, among others.

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