- Marcos Alves
- BBC Sport
It was derby day in Belo Horizonte, but that wouldn’t change anything as Joao Leit believed he had a mission assigned to him by Jesus Christ, which was to spread the word of God among other footballers.
So that afternoon in December 1982, just as he had done in every game for the previous three years, the Atletico Mineiro goalkeeper was randomly approached by an opponent before the big match started.
“Jesus loves you and I have a gift for you,” Litt told Cruzeiro goalkeeper Carlos Gomez, presenting him with a copy of the Bible.
At the time, Gomez found the whole thing a little strange given the circumstances, and even admitted that he felt angry when he was handed the book.
But this initial feeling later changed and he actually joined the Leit religious movement “The Mathematicals of Christ”.
The Confederation of Athletes of Christ, a federation of evangelical Christian athletes, is one of the most influential movements in Brazilian football.
At their first meeting their number was 4. It is currently expected that their number will be around 7,000 in 60 countries, among them notable footballers such as 2007 Ballon d’Or winner Kaka and former Bayern Munich player Lucio.
Leit, who has played five times for Brazil, told BBC Sport: “It all started with Alex Dias Ribeiro, the Formula 1 driver who competed with the ‘Jesus Saves’ logo on his cars. My shirt, but then the Brazilian Football Confederation banned it, and my Atletico team threatened to deduct the points.”
He added, “That’s when I started giving the Bibles to other players, but there were difficult times where a lot of prejudice against evangelical players, and even in the national team the environment was not comfortable, it was not easy for me.”
When Leite began his “mission” in 1980, 88.9 percent of Brazil’s population identified as Catholic. The proportion of evangelicals (a movement within Protestant Christianity) did not exceed 6.6 percent of the country’s population.
The situation has since changed greatly. Research by Datafolha, a polling institute, estimated in 2021 that the proportion of Catholics is 50 percent and evangelicals 31 percent.
Brazil remains the world’s largest Catholic country, but by 2032, evangelical churches are expected to attract more worshipers in the country.
When Leight retired from football in 1992, the Christ Athletes movement was growing in strength.
The federation had its own television show in Argentina presented by former Brazilian midfielder Paulo Silas and broadcast 3 times a week, and they tried, without success, to attract Diego Maradona.
One of their most prominent figures, Brazilian right-back Jorginho, distributed the Bibles to his opponents when he led his team Bayer Leverkusen, which he left for Bayern Munich in 1992.
Two years later during the 1994 World Cup, he was one of six evangelical players in the Brazil team that beat Italy in a penalty shootout to win the final.
5 of them formed a circle in the middle of the field and thanked the Lord after Roberto Baggio’s penalty kick went over the crossbar. While the sixth player goalkeeper was celebrating in the penalty area.
Afterwards, goalkeeper Taffarel said: “When Baggio received the ball I had no doubts that we would win. Anyone who believes in God will never lose to a Buddha.”
An image of Taffarel, now a Liverpool goalkeeper coach, celebrating with his arms raised to the sky in front of a frustrated Baggio, a practicing Buddhist, is the cover of Who Won the Fourth Title.
That book included testimony from players giving God credit for the victory, a testimony that legendary coach Mario Zagallo criticized.
The Athletes of Christ movement is no longer as popular as it once was. However, the evangelical movement continues to spread rapidly in Brazil and its influence within the national team has increased since 1994.
While Litt faced some hostility toward his faith within the national team in the 1980s, nowadays evangelical priests are allowed to go to team camps, and they rely on player donations to travel and hold prayers in separate rooms set by the Brazilian Football Confederation. In some cases, priests became part of the players’ entourage.
During the 2002 World Cup, which Brazil also won, defender Lucio, Kaka and former Barcelona defender Edmilson joined in prayers.
“You can do whatever you want on your days off,” Lucio told Revista Trip in 2010. “For me, those were moments of faith where we tried to discuss positive ideas about how to deal with the tremendous pressure we had to face.”
After winning the 2009 Confederations Cup in South Africa, Lucio and other players wore white shirts with religious slogans such as “I love God” and “I belong to Jesus”.
Officials asked them to take it off, but Lucio resisted and rolled the shirt over his shorts as he raised the cup. The Danish Football Association publicly complained about the photo, and FIFA sent a warning message to Brazil, whose rules ban “political, religious or personal statements”.
The following year, voices from within Brazil began to question whether evangelism had a significant impact on the national team.
Amid mounting pressure to call up Ronaldinho, who was playing for Milan, for the 2010 World Cup, ESPN magazine wrote on its cover page that he would not go because “football is not enough to play with the Seleção, you have to be a member of the clique (Christian Athletes Union)”.
Ultimately, Ronaldinho was not included in the squad, and after Brazil were eliminated by the Netherlands in the quarter-finals, there were claims that an experienced performance analyst had been replaced by someone with “more evangelical experience”.
A few years later in 2015, the head of security was fired by the Brazilian Confederation for allowing an evangelical prayer to be held inside the team hotel without coach Dunga’s knowledge.
“Today heaven was celebrating during our meeting because 3 souls accepted Jesus Christ and made the right decision,” the priest wrote on social media. Among the attendees were Liverpool duo Alisson Becker and Fabinho, former Chelsea and Arsenal defender David Luiz and Lucas Moura of Tottenham Hotspur.
Evangelicals thrived not only in football in number and strength in Brazil, but also in politics.
Far-right President Jair Bolsonaro won the 2018 elections with the support of nearly 70 percent of the evangelical community, including football stars such as Neymar and Rivaldo.
Bolsonaro, who was born into a Catholic family and later baptized in the Jordan River by an evangelical priest, pledged to appoint a Supreme Court justice who was a “radical evangelist”. He has fulfilled his promise.
When Andre Mendonca’s appointment, lawyer and evangelical pastor, was confirmed in December 2021, a video of First Lady Michele Bolsonaro chanting “Glory to God” went viral.
While serving as attorney general, Mendonca used Bible verses to advocate the reopening of churches during the COVID-19 pandemic. His appointment, he said, was “a small step for man and a giant step for evangelicals”.
Evangelical expansion in politics dates back to 1986 when a rumor began to spread that Brazil was considering making Catholicism its only official religion. That year, 32 Evangelical federal deputies were elected. There are now 105 representatives and 15 senators.
It is not surprising to find some of them holding prayers in the House of Representatives.
Critics associate evangelism in politics with the promotion of a conservative agenda and an increase in intolerance that leaves people of other religious beliefs, particularly people of African descent, free to express themselves.
While Bolsonaro’s national approval rating has recently fallen to 22 percent, with the next presidential election set for October 2, many evangelical footballers like Neymar remain loyal and are seen as playing a key role in his appeal.
Former Brazil international Walter Casagrande, now a sports analyst, criticized the Paris Saint-Germain striker, claiming he had become a “follower” of Bolsonaro.
So when Bayer Leverkusen striker Paulinho scored for Brazil in the 4-2 win over Germany at the Olympics last year, it was interesting to note his celebration.
The 21-year-old has taken a stand against religious persecution, performing the archer gesture in honor of the oxusi (god of spirit) in the Candomble religion.
Candomblé, a mixture of traditional Yoruba, Fon and Bantu beliefs that originated from different regions of Africa, has been practiced mostly clandestinely in Brazil in the past.
Even now, this religion is still under attack from time to time by radical evangelicals, who consider this religion to be Satanic.
But Paulinho seemed determined to remind others back home that there was still a place for all religions in Brazil, and in the national team.
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