There is perhaps no nation more synonymous with football, and the World Cup, than Brazil – and the South American nation loves the sport back.
But their famous yellow jersey has become an icon of division, thanks to their version of Donald Trump – a far-right wing, firebrand one-term president, Jair Bolsonaro.
And in turn, it has created the bizarre situation where the country is torn; yes, most still adore the team. But not all of it. And not without some concerns.
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Bolsonaro, who turned Brazil into a hotbed for Covid cases across the last few years and allowed widespread devastation of the Amazon rainforest at a terrifying, accelerated pace, was booted out of office last month.
But throughout his reign the colours of the national team and flag became inextricably linked with his extreme politics. Indeed, after he narrowly lost the election to left-wing Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva – better known as Lula – supporters donning the colours took to the streets and protested, many calling on the military to overthrow the newly democratically-elected government.
One Bolsonaro supporter, not involved directly in the protests but used by the campaign to try and bolster his popularity, stood above the rest: Neymar.
The PSG superstar stunned many when he spoke out in support of the controversial then-president – Lula claimed, without evidence, Neymar’s support was based on Bolsonaro agreeing not to chase up claims of tax evasion.
Either way, Neymar’s support only exacerbated the issue; as did the fact the World Cup was held late this year, rather than in June and July, at the same time as the election.
“We’re divided,” Rio de Janeiro jersey shop owner Jorge El Assad told the New York Times.
“A lot of people coming here don’t even want Neymar’s No. 10 jersey, because he supported Bolsonaro. That has never happened. Never.”
Neymar had promised to dedicate his first World Cup goal to Bolsonaro, which left many fans watching the team’s group stage matches torn – especially when he missed time through an injury.
Watching the match in a packed bar in central Rio de Janeiro, where fans decked out in yellow and green waited nervously for what turned out to be the lone goal against Switzerland – scored in the 83rd minute, by Casemiro – 23-year-old law student Henrique Melo explained his dilemma.
Casemiro fires Brazil into knockouts | 01:04
As a football fan, he desperately wanted Neymar back from the ankle injury that sidelined him late in Brazil’s 2-0 win over Serbia, in which the Paris Saint-Germain star sparkled despite failing to find the goal.
“The team are missing him,” Melo said, proudly sporting the football-mad nation’s jersey.
At the same time, the fact that the world’s most expensive footballer has yet to score in the tournament “is the best result Brazil’s had in the World Cup,” he joked.
“We would have had all these Bolsonaro supporters celebrating,” Melo, a proud supporter of Lula told AFP.
“As a player, Neymar’s incredible – he’s an artist. As a person, he leaves a lot to be desired. Not just his political opinions, but who he is. Instead of just enjoying his bling lifestyle, he could be investing in education, social projects, setting an example for kids… He could be the man.”
On Rio’s iconic Copacabana beach, where a huge crowd watched the match on a giant screen, 29-year-old vendor Tainara Santana was feeling the same quandary.
“I like football, so I want (Neymar) to play because he’s good. But I can’t say I’m sad he hasn’t scored. It’s great to see Neymar fail,” she laughed.
With his lean good looks and huge social media following, Neymar is one of the biggest names in sports.
But his footballing magic has been tarnished at times.
On the pitch, critics accuse the 30-year-old Paris Saint-Germain star of diving and of failing to live up to the hype when it counts. Off the pitch, he has faced accusations of excessive partying, tax fraud and spoiled behavior.
“He’s a jerk,” Santana said.
“Not just for his politics, but because of his machismo, his ego, his total lack of humility.”
Neymar to miss WC games with ankle issue | 00:30
At the weekend, “F*** Neymar” became one of the top trending topics in Brazil on Twitter.
Brazilian football legend Ronaldo rushed to Neymar’s defense. “You’re f***ing Neymar! Giant!” the two-time World Cup winner wrote on Instagram.
“That’s why you have to deal with so much envy and evil, to the point of people celebrating your injury. How low have we sunk?” he said, urging Neymar to “use that hate as fuel.”
Teammates Casemiro and Raphinha also stuck up for Neymar, saying he didn’t deserve the shade he was getting on social media.
Brazil have struggled in the past without Neymar – notably enduring the shame of their 7-1 elimination by Germany on home soil in the 2014 World Cup semi-finals after their talisman suffered a back injury.
In Copacabana, Lula supporter Charleo Luis just wanted to keep politics and football separate.
Neymar haters “are idiots who know nothing about football,” said the 24-year-old street vendor.
“Who cares if he supports Bolsonaro? He’s a great player. I’m a huge fan, I love him. I’m rooting for him to recover.”
The World Cup, he added, “is a time for us to cheer like one big family.”
But the soft protests have continued. Brazil’s infrequently worn blue alternate shirt has been a more popular sight than usual, and will be visible again – particularly back home – during Tuesday morning’s round of 16 game against South Korea.
Perhaps only winning the entire World Cup – in the canary yellow – can start the healing process.