September 21, 2018 / 1:29 AM / a month ago

After years of silence, Brazil's footballers get political again

SAO PAULO (Reuters) - Brazil’s divisive campaign for next month’s presidential election has spilled over onto sacred ground - the country’s soccer pitches - an arena where political statements have been rare in recent years.

FILE PHOTO: Soccer Football - Premier League - Manchester United v Tottenham Hotspur - Old Trafford, Manchester, Britain - August 27, 2018 Tottenham's Lucas Moura celebrates after the match REUTERS/Andrew Yates

Opinion polls show the presidential election is shaping up to be a two-horse race between the far-right Jair Bolsonaro and the leftist Workers Party candidate Fernando Haddad.

Bolsonaro, who is currently in hospital after being stabbed while on the campaign trail, leads the polls with around 28 per cent, nine points clear of Haddad, with the other candidates trailing.

If none win a majority on Oct. 7 a run-off will be held three weeks later.

FILE PHOTO: Soccer Football - Brasileiro Championship - Palmeiras v Corinthians, Allianz Parque stadium, Sao Paulo, Brazil - September 9, 2018. Palmeiras Felipe Melo in action during the match. REUTERS/Paulo Whitaker

Bolsonaro has won support in recent weeks from a handful of top footballers, most controversially Palmeiras’ club midfielder Felipe Melo.

Melo last week on national TV dedicated a match-winning goal “to our future president Bolsonaro.”

Melo, who goes by the nickname Pitbull and is famous for his tempestuous behavior both on and off the field, was backed up by Tottenham Hotspur’s Brazil winger Lucas Moura, as well as players from the Corinthians and Internacional teams.

Their support for Bolsonaro, a man who has threatened to execute political rivals and told a fellow congresswoman she is too ugly to rape, provoked celebration and condemnation in equal measure and spread to Brazil’s powerful organised football fan groups.

One of the biggest, a group of more than 100,000 members who support Palmeiras’ rivals Corinthians, told members this week a vote for Bolsonaro is not in keeping with the principles of a club famous for its working-class roots.

FILE PHOTO: Presidential candidate Jair Bolsonaro leaves an agribusiness fair in Esteio, Rio Grande do Sul state, Brazil August 29, 2018. REUTERS/Diego Vara/File photo

“Those of you who support a guy who goes against our ideals and throws our past rights’ struggles in the garbage, please, if you want to keep supporting this guy, rethink your path inside our group,” its leader Rodrigo Gonzalez Tapia wrote in an open letter published on Wednesday.

Backing from Corinthians players was particularly jarring for a club that was home to Corinthians Democracy, one the most extraordinary player power movements in sporting history.

The sudden involvement of players like Melo is welcome because all sport is political, said Juca Kfouri one of Brazil’s best-known sports columnists.

The surprise is that in a country renowned for its footballing left-wingers, the only ones now taking a political stance are on the right.

“If we criticised players in the past for not looking further than their own belly buttons, we can’t criticise them now for speaking out,” Kfouri said. “But what we are hearing now is not enlightenment, it’s ignorance.”

Reporting by Andrew Downie

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