Brazil's top footballers lean toward Bolsonaro in polarized race

SAO PAULO, Oct 23 (Reuters) - A few days before Brazil's first round of voting in this month's general election, a 13-second TikTok video electrified supporters of President Jair Bolsonaro: soccer star Neymar coming out in favor of his re-election bid.

The video posted on Sep. 29 showed Neymar dancing to a campaign jingle highlighting Bolsonaro's position on the ballot, and the president was quick to share it on social media.

Even as the Paris St Germain forward kept mum on his post apart from lip-syncing the song, the move threw down the gauntlet for other footballers to show their support for the far-right leader, including internationals Thiago Silva and Daniel Alves.

Without mentioning Bolsonaro by name, they shared posts with some of his catch phrases, including slogans popular with Brazil's evangelical Christians, who back him overwhelmingly. In a country where evangelical churches have made major inroads in poorer communities, eroding the Catholic majority, many footballers wear their evangelical faith on their sleeve.

"There is this slogan that I love," Alves said, using a stock Bolsonaro phrase: "Brazil above everything, God above all."

Bolsonaro lost the first round to his leftist challenger Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva by a tighter-than-expected margin, setting up an Oct. 30 runoff.

The outpouring on social media bolstered the growing anecdotal evidence that many of Brazil's most prominent soccer players now lean to the right.

Many players favor conservative politicians because of their own life stories, said sports commentator Juca Kfouri, noting that most soccer stars in Brazil come from poor neighborhoods and reach stardom through their own talents.

"So they tend to be self-centered and repeat that authoritarian speech about meritocracy," said Kfouri, who has endorsed Lula.

Anthropologist Roberto DaMatta also highlighted soccer as an important tool for advancement in Brazil, but added that without deeper research it would be difficult to reach a firm conclusion about players' political preferences across the board.

"It would be pretty speculative."

'WE'RE ON THE SAME SIDE'

Neymar's video has been watched nearly 60 million times on Bolsonaro's Instagram account alone.

While sharing it, the president linked his potential victory to the record-extending sixth World Cup title Brazil will pursue this year in Qatar.

Before Neymar, the likes of Tottenham Hotspur's Lucas Moura and Fluminense's Felipe Melo had thrown their lot in with Bolsonaro, but the endorsement from the national team's number 10 triggered an even wider reaction. He was joined by retired players such as 2002 world champion Rivaldo and former Inter Milan goalkeeper Julio Cesar.

"Neymar, we are on the same side again," Cesar said.

Lula has also gathered a handful of soccer endorsements, but fewer current stars.

Many of his most prominent supporters in the sport are former players linked to Brazil's 1980s campaign to end military dictatorship, such as former Brazil international Walter Casagrande Junior.

As a union leader at the time, Lula was a thorn in the side of the generals who ruled the country for two decades - a military regime which Bolsonaro has been quick to defend.

"I'm not a radical leftist, I'm just for democracy," Casagrande told Reuters. "We are living in chaos. The Bolsonaro administration is destroying the country."

Former Brazil manager Vanderlei Luxemburgo, Lyon icon Juninho Pernambucano and 1994 world champion Rai are also backing Lula. Rai's older brother, the late soccer star Socrates, marched against the military regime and started a pro-democracy movement alongside Casagrande at the Corinthians club in the 1980s.

Awarding a prize named after Socrates at the Ballon d'Or ceremony on Monday, Rai made an "L" sign with his hand while citing Brazil's election, a well-known sign of support for Lula.

Among current players, Bayer Leverkusen forward Paulinho and Vizela right-back Igor Juliao were among the few to openly back the former president, who governed from 2003 to 2010.

Top footballers' embrace of Bolsonaro has jibed with a growing tradition among conservative Brazilians who don the national team's famous yellow jersey in street demonstrations, as Bolsonaro himself has done occasionally.

Will the players' political stance affect Brazilians' support for them in the World Cup?

"I don't think so," Kfouri said. "When the matches start, people forget it all".

Reporting by Gabriel Araujo; Editing by Christian Plumb and Josie Kao

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