There has been a curious religious phenomenon in Brazilian football in the last decade or so. Increasingly, players have been showing their devotion to Jesus during and after matches. Perhaps this is a reflection of the rising power of Protestant evangelical Christianity in Brazil.
At the 2002 World Cup, while other countries walked out in a line onto the pitch, the Brazilian team did so with hands linked. After Brazil defeated Germany in the final, with a billion people watching, the South Americans formed a circle, kneeled and prayed to thank God for their victory. Some removed their Brazilian jerseys to reveal white under T-shirts proclaiming that they loved or belonged to Jesus.
One member of that 2002 Brazilian squad, Ricardo Kaká, is now probably the most famous footballer openly playing for Jesus. Kaká, a white, upper middle class Brazilian, has every reason to be thankful to Jesus.
He comes from the European elite that own and run Brazil and now he earns millions playing for AC Milan – a club owned by Silvio Berlusconi, who incidentally is as successful at avoiding prosecution for corruption in Italian courts as Milan is on the field.
After each goal he scores, whether for Brazil or Milan, Kaká points to the skies and dedicates his goal to God. Sometimes he even lifts up his jersey to reveal the message “I Belong to Jesus”.
The Italian press don’t seem to have the heart to ask Kaká what exactly God will do with all these goals. There is no question Kaká is a model player and a great player. Rarely does he get booked or tangle with opponents. Perhaps this is partly why troubling questions are never asked about his religious antics.
The standard is different for players with more politically uncomfortable beliefs. For example, when Paolo Di Canio gave the fascist salute to his Lazio supporters, among whom there are openly fascist groups, there was embarrassment and outrage.
But is Kaká religious advertising any less an authoritarian and uncompromising ideology than Di Canio’s? Evangelical Christianity has its own global ambitions and behind the smiles it has its own fanaticism – mainly the unconditional acceptance of Christ at the risk of eternal damnation.
Supposing a Muslim footballer removed his jersey to show a message calling for the imposition of Sharia law in Europe? This would hardly be tolerated nor should it be. Players can even be booked for excessive exhibitionism and taking off their jerseys when celebrating a goal. Why should they not be penalized for promoting their religion on the field?
Is it possible that Kaká is tolerated, not just because he is a great player, but because he promotes an unquestioned message of western moral triumphalism?
Playing for a club owned by a right winger like Berlusconi, Kaká’s Christian message is naturally non-threatening and fits in with the current political atmosphere.
If Kaká or another Milan player should do something unthinkable, such as advertise the hammer and sickle, or a call for the invaders of Iraq to be tried as war criminals, he wouldn’t last long at Milan.
Perhaps Kaká should stick with Milan’s official sponsor while playing and keep Jesus for his life off the pitch.
Paolo Bassi is an attorney in the United States. He has visited Brazil and follows Brazilian football and politics. Bassi has also written on politics and culture. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and welcomes your comments.