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The Evangelicalism of Brazil

In his post about Dunga, Frank notes, “the popular conception of Brazil (the country, as well as the national soccer team) is at odds with its history.” In one way, though, Dunga’s 2010 squad reflects one of the most important trends in modern Brazilian history: the explosion of evangelical Protestantism. As the Washington Post noted a few years ago: “The number of those who identified themselves as evangelicals in national census counts doubled, to more than 26 million people in this country of about 185 million.”  

Evangelicals have also risen to prominence in the national team. Of the 11 players that started against the United States in last summer’s Confederations Cup final, four of them are evangelical Protestants. One is the centerback Lucio, who in ten years has transformed from a hothead who headbutted his own teammate in an Olympic semifinal to being Brazil’s captain. Another is superstar Kaka, who celebrates his goals by pointing to the sky, frequently wears an undershirt reading “I Belong to Jesus” (in English, somewhat curiously), and plans a post-soccer career as a minister. 

The quartet, which also includes Felipe Melo and Luisao, has crucial tactical importance, of course: BBC South American guru Tim Vickery has called Lucio “the rock of the defense” and Kaká “the main man in the current team.” But their influence goes far beyond tactics. Many of Brazil’s top stars of the past decade – Adriano, Robinho, Ronaldo, and Ronaldinho all come to mind – were often known for a party lifestyle, and immaturity both on and off the field. The lack of discipline was widely blamed for the team’s dismal showing four years ago, when the many famous forwards Brazil had at its disposal largely failed to score.

At the time, Kaka attacked then-coach Carlos Alberto Parreira’s decision to allow his players to have sex during the cup (whereas Kaka proudly declared himself a virgin before his 2006 marriage). Four years later, the conjugal visits are out, and the evangelicals hold Bible readings during practice. While their teammates have not converted religiously, they may have culturally: this Brazil side is notably lacking “frivolity,” replacing the flashy trappings of highlight-reel tricks with something far more austere, and uncompromising. And the “us against them” mentality that Dunga has fostered certainly meshes well with the evangelical belief in an “elect.” One could call it “Calvinist” football – not the Brazil of the past, but maybe the Brazil of the future.