RIO-DE-JANEIRO, September 26-More than 20 retired footballers are running in Brazil’s elections next month, trading their boots for suits and the “beautiful game” for the sometimes ugly sport of politics.
From Bebeto to Romario to Ronaldo, the race has often read like a roster of football legends, with former stars either standing for office or hitting the campaign trail for their candidates.
Football and politics overlap in Brazil, whose reverence for the sport makes it a powerful presence on the national scene.
The link between football and democracy in the country dates back at least as far as 1982 — three years from the end of the 1964-1985 military dictatorship — when the captains of Sao Paulo team Corinthians, the legendary Socrates and Wladimir, turned the club into a platform to fight for the return of political freedom, launching a movement known as “Corinthian Democracy.”
Since then a host of players have reinvented themselves as politicians, such as Joao Leite, a former goalkeeper for Atletico Mineiro in the city of Belo Horizonte who is seeking his sixth term as a state legislator for Minas Gerais in the October 5 vote.
Former players don’t always have the noblest motives for going into politics, said Euclides De Freitas Couto, a sociologist who specializes in the role of sports in society at Sao Joao del Rei University.
“A player who reaches the end of his career is still young and chooses the path of politics because he knows he can make a lot of money without working too much. The relationship these players have with politics is generally very promiscuous,” he told AFP.
– Star power –
Ex-footballers often make attractive candidates for the parties that adopt them, their star power drawing voters to the polls.
Brazilians tend to call both footballers and politicians by their first names or nicknames, as if they were family, and that is how many ex-stars appear on the ballot.
While a name such as Jose Roberto Gama de Oliveira doesn’t stand out in Brazil, Bebeto, the name by which he is listed on the ballot, conjures the memory of the Rio de Janeiro state legislator’s three clutch goals for the 1994 World Cup-winning team.
The same holds true for his former teammate Romario de Souza Faria — better known as simply Romario, today a congressman and the favorite to win a Senate seat for Rio next month on the Socialist Party (PSB) ticket.
Romario, who won the most valuable player award at the 1994 World Cup, joined the PSB in 2009.
A wild child known for all-night parties and a hot temper, he was at the time mired in money trouble and legal woes.
He had recently been jailed for 24 hours for failing to pay child support to his ex-wife.
A year later, he was elected a federal lawmaker.
“He got into politics with the idea of making money, but then he started taking critical positions and making an effort to do a good job. Today Romario talks like a politician. He’s no longer an ex-player,” said Freitas.
– Governor Romario? –
Romario has burnished his image during his term in office, drawing attention for his hard work in Congress.
“He still says what he thinks. He started in politics without knowing what was waiting for him, but he discovered he liked it. He saw his leadership ability won people’s respect. That’s made him an important leader in Rio and I don’t doubt he’ll eventually be mayor or governor,” said Marcos Guterman, author of the book “Football Explains Brazil.”
Never one to shy away from a fight, Romario was one of the most vocal critics of the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, railing against FIFA and the Brazilian Football Confederation (CBF).
He also added former teammate Ronaldo to his enemies list, slamming his work as a member of Brazil’s World Cup organizing committee.
Ronaldo has also waded into the electoral fray, campaigning for Social Democratic presidential candidate Aecio Neves, who is trailing a distant third but is the business-world favorite.
“Ronaldo is a different case. He’s a millionaire, he already has money. He just needs to make his wealth grow,” said Freitas.
“To do that, he needs the help of free-market politicians. So it’s pretty standard for him to team up with Aecio.”