There is perhaps no nation more synonymous with soccer and the World Cup than Brazil, and the South American nation loves the sport, too.
But his famous yellow T-shirt has become a divisive icon, thanks to his version of Donald Trump: a far-right one-term president, Jair Bolsonaro.
And in turn, it has created the bizarre situation where the country is torn apart; yes, most still love the team. But not all. And not without some concerns.
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Bolsonaro, who has made Brazil a hotbed of Covid cases in recent years and allowed widespread devastation of the Amazon rainforest at a terrifyingly accelerating rate, was ousted from his post last month.
But throughout his reign, the colors of the national team and the flag became inextricably linked with his extreme politics. Indeed, after he narrowly lost the election to leftist Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, better known as Lula, supporters wearing the colors took to the streets and protested, many calling on the military to overthrow the newly democratically elected government.
One Bolsonaro supporter, who was not directly involved in the protests but was used by the campaign to try to boost his popularity, stood out above the rest: Neymar.
The PSG superstar surprised many when he spoke in support of the controversial then-president: Lula claimed, without evidence, that Neymar’s support was based on Bolsonaro agreeing not to pursue tax evasion allegations.
Either way, Neymar’s support only exacerbated the problem; as was the fact that the World Cup was held later this year, rather than in June and July, at the same time as the elections.
“We are divided”, owner of a T-shirt store in Rio de Janeiro, Jorge El Assad told the New York Times.
“A lot of people who come here don’t even want Neymar’s number 10 shirt, because they supported Bolsonaro. That has never happened. Never.”
Neymar had promised to dedicate his first World Cup goal to Bolsonaro, leaving many fans watching the team’s group stage matches distraught, especially when he missed time with injury.
Watching the match in a crowded bar in downtown Rio de Janeiro, where fans dressed in yellow and green nervously awaited what turned out to be the only goal against Switzerland – scored in the 83rd minute by Casemiro – a 23-year-old law. student Henrique Melo explained his dilemma.
Casemiro leads Brazil to knockouts | 01:04
As a soccer fan, I desperately wanted Neymar to recover from the ankle injury that sidelined him late in Brazil’s 2-0 win over Serbia, in which the Paris Saint-Germain star shone despite not find the goal.
“The team misses him,” said Melo, proudly wearing the jersey of the soccer-mad nation.
At the same time, the fact that the world’s most expensive footballer has yet to score in the tournament “is the best result Brazil has had in the World Cup,” he joked.
“We would have had all these Bolsonaro supporters celebrating,” Melo, a proud Lula supporter, told AFP.
“As a player, Neymar is incredible, he is an artist. As a person he leaves a lot to be desired. Not just his political views, but who he is. Instead of just enjoying the ostentatious lifestyle of his, he could be investing in education, social projects, setting an example for the children… He could be the man”.
On Rio’s iconic Copacabana beach, where huge crowds watched the game on a giant screen, 29-year-old vendor Tainara Santana was feeling the same dilemma.
“I like football so I want (Neymar) to play because he’s good. But I can’t say that I’m sad that he didn’t score. It’s great to see Neymar fail,” he laughed.
With his lean good looks and massive social media following, Neymar is one of the biggest names in sports.
But his football magic has been tarnished at times.
On the pitch, critics accuse the 30-year-old Paris Saint-Germain star of taking a dive and failing to live up to expectations when it counts. Off the court, he has faced accusations of excessive partying, tax fraud and bratty behavior.
“He’s an idiot,” Santana said.
“Not only because of his politics, but because of his machismo, his ego, his total lack of humility.”
Neymar will miss the World Cup matches due to an ankle problem | 00:30
Over the weekend, “F*** Neymar” became one of the top trending topics in Brazil on Twitter.
Brazilian soccer legend Ronaldo ran to Neymar’s defense. “You are screwing Neymar! Giant!” the two-time World Cup winner wrote on Instagram.
“That’s why you have to deal with so much envy and malice, to the point that people celebrate your injury. How low have we sunk? he told her, urging Neymar to “use that hate for fuel.”
Teammates Casemiro and Raphinha also defended Neymar, saying he didn’t deserve the shadow he was receiving on social media.
Brazil have struggled in the past without Neymar, notably enduring the embarrassment of their 7-1 loss to Germany at home in the 2014 World Cup semi-finals after their talisman suffered a back injury.
In Copacabana, Charleo Luis, a supporter of Lula, just wanted to keep politics and soccer separate.
Neymar haters “are idiots who don’t know anything about football,” said the 24-year-old street vendor.
“Who cares if you support Bolsonaro? He is a great player. I’m a big fan, I love it. I am rooting for him to recover.”
The World Cup, he added, “is a time to cheer each other on as a big family.”
But the soft protests have continued. Brazil’s infrequently worn blue alternate jersey has been a more popular sight than usual, and it will be visible again, particularly at home, during Tuesday morning’s round of 16 match against South Korea.
Perhaps just winning the entire World Cup, in canary yellow, can start the healing process.