As Lucas Moura received the ball in the middle of the Old Trafford pitch with his side already two goals to the good, there was little doubt about what he would do next.
Driving at the heart of the defence, he left Chris Smalling on his backside before smashing the ball past David De Gea and into the Manchester United net.
It was the cherry on the cake of a magnificent individual performance and it felt like Moura’s comeback – the individual redemption from forgotten man at Paris Saint Germain to Premier League star – was complete.
Once the hottest property in Brazilian football, Lucas has turned things around in north London after a difficult time in France and is again one of the most talked-about players on both sides of the Atlantic.
And although three goals in two games and the August Player of the Month award were not enough to propel him back into the Brazil squad, the Tottenham player would remain in the headlines throughout the international break.
Fear and Loathing in Sao Paulo
Without any action on the pitch, however, the reason for the column inches was altogether different. On 10th September, in an exchange of opinions on Twitter, Lucas Moura revealed his support for the highly-controversial Brazilian presidential candidate Jair Bolsonaro.
“Imagine someone honest in the middle of all those corrupt [politicians],” wrote the Tottenham forward, replying to a critic on the social media platform. “I, at least, don’t see the same old, same old in [Bolsonaro’s] proposals and speeches.”
South America’s biggest country is deeply divided between those, like Moura, who see Bolsonaro as the solution to Brazil’s many ills and those who argue he is a threat to democracy. Now, even the beautiful game has been drawn into the debate.
After three years of political tumult, Brazil goes to the ballot box for the first round of voting on 7th October and Bolsonaro, the ultra-right-wing candidate for the Social Liberal Party (PSL), is leading in the polls, six points ahead of his nearest challenger.
The former army captain, who is currently in hospital recovering from a stab wound sustained on the campaign trail, has often been referred to as the “Donald Trump of the tropics”, but just a cursory glance at his record and proposals show him to be far more radical.
The PSL candidate has repeatedly expressed his admiration for the brutal military dictatorship that ruled Brazil for 21 years from 1964. He has gone on record as saying he is “in favour of torture” and that “police officers who don’t kill are not [real] police officers”.
Bolsonaro has also been convicted in the courts for using “harmful, prejudicial and discriminatory expressions” toward Brazil’s large black population – in particular residents of Quilombolas, which are home to the descendants of escaped slaves – and for saying a fellow member of congress did not “deserve to be raped” because she “wasn’t good enough” and was “ugly”.
Additionally, he remarked in 2011 that he “would be incapable of loving a gay son” and has since said that he would rather his son “died in an accident” than told him he was a homosexual.
Man of the Millionaires
If Lucas’ support for such a man is surprising to those in Britain, it is far less so to the residents of his homeland. The Tottenham player is among a large cohort of sports stars who have spoken of their intention to vote for the candidate.
Current and ex-footballers like Felipe Melo, Jadson, Edmundo, Kaka, Cafu and Ronaldinho have been joined by futsal star Falcão, Formula 1 legend Emerson Fittipaldi and UFC fighters Jose Aldo, Royce Gracie and Wanderlei Silva in cosying up to Bolsonaro.
Felipe Melo is particularly vocal in his support and has become something of a poster boy for the candidate’s fans. After a recent goal for his club Palmeiras, Melo told pitch-side interviewers that, “This goal goes out to our future president Bolsonaro.”
So, what motivates these stars to throw their considerable weight behind a candidate with such extreme views?
According to Flavio de Campos, a professor of history at the University of Sao Paulo who studies the links between football, society and politics, “The fundamental question is the lack of confidence in democracy. I think it’s contempt for democracy, the idea that democracy is good for nothing, that it’s a waste of time.”
These “fascistic perspectives”, Campos continues, “are based on two premises. The failures and fragility of democratic rule [in Brazil] and the question of corruption. These are the two fundamental arguments… that attract people."
Bolsonaro has promised to place “a load” of military generals in charge of various government departments if he wins the election, and, Campos states, “The simplistic idea is that that a strong government, a government that confronts [the problems] head on, can be the solution. Straight away, this appeals to sections of Brazilian society and invades the dressing rooms.”
Fighting Corruption with Craziness
Mauricio Santoro, a political scientist and professor of international relations at Rio de Janeiro State University, backs up Campos’ view. People, he says, “believe in Bolsonaro because they are furious and revolted with the Brazilian political system.
“They are voters who think that Brazilian parties are corrupt, that Brazilian politicians are corrupt, and see Bolsonaro as a rebel, as someone challenging the establishment.”
The simplicity of the solutions Bolsonaro presents to complex issues also attracts voters and footballers in particular. Sports journalist Bruno Rodrigues says that “Bolsonaro’s discourse is very easy; the easy solution. How are we going to solve the problem of criminality? [For him] it’s by arming our citizens… if someone burgles a house, the citizen has the right to go and kill the robber.
“Footballers end up buying this discourse of the easy solution because they aren’t interested, they don’t seek to inform themselves… it’s comfortable for them.”
As Juca Kfouri, a columnist for the newspaper Folha de SP, succinctly puts it, “[The players’] ignorance confuses the desire for order and honesty with repressive violence and impedes them from seeing that the candidate has not an iota of honesty.”
Falling Out with Fans
This support for Bolsonaro, however, has put footballers at odds with a lot of fans, who repudiate the candidate’s prejudiced views and autocratic tendencies.
Gavioes da Fiel, the biggest organised fan group linked to Corinthians, recently went as far as releasing a statement rejecting the politician who two of their team’s players, Jadson and Roger, openly back.
The organisation’s president, Rodrigo Gonzalez Tapia, wrote to members, “do you know the history of [Gavioes]? Do you know that upon our foundation, in 1969, we lived in the middle of a military dictatorship?... Do you know the oppression that our founders suffered for raising the flag in favour of democracy and our people’s rights?”
At the end of the note, Tapia invites any of the 112,000 Gavioes members who intend to vote for Bolsonaro to “remove themselves” from the organisation.
The clubs themselves have resolutely refused to be drawn into the debate.
The players’ support for Bolsonaro can also be seen as a reflection of their position in society and demographic characteristics. Political scientist Santoro explains that, “around two-thirds of Bolsonaro voters are men… [and] Bolsonaro is much stronger among the middle-class and the elite than he is amongst the poor.”
“Bolsonaro voters,” Santoro adds, “are concentrated in the south and south-east of Brazil.” Much of the country’s wealth – and consequently its biggest clubs and highest-paid players – is found in these two areas.
Most successful players, according to history professor Campos, “have experienced a meteoric social ascension… They come from a background of social deprivation and come to enjoy a life of the wealthy upper-middle class… Instead of looking at their origins, they identify with their current social status, the elite.”
Columnist Kfouri, who was strongly associated with the struggle for democracy in the 1980s, comments that, “in general the players are alienated… or are of the political right, worried about their privileges. They frequent high society and are colonised by it.”
He also reminds us that this is not the first time in recent history that Brazilian footballers have backed a candidate in the presidential election. “In 2014,” he recalls, “both Neymar and Ronaldo Fenomeno showed support for Aecio Neves.” Neves was the right-wing favourite at the time, though ended up losing to Dilma Rousseff.
Historian Flavio de Campos, however, says that these right-wing views are still relatively new; an “inversion” of the ideas expressed by Brazilian footballers from bygone eras.
Traditionally, players have tended to be associated with more progressive causes. Socrates, for example, who was captain of the wonderful 1982 World Cup team, campaigned for the end of the military dictatorship in the early 80s, even going as far as saying he would not leave the country to play in Italy if a direct presidential election were called.
If Bolsonaro is elected as president, the consequences, as Mauricio Santoro explains, could be two-fold. “Firstly, he is the first presidential candidate since Brazil returned to democracy to have a discourse of violence against minorities, of homophobia and aggression towards women… This will increase violent crimes against homosexuals and violence against women.
“Secondly,” he continues, “there are declarations of Bolsonaro and his candidate for vice-president General Mourao speaking of the possibility of a coup, of the intervention of the armed forces in democratic politics… This isn’t a theoretical possibility in Latin America, we have a strong history of democratically elected presidents acting as authoritarians after taking power.”
World news magazine The Economist put a picture of Bolsonaro on their most recent issue, along with the headline: “Latin America’s Latest Menace.” In the two rounds of voting that culminate on October 22nd, Lucas Moura and the rest of the Brazilian electorate will decide whether they want to make him their president.