After bitter election, Brazil seeks unity in World Cup glory

A sea of streamers and mini-Brazilian flags flutters over Freedom Alley, one of myriad narrow streets criss-crossing Rio de Janeiro's biggest favela, Rocinha, which decks itself out in World Cup splendor every four years.

But residents vetoed a graffiti portrait of superstar Neymar -- a supporter of outgoing President Jair Bolsonaro -- and cut back on the usual green and yellow, after the national colors became associated with the far-right in a divisive election whose wounds many Brazilians hope the power of football will now help heal.

"The flag is ours. We're cheering on our country. It has nothing to do with politics," says Marcela Fadini Moreira, the 41-year-old teacher who organized Freedom Alley's entry for Rocinha's quadrennial World Cup street decoration contest.

Still, last month's bitter election -- in which Bolsonaro narrowly lost to veteran leftist Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva -- had an impact on the look of her street's decorations for Qatar-2022, where the country of Pele, Ronaldo and Ronaldinho is seeking a record-extending sixth title.

"People didn't want us to paint Neymar, because he endorsed Bolsonaro" in the elections, Moreira says.

So she and her fellow volunteer decorators instead made a graffiti mural of hometown hero Pedro, a forward for the national team and local club Flamengo.

They also added blue and white streamers to the usual green and yellow, dialing down the colors embraced by Bolsonaro, who urged supporters to wear the Brazilian national team's jersey to vote in October's elections.

- Seeking to smile again -

Higher up the hillside covered by the sprawling slum, other murals depict the national team's players and 2022 World Cup mascot La'eeb.

A group of youths juggle a football in a circle, showing off the prowess that has made Brazil famous for the "beautiful game."

But World Cup enthusiasm is a bit diluted this year, says community leader Eliezer Oliveira, after the carnage of the coronavirus pandemic, an economic crisis and the polarizing election.

"Not many people were enthusiastic about decorating the streets this year," says Oliveira, 57.

He is hoping that will change if Brazil dazzles in Qatar.

"After all the problems we're going through... seeing Brazil crowned champions would put a smile on our faces again," he says, proudly sporting the "Selecao" jersey.

- Less politics, more football -

Brazilians are increasingly catching World Cup fever as the five-time champions prepare to kick off their campaign Thursday against Serbia.

The usual explosion of flags, banners, balls and other national team-themed decorations has arrived, if a little late, in bars, restaurants, stores and streets across the country.

In the Sao Paulo neighborhood of Vila Medeiros, Jadson Paixao decided to keep alive the tradition of decorating his street with his childhood friends.

"It's great if people can enjoy the World Cup and forget about the election," says the 35-year-old Uber driver.

"Politics is politics. Football is football."

Meanwhile, there is a movement to reclaim the colors of the flag as a national symbol, rather than that of the far-right.

Lula, who will be sworn in as president on January 1, has launched a campaign to do just that, saying, "Green and yellow are the colors of anyone who loves and supports the country."

The Brazilian Football Confederation (CBF) has also jumped in, with an ad aimed at depoliticizing the national team's jersey and "reconnecting" with fans.

"The World Cup is a time of unity," said CBF president Ednaldo Rodrigues.

"Football can't live without the fans. Our goal is to connect people of all ages, places, colors, races, ideologies and religions with football."

How well that succeeds could depend on how well things go on the pitch.

"If Brazil win, I think everyone will want to wear the national team's jersey again," Sao Paulo businessman Fabio Vassalo Grande, 47, told AFP in Qatar.

"For Brazilians, football is happiness."

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