Brazil: Where God is on the pitch

When the hosts of the 2014 World Cup take on Croatia in the opening match of the tournament on June 12th, God will also be on the pitch. And whoever opens the score sheet for Brazil, it's likely that Jesus will get the credit.

Everyone knows that football is a religion in Brazil, but religion itself finds its expression in the game, and the players' behaviours on and off the pitch reveal much about the country's changing religious landscape.

You will still see players making Catholic gestures such as the sign of the cross, but recent years have seen more evangelical expressions of Christianity. After their victory in the 2002 World Cup final, the whole team knelt in a huge prayer circle, with some players stripping off their shirts to show t-shirts emblazoned with the slogan "I belong to Jesus."

Brazil has been an overwhelmingly Catholic country ever since it was colonised by the Portuguese in the 16th Century. As recently as the 1940s, 99% of Brazilians were Catholics. Today, that figure is 63%.

On the other hand, the proportion of Brazilians belonging to mainstream Protestant churches has been rising, as has the proportion adhering to Islam, Buddhism and Afro-Brazilian religions, such as Candomblé and Umbanda.

The number of atheists and agnostics has also increased; according to the 2010 census, 8% of Brazil's 200 million people now say they have no religion.

'Spirit-filled Christianity'

The real story about religion in Brazil is the irresistible rise of neo-Pentecostalist religion. Pentecostalism - with its brand of "spirit-filled" Christianity, faith healings and exorcisms - was brought to Brazil from the United States in the early 20th Century. In the 1970s, new churches - known as neo-Pentecostal - sprang up on Brazilian soil.

"The neo-Pentecostal churches met the need of the moment," says Andrew Dawson, a senior lecturer at Lancaster University who has been researching religion in Brazil since the early-1990s.

"From the mid-1960s, Brazil underwent massive and rapid urban industrialisation. The accompanying social and cultural upheaval meant that displaced people were faced with choices about their lifestyle and religion that they'd never had before. Neo-Pentecostalism and its emphasis on the individual and self-reliance spoke to this rapidly changing environment," he says.

"As well as appealing to the poor, the Prosperity Gospel, which sees material wealth as a sign of God's favour and something to be enjoyed, chimed with the aspirations of a burgeoning urban middle class," adds Dr Dawson.

The largest of the neo-Pentecostalist churches is the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God (UCKG) which - in a reversal of the missionary movement - now exports its message abroad. It has its own global television network, TV Record, an estimated 8 million members in Brazil and millions more worldwide. Its members congregate in huge temples. The latest, in Sao Paulo, will have a façade 56 metres high, and will be larger than the iconic statue of Christ the Redeemer outside Rio de Janeiro.

The growth in neo-Pentecostalism has injected some tension into a relaxed and syncretic religious culture in which popular Catholicism and Afro-Brazilian religions co-existed peacefully for centuries. Catholic saints and the lesser deities of Afro-Brazilian religions merged into one another and no one seemed to mind very much.

The neo-Pentecostalists took a more critical stance. Afro-Brazilian religions were denounced as demonic, and in 1995 television audiences were shocked by the sight of a UCKG preacher smashing an image of a Catholic saint on a talk show.

Image changes

The neo-Pentecostalists used to denounce football too - they called it "the Devil's egg". But now they see it as a huge marketing opportunity. As the most watched television event in the world, football presents unrivalled scope for evangelism.

According to Professor Carmen Rial, a social anthropologist at the Federal University at Santa Catarina, nearly all of the 60 Brazilian footballers she conducted interviews with were religious.

"I was studying their experiences of migration, so I didn't talk to them about religion," she says. "But I found it cropped up all the time. When I was driving with them in their cars they would be listening to gospel songs, when I visited them in their homes they'd be watching religious television channels, and when I talked to their wives I'd be told about family visits to temples."

Many of Brazil's most famous footballers are neo-Pentecostalists, committed to spreading the evangelical message at home and abroad. Jorginho, part of the Brazilian team that won the 1994 World cup, founded his own church in Munich. AC Milan's Kaka has said he would rather be a pastor than a coach when he retires.

Players give their testimonies outside football stadiums or post them on YouTube. They give a tenth of their earnings to the Church. It's great news for the churches they belong to, but football also benefits.

"The Brazilian players used to have a bad-boy image," says Prof Rial. "They made so much money in such a short time and so faced a lot of temptations.

"The Bad Boy liked carnival, dancing all night and had lots of girlfriends. But with the neo-Pentecostalists, this image has started to change," she says.

"The footballers are obedient to the law of God, but they also obey the law of the coach and the club. They start to respect discipline and that's very beneficial for their career because their career depends on their bodies."

Overt displays of Christianity on the pitch haven't gone down well with football's world governing body, Fifa. It disciplined the Brazilian team after Kaka and Lucio peeled off their tops to reveal Christian t-shirts at the Confederations Cup in 2009. So will the Brazilians be able to refrain from celebrating their faith on the field during this year's World Cup?

"I'm sure that every goal that is scored will be followed by thanks to God", says Prof Rial. "But we may not see such explicit demonstration of religious faith at the World Cup as we have seen in the past- at least, not until they win! Then the celebrations will be very explicit indeed."