Many Brazilian players are famous for their public testimonies of Evangelical Christianity. Paulinho proclaims a different faith—and gets in trouble.
by Massimo Introvigne
Soccer fans are familiar with Brazilian players who publicly proclaim their Evangelical Christian faith. This is so common that it is regarded as normal in Brazil, although it can still get players in trouble in more secular countries like France, where the public display of religious symbols and beliefs is not tolerated.
What happens, however, if a Brazilian player witnesses not for Christianity but for an Afro-Brazilian religion that some Christians expose as “demonic” and persecute such as Candomblé? We do have an answer to this question—through the story of Paulinho. Having returned to Brazil in December 2022 to play for Belo Horizonte’s Atlético Mineiro after more than four years with Bayer Leverkusen in Germany, in these days Paulinho is in the news again. A minority of supporters of Atlético Mineiro do not like his religion and are insulting him on social media.
It is not the first time. In 2017, at age seventeen, Paulinho (one of several Brazilian players, both retired and active, known by this nickname) became the youngest player ever to score in Brazil’s major league. He was then playing for Rio de Janeiro’s club Vasco da Gama. He made no mystery of his Candomblé faith, which made him controversial with some supporters. Fundamentalist Christians insulted him during the games. He explained this was a main reason why in 2018 he moved to the German league, where nobody cared for his religion. He was successful with Bayer Leverkusen and went on to play for Brazil in Tokyo’s Olympics in 2021, scoring in the opening game against Germany.
This score proved problematic in Brazil again, as Paulinho celebrated by mimicking the gesture of an archer aiming his bow. Most Brazilians understood but for those who didn’t Paulinho explicitly stated that he was paying homage to Oxóssi, the hunting spirit of Afro-Brazilian religions. He lost ten thousand social media followers, presumably Evangelical, in one day. He returned to Germany, however, and controversies subsided.
He has now returned to Brazil, though, and attacks have started again, with some Evangelical supporters of his team calling him a black magician and worse. This time, Paulinho does not plan to leave Brazil. He believe his decision to stay and continue to publicly express his Afro-Brazilian faith—he even repeated the archer gesture—is a powerful testimony for religious liberty.
There are risks for practitioners of Afro-Brazilian religions in Brazil, as attacks by radical Christians sometimes become violent. Perhaps a soccer player may become the most effective testimonial for the endangered freedom of religion.