Playing Soccer for God Brazilian Footballers and the Holy Spirit

Many Brazilians playing for Europe's soccer clubs are members of Pentecostal congregations and are determined to spread their faith. While the footballers are expected to donate one-tenth of their sizeable income to their churches, they often have no idea where the money is going.

By Cathrin Gilbert

Marcelo Bordon is a powerful bear of a man. In football, people like Bordon are known as towering defenders. He is sitting in the club restaurant owned by Schalke 04, the Bundesliga (German football league) team he plays for. With his slicked-back hair, muscular upper body and tattoos, he could easily pass for a prison guard in New Jersey. Yet he speaks softly, talking about the love that helps him when he is in distress, and about the one who has always been there for him, ever since he came into his life.

Bordon is referring to the Holy Spirit.

The Brazilian from Ribeirão Preto, who came to Germany in 1999, is an "Evangélico," or evangelical Christian. He is a member of a pentecostal charismatic church, which advocates strict adherence to the Bible and a "personal relationship with God." This, he says, is the only true church of Jesus Christ. Bordon, 32, sports a tattoo between his shoulders, with the words "Jesus is my Strength" inscribed into his skin in ornate script.

The Bible tells us to be God's soldiers, he says, over a glass of apple spritzer.

An estimated 35 million Brazilians -- almost one in five -- are Evangélicos. Their numbers are growing by two million a year, and 70 percent of them are, like Bordon, members of Pentecostal Charismatic congregations.

Forty years ago, Brazil was still a 90-percent Catholic country. But now that the evangelicals have shifted their focus away from converting the poor and are preaching that wealth and consumption are signs of the true faith, they are beginning to appeal to artists, politicians and higher-paid athletes. Football players, one of Brazil's most successful exports, are carrying the faith out into the world.

In the past, it was players like Bayer Leverkusen's Jorginho and Paulo Sérgio who would publicly invite fellow players to attend bible discussion groups. After that, players like Bayern Munich's Zé Roberto and Lúcio, or Stuttgart's Cacau would pose in their white T-shirts emblazoned with phrases like "Jesus Loves You" after every goal in a Bundesliga match. Like windup dolls, they would mechanically remove the team jerseys they had been wearing over their Jesus T-shirts.

Now that FIFA, the world football federation, has banned all religious and political statements on players' gear, the Evangélicos have taken to celebrating more quietly and less conspicuously. Midfielder Gilberto, who had played for Berlin's Hertha BSC until January, now prays in London at Tottenham Hotspur, national team player Edmílson prays in Villarreal, Spain, Cris in Lyon, Luisão in Lisbon and world star Kaká in Milan.

They proselytize with the help of Brazilian gold, football, which unites people. From the standpoint of the congregations, it is an effective marketing strategy.

The churches of the Pentecostal Charismatic movement, which spilled over to Brazil from the United States in the first half of the 20th century, call themselves Assembléias de Deus (Assemblies of God), Renascer em Cristo (Reborn in Christ) or Igreja Universal do Reino de Deus (Universal Church of the Kingdom of God). Some have spread to more than 70 countries. All members share the belief that Jesus has entered their bodies in the form of the Holy Spirit.

The Schalke team captain Bordon has joined the other Evangélicos in the Bundesliga, as well as about 100 other athletes from Brazil, and formed an organization called Atletas de Cristo. Their mission, as stated on their Web site, is to convert the world to Christianity. As often as his playing schedule permits, Bordon meets with his brothers for religious services.

At a training camp, Bordon invited Schalke manager Andreas Müller, a Mormon, to a bible circle. Missionary work is part of the commitment Bordon entered into when he went to Europe as an athlete of Christ. "God wanted me to come to Germany to spread his word," he says.

Bordon once had a run-in with fellow team member Frank Rost. The goalie, now with Hamburger SV, said that the captain had tried to turn other players against him because he had refused to pray with Bordon. Rost claims that Bordon told trainers and managers that he, Rost, confused him because he was possessed by the devil.

Bordon denies this. Rost and Bordon, with their completely different personalities, were simply a bad fit, says Müller. But former Schalke forward Ailton also says that there were altercations with Bordon that almost ended in blows. According to Ailton, Bordon accused him of lacking a personal relationship with God and, as a result, of paving the way for the devil to gain access to the team. But, says Ailton, he simply did not believe in Bordon's version of salvation.

'The Most Moving Day of my Life'

Ailton did not allow the Holy Spirit to enter his life, says Bordon. It happened to Bordon in 1994, he says. He was sitting in the back row of a small church in São Paulo. Friends had convinced him to come along. He began to feel a hot sensation in his legs, he says, on what he calls "the most moving day of my life."

Suddenly, as Bordon recalls, his feet began stamping on the floor, as if by their own will, slowly at first, and then faster and faster. Everyone in the congregation of 400 people stared at him, but the pastor said that they should let him march.

At the time, says Bordon, he had achieved everything he had ever dreamed of as a child: money, recognition and beautiful women. But what he lacked in life was great fulfillment.

The Pentecostal congregations target members of the upper middle class in Brazil. Part of their objective, apparently, is to secure the donations of well-off citizens. In the past, members were prohibited from drinking alcohol, smoking, watching TV or going to the cinema or theater. Nowadays the evangelical churches preach that affluence and enjoyment are compatible with a Christian lifestyle. This makes the faith more attractive.

Church members even believe that material wealth is a reward for living a god-fearing life. Conversely, they must also become wealthy to be good Christians, the logic being that the rich can donate more money, and that those who donate large sums of money are good people.


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