Richarlison’s “balletic barnstormer” has been called one of the great World Cup goals; an unstoppable scissor kick that launched Brazil’s campaign in Qatar with a bang. But after his thrilling two-goal blitz against Serbia, the Tottenham forward is being celebrated as much more than just a sporting hero.
Brazilian fans, pundits and politicians lined up to hail Richarlison as a paragon of human decency, compassion and good sense after four gruelling years in which Jair Bolsonaro’s far-right government divided society, wrecked the environment and mishandled a Covid outbreak that killed nearly 700,000 citizens.
“Richarlison is the idol Brazilians deserve after so much suffering,” the sports journalist Talyta Vespa wrote on Friday in one of many tributes to the player’s off-field activism and charity work.
Richarlison – or the Pigeon, as fans know him, thanks to his avian-style celebrations – is by far the most progressive member of Brazil’s seleção. In recent years, as his homeland fell under the control of Bolsonaro’s far-right administration, Richarlison has repeatedly spoken out on topics such as racism, poverty, police and gender violence, LGBTQ+ rights and environmental destruction.
He questioned how Brazil’s yellow jersey had been dragged into the country’s political dispute, and adopted a jaguar to highlight the threats to Brazil’s Pantanal wetlands.
When the British journalist Dom Phillips and Brazilian Indigenous expert Bruno Pereira vanished in the Amazon in June, Richarlison was one of the first celebrities to champion the campaign to try to find them. “On top of everything, he’s sensitive and committed to Brazil,” Pereira’s widow, Beatriz Matos, tweeted at the player on Friday.
During Brazil’s devastating coronavirus emergency – which Bolsonaro called a “little flu” – Richarlison publicly backed vaccination efforts that the science-denying president had actively undermined.
“He’s not only a star on the pitch, he’s a star off it too,” said the favela activist Rene Silva, remembering how Richarlison donated oxygen cylinders to the Amazon city of Manaus when its healthcare system buckled during the pandemic.
Juca Kfouri, one of Brazil’s top football writers, said the outpouring of adoration for Richarlison, while perhaps slightly excessive, reflected how millions of progressive fans were desperate to fall back in love with a team that many had grown profoundly disillusioned with.
Particularly to blame for that estrangement was Neymar, who alienated millions of progressive Brazilians by supporting Bolsonaro’s failed re-election bid and then promising to dedicate his first World Cup goal to him. Other players, including the defender Dani Alves, have also backed Bolsonaro, who lost October’s election to the former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva.
“Richarlison represents a more loving, more affectionate side to the Brazilian seleção,” said Kfouri. “He’s seen as being a citizen who actually cares about Brazil.”
Bolsonaro has fallen silent since losing last month’s election and has said nothing of Brazil’s triumph in Qatar. Leftwing politicians, in contrast, were united in their commemoration of Richarlison and his teammate Vinícius Júnior, who helped create Thursday’s sensational goal and has also been outspoken on issues such as racism.
“Much more than a great player, Richarlison is a model citizen,” tweeted the Worker’s party politician Paulo Pimenta.
Writing in the black website Alma Preta, the journalist Pedro Borges described the state of ecstasy he had found himself in after watching Richarlison and Vinícius shine. He wrote: “Not just because of Brazil’s victory … [but] because the standout players were black athletes who respect our history, who didn’t ignore the suffering of the people and who understand the role they have in our country.”
Rene Silva said Richarlison’s off-field endeavours, which also include helping cancer patients, made him an inspiration to children and teens. “He is a Brazilian idol,” Silva said. “After everything we have been through, this was a moment of hope.”