The Unwanted 'Gay No. 24 Shirt' and Brazil's Homophobia Problem in Football

Marcus AlvesFeatured Columnist IOctober 11, 2019

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As a third-choice goalkeeper, Brenno Costa seldom makes Gremio's matchday squad. And yet, when it comes to Brazilian football, he is a unique player.

Out of more than 600 footballers, the 20-year-old remains the only one to have worn the No. 24 jersey in the Brasileirao this season. That's the number he had on his back when he climbed the stairs at Rio de Janeiro's famed Maracana stadium to sit on the bench as an unused sub during a 2-1 defeat versus Fluminense at the end of September.

It's the shirt players in Brazil have avoided for years. Throughout history, the No. 24 has been widely regarded as a number to avoid among local footballers, and still it remains a taboo for them to wear it on the pitch.

Is it because it is unlucky, or cursed? No, it's because in Brazil, the No. 24 is traditionally associated with being gay. 

It would appear homophobia still permeates within the top flight of Brazilian football. 

That assumption about the number started with a popular illegal gambling lottery game known as "Jogo do Bicho" ("the Animal Game"). The game is not as popular as it once was, but in the past, makeshift bookies could often be seen on the side of streets offering up the lottery game.

With each number corresponding to a different animal, the 24 was assigned to the deer ("veado" in Portuguese). The issue, though, is that "viado" is also a common homophobic slur in Brazil.

Because of that, it's still extremely rare to see players wearing the No. 24 shirt, and the few who do usually look to get rid of it as quickly as possible.

It is easy enough to ignore the number in the Brasileirao, but in South American competitions such as the Copa Libertadores, squads need to be numbered from 1 to 30, so someone needs to take the shirt, willingly or not.

To avoid conflict among players, clubs often hand the No. 24 jersey to a reserve goalkeeper who is not expected to play.

That is how Cassio ended up with the number during Corinthians' run to the Libertadores title in 2012. 

The former PSV Eindhoven 'keeper unexpectedly made it into the starting XI, but when asked by a reporter about his shirt, he replied, "Its days are numbered." He was "rewarded" for his good performances with the No. 12 soon afterwards.

Even though situations like this have become such an ingrained part of the Brazilian culture, there are hopes that things might be about to change.

"As long as they are available, players can choose their numbers. We don't have a say as a club on their decisions. If they don't pick the No. 24, I have no doubt, it's because of their fear of prejudice," Bahia President Guilherme Bellintani tells Bleacher Report.

"Perhaps, we can convince someone to wear it next season—it's a great challenge and something we will surely consider."

Bahia, who produced stars such as Dani Alves and Anderson Talisca, are the most progressive team in the Brasileirao, supporting causes that go beyond the pitch that have even brought rival fans together.

In September, they launched a campaign against homophobia and, among other things, used rainbow corner flags at their Arena Fonte Nova in Salvador.

It may sound like a small step, but Brazilian football and society is finally looking for ways to fight back against homophobia.

In June, the country's supreme court ruled in favour of criminalizing discrimination related to sexual orientation and gender identity, against the wishes of Brazil's far-right president Jair Bolsonaro.

Brazil's highest-ranking sporting tribunal followed their lead and confirmed a week later that homophobic chants in stadiums would also be punishable with fines and points deductions to clubs. It remains to be seen, though, how strongly these new rule changes will be enforced.

In late August, a game between Vasco da Gama and Sao Paulo was interrupted after referee Anderson Daronco heard home fans chanting "team of f----ts" towards the visiting Sao Paulo side.

Daronco explained the situation to Vasco coach Vanderlei Luxemburgo, warning him the match would be abandoned if it continued. Luxemburgo gestured with his hands for the supporters to stop while the Sao Januario stadium announcer made a similar request.

It was the first time a match was stopped in Brazil because of homophobic abuse. The anti-gay chanting stopped, but when the game was restarted, the song in the stands turned to "Hey, Sao Paulo, f--k you."

Later that same week, the 20 Brasileirao clubs simultaneously posted messages on social media pleading fans to "say no to homophobia."

The initiative was applauded, but at the same time it raised questions—after all, when the clubs were asked by the Estado de S. Paulo newspaper if they backed docking points as a punishment, only one team endorsed such a step: Bahia.

"I strongly believe that if these penalties don't have an impact on the field, there won't be any progress whatsoever. We've got a huge educational problem in our stadiums, a big step forward is needed by everyone, therefore, I think we need this kind of threat for it to work," Bellintani says.

"I'll give you an example: If you go back a few years, you'll remember that throwing objects on the pitch was also very common in Brazil. However, once teams started being punished and losing the right to play at home, this practice was absolutely abandoned. Why can't we do the same with homophobia?

"We had this recent campaign involving all clubs. It was very positive, but still too shy. It was a one-time thing. We need to do it more often."

In a way, the macho culture that persists across Brazil doesn't come as a surprise, considering Bolsonaro's openly conservative and homophobic agenda.

"If you want to come here and have sex with a woman, go for your life. But we can't let this place become known as a gay tourism paradise. We can't be a country of the gay world. We have families," he said in April.

Brazil is among the most dangerous countries in the world for LGBT people, with 445 homicides being recorded to 2017 by watchdog Grupo Gay da Bahia (h/t Gay Community News). 

The fear of attacks is also there in the stadiums, which are still far from being the most welcoming places for gay and transgender fans.

Former singer and businessman Volmar Santos says the situation is even worse now than it was during the military dictatorship in the '70s.

Back then, Volmar founded Coligay, Brazil's first gay football fan group, to cheer for Gremio. It was a revolutionary move.

He suddenly became a cult figure in the blue half of Porto Alegre.

"We never had any trouble with the authorities. At the beginning, it obviously wasn't easy, some of the 'Coliboys,' as we called ourselves, went to the games dressed like ballet dancers, but everyone respected us," Volmar tells B/R.

"Nowadays, everything is very different—it would be more difficult, there's much more violence in the stands."

At that time, becoming increasingly frustrated with the cold atmosphere he saw week in, week out at Gremio's old stadium—Olimpico—Volmar came up with the idea of setting up the Coligay. The main issue was finding other members, but he didn't have to look far.

Volmar was the owner of one of Porto Alegre's most popular gay nightclubs, Coliseu, so it ended up being just a matter of convincing his clients to give football a chance. He eventually managed to gather 30 people for the first match.

"The homophobia problem has always been around, but we didn't actually care about it when we decided to get together. At first, most of the Coligay members just wanted to party, they didn't really understand football. But after a while, they all became fanatical supporters," Volmar recalls.

"I spoke to the police about the risk of attacks, those were tough times with the dictatorship. We had no guarantee of safety but still decided to go to the games. And as expected, some fans tried to beat us in the beginning.

"After that, I put our whole group in karate classes, so we could learn how to defend ourselves. I spread the word and let everybody else hear about it, hoping they would fear us."

It worked out for Volmar and his friends, who had no major issues after that.

"When we started the Coligay, Gremio were going through a difficult time and hadn't won a title in almost decade. But then in our first season, in 1977, we conquered the Rio Grande do Sul State Championship. In the following years, we also lifted the Libertadores Cup and the Intercontinental Cup trophies," he adds.

"We were considered their lucky charm and even received an invitation from Corinthians to travel to Sao Paulo and cheer for them in a final."

Since 2015, Coligay have a panel at the Gremio museum in Porto Alegre. Volmar eventually moved back to his hometown, Passo Fundo, and the group no longer exists, but their legacy has been carried on by another Gremio group of gay supporters called Tribuna 77. 

Regardless of that, as Gremio legend and manager Renato Gaucho recently demonstrated, the fight against homophobia in football is far from over.

The man tipped to become Brazil's next coach was severely criticized for his approach to gay footballers after an interview with Folha de S. Paulo newspaper.

"If you have a gay in music, it's normal; if you have a gay actor, it's normal; if you have a gay in any other job, it's normal. But if you have a gay in football, then it's news around the world. Why is that? I don't get it," Renato argued.

"If I have a gay player [in my squad], I'll joke with him in the morning, afternoon and night. I want him to play. He just can't mix things up: Enter the dressing room, f--k around because he's gay. If he does that with me, he's out."

The immense overreaction to innocuous incidents in the past also illustrated how difficult life could potentially be for an openly gay footballer in Brazil. 

When former Corinthians striker Emerson Sheik posted a picture on his Instagram of him kissing a male friend back in 2013, it led to protests at the training ground the following morning.

Emerson Sheik
Emerson SheikKaz Photography/Getty Images

"We are not homophobic, but if he wants to do these sort of things, he better move elsewhere. We don't accept homosexuals here," one of the fans said

As the pressure mounted, Sheik was forced to meet the club's ultras group, Gavioes da Fiel, to explain the picture and issue a public apology.

A few months after the episode, Sheik was loaned out to Botafogo in a move that his own teammates later admitted was influenced by the kiss.

No footballer from a big club has ever come out in Brazil, but one had to reaffirm multiple times that he's heterosexual.

Throughout his career, Richarlyson (not to be confused with Everton's Richarlison) has always had to deal with rumours about his sexual orientation. 

The situation reached its zenith in 2007, when the Agora Sao Paulo newspaper reported that a player from a Sao Paulo-based team was negotiating with Brazil's most-watched TV show, Fantastico, to announce his sexual orientation on the air.

That same weekend, popular Brazilian sports presenter Milton Neves asked Palmeiras' then-sporting director Jose Cyrillo Junior if the rumoured player was somebody from his side.

Cyrillo Junior then spontaneously mentioned Richarlyson, who was at city rivals Sao Paulo, leading to people assuming he was the mystery player.  Cyrillo Junior went on to talk about how Palmeiras had almost signed Richarlyson, before the midfielder changed his mind at the last minute and chose Sao Paulo instead.

Richarlyson
RicharlysonMAURICIO LIMA/Getty Images

Richarlyson filed a lawsuit against Cyrillo Junior, saying that the public "outing" on television had damaged his reputation.

However, the judge dismissed the case, astonishingly stating that if Richarlyson were gay, "it would be better to abandon the playing field." 

The judge also added that those who watched the 1970 FIFA World Cup and saw players such as Pele and Tostao "would never accept a homosexual idol."

Five years later, and Richarlyson, while at Atletico Mineiro, was once again linked to Palmeiras. 

This time, the Palmeiras ultras reacted by displaying a banner stating, "Homophobia wears green" (the Palmeiras colour). The transfer never took place.

At his peak, Richarlyson won three Brazilian league titles in a row with Sao Paulo between 2006 and 2008, but he never had a break from homophobic abuse, which sometimes came from his own fans. 

Before each game, the club's ultras would sing the name of every player, except for Richarlyson. They even demanded his removal from the starting line-up in a meeting with coach Muricy Ramalho.

At 36, he's not yet retired from playing but is currently without a club and has most recently been working as an assistant coach for a women's volleyball team.

When the ESPN magazine in Brazil asked 20 clubs in 2010 if they would recommend a player coming out in the country, just one of them said they would advise him against it.

Despite that, no footballer has felt comfortable enough to come out publicly.

The closest Brazil has come to accepting gays in football was in the '90s, when several out referees worked games. 

However, the nicknames attributed to them again showed up the attitude many people had towards gay people in football. 

Jorge Jose Emiliano dos Santos was widely known as Margarida (Daisy). Valter Senra was Bianca. And Paulino Rodrigues da Silva was Borboleta (Butterfly). 

While Bahia and the Gremio supporters groups have tried to change the perception, it is clear that Brazil still has a long way to go. 

"Our stadiums are a close representation of the society we live in, coming with an additional problem that is this sense of freedom that you can do whatever you want while you are there." Bahia's Bellintani says.

"It drives not only homophobia, but also racism and women harassment problems to another level.

"The Brazilian football environment is still very macho and will probably remain like this for many years. How can you recommend a player to come out?"

                    

Follow Marcus on Twitter: @_marcus_alves

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