RIO DE JANEIRO – Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro was one of the main protagonists of the 2019 Copa America, attending three of the six matches played by Brazil – which went on to win the tournament – in an attempt to stymie his fall in recent job approval polls.
In addition to attending the opening match between Brazil and Bolivia, the far-right leader also took an unexpected Olympic lap at Belo Horizonte’s Mineirao stadium after Brazil defeated Argentina 2-0 in the semifinals and participated in the trophy presentation ceremony at the Maracana stadium following the home team’s 3-1 win over Peru in the final.
Bolsonaro’s eagerness to capitalize on the tournament came amid a drop in popularity, according to a survey published Monday by the Datafolha polling institute, which pegged his approval rating after the first six months of his term at the lowest for any Brazilian president since the country’s return to democracy in 1985.
According to the survey, 33 percent of Brazilians believe the controversial leader is doing a “bad or awful” job while another 33 percent think he’s doing a “great or good” one and 31 percent say he is doing an “average” job.
The number of detractors rose only slightly with respect to the survey conducted by the polling firm in April, but the poll makes it clear that the president has lost some significant support after winning the elections in October 2018 with 55 percent of the vote.
Bolsonaro had said he would attend Brazil’s Copa America matches to test his popularity and accepted the risk of going to the final despite the country’s leaders traditionally avoiding such situations so as not to be held responsible in case of an eventual defeat.
The president said that he would attend the tournament’s final with Justice Minister Sergio Moro, whose impartiality as a judge in a graft scandal has been under question in recent weeks.
True to his word, they both showed up at the Maracana stadium, the same venue where almost all of his predecessors were booed, including Dilma Rousseff in the opening match of the 2014 World Cup and Michel Temer at the opening ceremony of the 2016 Olympic Games.
The decision came at a price: Bolsonaro was jeered as much as he was cheered during his walk to the pitch to present medals to the champions.
However, the leader did manage to walk away with a priceless photograph of him holding the trophy and posing with the Brazilian players in the stadium’s field.
He also got a video, which was quickly circulated on his social media, showing him in the middle of the celebration with the trophy in his hands and in which some players could be heard calling him “mito” (myth), as he is known among his most loyal supporters.
Five days earlier, at Mineirao, he not only got a photograph clicked with Brazilian striker Neymar, who was ruled out of the Brazilian national team at the last minute owing to an injury, but went down to the field during half-time with a flag in his hand to take an Olympic lap of honor around the stadium in the midst of applause and boos.
The alleged political use of the event was sharply criticized by the Argentine Football Association, who described it as “political interference.”
The body said that Bolsonaro’s presence “did not go unnoticed by players, leaders and the general public as his political demonstrations were evident during the match.”
However, the South American Football Confederation (Conmebol) did not find anything amiss.
“It is normal for presidents to go to the field before a match or during half-time,” said the chief of the Copa America organizing committee, Thiago Jannuzzi.
Argentina’s sports media also came down heavily on the Brazilian leader as several websites on Monday said that Art. 60 of the FIFA Stadium Safety and Security Regulations prohibits “strictly any political or religious act in or near the stadium before, during and after the matches.”
Although the Brazilian players considered Bolsonaro’s participation in the festivities normal and denied that it was being exploited for political gain, Brazilian coach Tite, with help from a Conmebol spokesperson, refrained from answering a question on the issue at the post-match press conference.
And Brazil defender Marquinhos, who appeared to avoid shaking the president’s hand in some photographs that were widely circulated on social media, called it a misinterpretation and said he had already greeted the leader.
“The president is the highest authority and as citizens, we have to respect him. Whether they like him or not, that is not the place to give opinions,” said Brazil captain Daniel Alves.