On August 31st, Brazil’s young democracy was shaken to the core by the impeachment of democratically elected president Dilma Rousseff. With a final tally of 61-20, the country’s Senate found Dilma guilty of administrative misconduct and voted to formally remove her from office, leaving interim president Michel Temer to finish her term.
Despite Dilma’s plummeting approval ratings and the country’s ongoing economic downturn, the proceedings were a shady display of political manipulation that had echoes of Brazil’s 1964 military coup. So observers on the left were particularly disappointed to see former soccer star-turned-politician Romário de Souza throwing his weight behind the impeachment vote.
Romário is primarily known to international sports fans as the brilliant striker who led Brazil’s national team to victory in the 1994 World Cup, picking up a FIFA Golden Ball and Player of the Year accolades along the way. Sixteen years later, riding high on his inclusion in FIFA’s list of greatest living players, Romário made his way into politics on a platform that promised to root out corruption in international soccer and defend the rights of disabled citizens.
Since the days of Brazil’s military dictatorship, Brazilian futebol has played a special role in defending democratic ideals. In fact, in the early 1980s champion soccer club Corinthians adopted a democratic decision-making model that thumbed its nose at the regime’s top-down authoritarianism and gave the country a unifying symbol of resistance. Romário was too young to form part of that legendary club, but his work as Deputy for the Socialist Party of Brazil in many ways followed in the tradition of Brazilian athletic activism.
After his election in 2010, Romário quickly earned a reputation as a dogged and principled anti-corruption crusader, railing against the dirty money bound up with Brazil’s hosting of the 2014 World Cup and openly calling out the FIFA in the lead up to the association’s historical 2015 shakeup. That same year, Romário secured a seat in the Senate representing for Rio de Janeiro, one of seven Socialist Party politicians in the country’s upper house.
So when the Socialists joined Temer to turn their back on a coalition government headed by Dilma’s Labor Party, Romário was left in the uncomfortable position of choosing between politics and his conscience. For a moment it seemed the latter would prevail, especially after Romário openly criticized Temer and suggested he would vote against Dilma’s impeachment. Yet, when the moment of truth finally came, the soccer legend toed the party line and voted for what many are considering a coup d’état.
Romário’s change of heart has led to much speculation about the personal benefit he is reaping from his decision, and one Labor Party Deputy has accused him of trading his vote for a guaranteed position in Temer’s cabinet. Of course, only Romário knows his true motivations, but the Senator’s image as an anti-politician in the style of Corinthians captain Sócrates has certainly been tainted. Unfortunately, in the aftermath of impeachment, Romário is only a microcosm of Brazil’s democratic process, which may very well have taken an irreparable blow to its credibility.