How Bahia became the most progressive football club in Brazil | Football

As the Bahia players walked on to the pitch for their Série A game against Ceará last month, there was something striking about their shirts. Their elegant blue, red and white stripes were covered by splotches of black around the neck, under the arms and on the hem. They had not accidentally spilled a pot of paint on the kit bag. Bahia were making a statement.

For the last 52 days, hundreds of tons of thick crude oil had been washing up on beaches in the north east of Brazil. Nobody knew where the oil was coming from and the government’s response was woefully inadequate. “We saw the news being spread,” says Bahia president Guilherme Bellintani. “But it was timid in relation to the scale of the disaster.” So the club decided to speak up.

Bahia’s intervention on the subject came as no surprise to football fans in Brazil. Over the last two years, the club have developed a reputation as the most democratic and socially engaged club in the country, running campaigns on issues such as racism, LGBTQ rights, the demarcation of indigenous lands and the treatment of female fans in football stadiums. At the same time, they have managed to reduce ticket prices, increase revenues, pay off some of the debt that was crippling the club and improve their results on the pitch.

Brazilian footballers protest oil spill with custom-made shirts and gloves – video report

Bahia, based in the city of Salvador, are the only club in Brazil’s northeast region to have won two national titles, in 1959 and 1988. The club are enormously popular but they were hamstrung by poor leadership for long time. “The club was effectively managed by three families or personalities for decades,” explains Bellintani. “They all had very similar characteristics: undemocratic and populist. They accumulated a lot of debt and their projects were short-term.” Results suffered and the club spent two seasons in the third tier from 2006 to 2007. “That was the peak of the mismanagement and debt,” says Bellintani.

Fans were sick of the incompetence at the top so decided to take a stand. “A movement called Democracia Tricolor started in the 1990s,” says Bellintani. “Then, in 2013, the battle was won.” They took over and transformed the club – “re-founded” is the term Bellintani uses – with season ticket holders given the chance to vote for the club’s president.

Bellintani, the third president since the fans took charge of the club, says he had three objectives when he was voted into the role last year: to secure the club financially, achieve success on the pitch and implement “affirmative actions”. To that third end, he helped establish the Nucleus for Affirmative Actions, a new department at the club that has overseen the campaigns that have brought Bahia to the forefront of the battle for basic rights for many of Brazil’s oppressed groups.

Nelson Barros Neto, who works as the club’s communications manager and helps run the new group, says they set up a WhatsApp group with 45 fans – “anthropologists, sociologists, teachers, lawyers, women, men, black people, indigenous people, a deaf person, a blind person, someone with a physical disability” – where they decide which issues to address. “Obviously, there are the commemorative dates,” he says. “Women’s Month is in March and Children’s Day in October, but we try not to get stuck on those. We try to dribble around them. We want to talk about the women’s cause all year and LGBT issues not only on Pride day.”

They first attracted media attention during Black Consciousness Month last November, when the team took to the pitch with the names of 20 historic black Brazilian leaders on their shirts. Names ranged from Dandara and Zumbi dos Palmares, two 17th-century leaders of escaped enslaved people – to capoeira master Moa de Katendê, who was murdered last year in a politically motivated attack.

The group has gone from strength to strength since then. In April, the club released a video showing indigenous Brazilians symbolically painting the white lines of a football pitch with the hashtag #DemarcaçãoJá (“Demarcation Now”) and used their players’ shirts to pay tribute to indigenous leaders. In May, the club set up an app for women to report harassment inside the stadium. The information they submit is then passed on to a specialist police unit made up of female officers who respond immediately. The club have also shown their support of LGBTQ rights, including replacing the blue, white and red corner flags with rainbow ones.

On Mother’s Day, players went on to the pitch with posters of missing children, urging anyone with information to come forward. “In one case we found information on the whereabouts of the child,” says Barros Neto. “You can’t put a price on that.” In the week leading up to Father’s Day, they provided free paternity tests in the club shop, uniting dozens of children with fathers they didn’t know.

The players are also part of the new approach. “It is something new in our working environment, but I believe Bahia has already influenced other clubs,” says goalkeeper Douglas Friedrich. “I hope that, as players, we can grow and be more active in these issues. Not everyone will be prepared to position themselves, or might not agree, on certain issues. But personally, it motivates me. Football connects people who have the purpose of doing good.”

Bahia manager Roger Machado.

Bahia manager Roger Machado. Photograph: Foto Arena LTDA/Alamy

Bahia manager Roger Machado is one of only two black head coaches in the Brazilian top flight. He made headlines last month when he gave a powerful speech in a post-match press conference, condemning the structural racism in Brazilian society. When asked about the club’s social engagement, he says: “I have woken with such a great sense of belonging in Salvador. Bahia [the state] and Bahia [the club] have empowered me, given me the courage to make that declaration [against racism]. Being inserted into this context really helped me to respond to the issue in that way. If, at the end of the book of my life, it is written: ‘This individual helped to construct sport but, above all, helped to use sport as a tool for transformation,’ I will be able to die in peace.”

As well as his work on social engagement, Bellintani has come good on his other two objectives. The club’s revenue has risen from 95 million reals (£17.7m) in 2017 to 170 million (£31.7m) this year and their debt has been reduced from 190 to 160 million (£35.5m to £29.9m). Introducing cheaper tickets has helped. Memberships now start at 45 Reals a month (£8.50) for those on monthly incomes of 1,500 Reals or less (£280). The cheaper prices have enticed fans back to the club, with the number of members growing from 14,000 to 45,000.

The team play in the magnificent Arena Fonte Nova, one of the stadiums constructed for the 2014 World Cup, but that does not mean they have started charging premium prices. “After the World Cup, people thought we would continue having the Fifa spirit here – high ticket prices, high prices for food and drinks – but people started to stay away,” says Bellintani. “I read an article about Borussia Dortmund that said they determine the ticket price based on the price necessary to fill the stadium. It’s better to have more seats occupied for a lower price than have one seat occupied for a high price. We inverted the logic that was imposed by Fifa – that tickets and food have to be expensive. And the fans came back.”

The average attendance has increased to 25,000 – the sixth highest in the country – and the fans are being treated to some great football. Bahia are enjoying their best campaign in years, currently sitting ninth in the table. Next year, they will also move to a new training facility.

The Arena Fonte Nova.

The Arena Fonte Nova. Photograph: Reuters

In a region that suffers economically and people are often subjected to prejudice from the rest of Brazil, the reaction from fans has been overwhelmingly positive. “There are people who weren’t interested in football who have taken an interest because of our positions,” says Barros Neto. “Even fans of our rival [Vitória] are saying they would like to see the same sort of thing happening there.”

Onã Rudá, an LGBT rights activist and lifelong Bahia fan, recently founded the club’s first LGBT fanclub, called LGBTricolor. “Bahia’s actions are innovative,” he says. “When Bahia defend stigmatised groups, they are affecting culture in a place – the football stadium – where people didn’t imagine it would be questioned. Look at the oil on the shirts: they are bringing it to the attention of parts of the population that might not realise this is happening. After I came out as gay, I drifted away from the game, because there is toxic masculinity in football. It is a violent environment for LGBT people. I would rarely go to the stadium. If I went with my companion, it was tense. The actions of the Nucleus made me think: ‘It doesn’t have to be like that.’ Bahia is the team of the people and we are part of that. We founded LGBTricolor because Bahia provoked us to. Bahia said: ‘You are ours and we are yours.’”

However, not everyone approves of the club’s new approach. “When we lose two or three games, the complaints start,” says Bellintani. “It hurts. They say we’re doing too much social stuff and too little football. The conservatives say it as if the affirmative actions in some way affect the football, as if the players are not training to go and take care of the social actions.”

“People say: ‘Bahia is a communist club,’” says Barros Neto. “But all the things we have done are humanitarian and have a basis in our constitution. The constitution provides for the demarcation of indigenous lands, for education. They are issues that transcend party politics. Bahia will always try to do things that are humanitarian, universal, for inclusion.”

Staying neutral when it comes to elections is also important for Bellintani. “We respect the political positions of our players. There are players who voted for Bolsonaro and that’s fine. It’s democracy.” But they will not be deterred by criticism from a minority of fans. “Bahia was re-founded based on democracy,” says Bellintani. “Democracy has become a precious asset for us. We cannot let it go. We want this approach to become part of the fabric of the club. We want to be a club that communicates these issues and that practices what it preaches.”

“In terms of access to goods and public provisions, our fans are always in second place. Our city is a poor one, with one of the lowest GDPs per capita in Brazil. It is a black city, with a very strong cultural history and a history of resistance and struggle. Our directorate is still very white. We don’t have black people or women in important positions. On the council too, there is not a big female or black presence.

“How can we defend these causes without provoking a change? That is the next phase. Football has a huge impact. If a football club sets this example, it is probable that other organisations will follow. A club can be a channel of communication for aggression, violence and intolerance. But it can also be a channel for affection, integration and love.”

This is an article from Yellow & Green Football
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