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Published October 24, 2016
In soccer-crazed Brazil, the game is proving central to the sport of electoral politics in one major city amid growing disgust with career politicians.
The mayoral runoff in Belo Horizonte, the country's sixth largest city, features two candidates associated with the first division Atletico Mineiro club based there, one as a former player and the other as its ex-chairman.
Retired goalkeeper Joao Leite, who got 33.4 percent of the vote in the first round of voting this month, focuses much of his campaign on his playing days. "From Atletico hero to the man who will improve Belo Horizonte," is how he is frequently introduced at public events.
His electoral opponent is former Atletico Mineiro chairman Alexandre Kalil, one of the most successful club executives in Brazilian soccer's recent history after successfully leading the team to several victories over archrival Cruzeiro, the 2013 Copa Libertadores title and the signing of megastar Ronaldinho.
He was compelled to assure voters he will "govern Belo Horizonte for Cruzeiro fans as well" after detractors complained an old video surfaced showing him as chairman saying he wanted to destroy Cruzeiro as well as recent statements that his enemies would accuse him of "being a pedophile, even a Cruzeiro fan." Kalil nevertheless got 26.5 percent of the vote in the preliminary round.
The two face off again on Oct. 30 and an Ibope Institute poll published Friday shows Kalil leading for the first time with 41 percent of the vote compared to Leite with 35. The survey by one of Brazil's most respectable polling organizations questioned 1,001 voters and had a margin of error of 3 percentage points.
Brazil's former soccer stars have been involved for years in the politics of Latin America's largest nation. A prime example is Sen. Romario de Souza Faria, so well-known for his role as a forward on Brazil's 1994 World Cup winning soccer team that he goes simply by his first name.
But analysts think such political outsiders in a country obsessed with the sport could become even more attractive amid Brazil's worst recession in decades, the long impeachment fight that recently ended with the ousting of President Dilma Rousseff and a colossal corruption scandal at state oil company Petrobras.
"People are not feeling represented and candidates like (Kalil and Leite), with very little political history, could become a trend," said Fabio Wanderley Reis, a political science professor at Minas Gerais Federal University. "Soccer allegiance should not be an issue, but Brazil's rotten party system and the current scandals made these two viable options."
Traditional parties and mainstream politicians got trounced in the first round of voting in Belo Horizonte, about 275 miles (440 kilometers) north of Rio de Janeiro. A four-time congressman from Rousseff's Workers' Party, for example, got just 7 percent of the vote.
Leite shot to fame in the 1980s while playing for Atletico. He started a conservative religious movement called "Christ's Athletes," giving Bibles to his opponents and praying in the locker room.
After retiring from the sport, Leite served one term on Belo Horizonte's city council, then four in the state legislature.
But he still draws on the soccer past that made him famous.
"In the second half of his life, Joao is not defending a goal line anymore," a narrator says, sounding like a sportscaster in a recently released campaign video. "He is defending the people of Belo Horizonte!"
"Now I want to play in the midfield," Leite said in the same campaign video. "I want to be the experienced and balanced man who will lead the attack for Belo Horizonte to improve."
Kalil became popular by successfully leading Atletico to several victories over archrival Cruzeiro, the 2013 Copa Libertadores title and the signing of megastar Ronaldinho. His slogan couldn't be more anti-establishment: "Enough of politicians, vote for Kalil."
TV journalist Heverton Guimaraes, who covers Atletico extensively, said both candidates retain influence in the club, but use the sport differently while campaigning. As an Atletico icon, Leite doesn't talk as much about his time playing. Kalil frequently mentions running the club to make a connection between that success and managing the city, said Guimaraes.
Perhaps more than other voters, Atletico fans are struggling to decide between them.
"We are torn between an iconic player who made us proud for more than a decade and the chairman that gave us our biggest title in 2013," fan Bruno Soares wrote on the team's Facebook age. "Not an easy choice."