That harassment may have been at the heart of a campaign he started after fellow Brazilian team member Dani Alves had a banana thrown at him by fans during a match in Spain. Rather than protest, Alves picked up the banana, peeled it and ate it, then continued playing. Later, Neymar posted a photo to Instagram of himself and his son holding bananas with the slogan, “Somos todos macacos” (“We are all monkeys”).
The campaign took off in Brazil, with many of the country’s notable artists and personalities also tweeting photos of themselves with bananas. But many in the country protested the movement, citing it as a trivialization of a very serious problem in soccer and in society.
“The comparison between blacks and monkeys is racist in its essence,” wrote Brazilian activist and history professor Douglas Belchior on his NegroBelchior blog. “However, many people don’t understand the seriousness of using the monkey as an offense, as an insult to black people.”
This can be a particularly complex issue in a country full of people whom outsiders see as black but who don’t think of themselves as such. That divide is evidenced by growing monkey taunts of black players and officials in Brazil.
In March, Brazilian midfielder Marcos Arouca da Silva was called a monkey during a postgame interview, an event that he said wasn’t an isolated incident. Brazilian referee Marcio Chagas da Silva says he’s been subjected to more than 200 racially based attacks during his career refereeing matches in the country. During a recent game between Brazilian clubs Esportivo and Veranopolis, fans reportedly yelled at him from the stands, “You belong in a circus. Go back to the forest, you monkey.”
Such events are what led Rousseff, along with FIFA, to push for this year’s World Cup to become “a global marker against racism.” Before the start of the World Cup, Brazil’s soccer federation also commenced a campaign against racism that is less controversial than Neymar’s, called “Somos iguais,” or “We are equal.”
As the World Cup moves forward and more fans see their teams bounced from the tournament by teams led by star black players like Italy’s Mario Balotelli, Cameroon’s Samuel Eto’o, Belgium’s Vincent Kompany, France’s Paul Pogba and others, Brazil’s hopes for a global marker against racism may be tested.