How homophobia made number 24 taboo in Brazilian football

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Soccer jerseys are everywhere in football-mad Brazil, often with the numbers of the country’s all-time legends: Ronaldo’s 9, Pele’s 10, Romario’s 11. But one number is off-limits: 24, the focus of a homophobic taboo whose origin story is a wacky roller-coaster ride through more than a century of Brazilian history, winding up with the present — but slowly shifting — anti-gay attitudes that loom large in football today.

The story of the 24 taboo goes back to 1892, when the founder of Brazil’s first zoo, Baron Joao Batista Viana Drummond, came up with a creative way to fix its troubled finances: a lottery called “o jogo do bicho” (the animal game).

Visitors to the Rio de Janeiro zoo received an animal figurine, and every day the baron’s staff would randomly select one of the 25 animals, with a cash prize for everyone who had that figurine.

The game soon exploded, as quick-thinking entrepreneurs printed bingo-like cards with the 25 animals and started selling shots at different jackpots.

The game was banned three years later, but had already become a Brazilian institution — and remains one today, run by a mafia with ties to some of the biggest businesses in Brazil: politics, carnival, music… and football.

The 24th square on the game card is a deer, or “veado” — a word used as a homophobic slur in Portuguese, apparently because deer are seen as feminine and sometimes engage in homosexual relations.

And that is why male footballers in Brazil fear the number 24.

“It’s crazy when you think about it, because it’s just a number like any other. But there’s definitely a taboo,” said Bernardo Gonzales, an LGBTI activist and player for trans men’s futsal team Sport Club T Mosqueteiros in Sao Paulo.

He said some Brazilian men even shun 24 when they pick a seat at the movies, rent an apartment or turn 24 — saying they are 23+1.

“Footballers would rather use another number, because they don’t want anyone questioning their masculinity,” he told AFP.

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