Unification Church’s critics say sports projects are used to brainwash impoverished young people
It’s training time on a drizzly morning in the impoverished Brazilian suburb of Los Angeles and 18 footballers huddle in circles, exchanging passes, headers and a sporadic barrage of expletives.
For residents of this impoverished area near Campo Grande, where boggy tracks wind between wooden shacks and cows amble from street to street, it’s an ordinary Wednesday morning.
But this is no ordinary Brazilian football team. Nor is the team’s owner – the eccentric 86-year-old leader of the Unification Church, Reverend Sun Myung Moon – your run-of-the-mill chairman.
Part of a miniature football empire commanded by evangelism’s answer to Roman Abramovich, the New Hope Sports Centre (CENE) represents, say its directors, an attempt to transform Brazil’s increasingly decadent national game as well as a step along the road to world peace.
“Our plans were always that within 10 years we’d be in the top flight,” says Jose Rodrigues, the club’s marketing director, at CENE’s training centre in Los Angeles. “That means 2009 – so we have three years to really show what we can do.”
For Moon’s many critics, the team is nothing more than a bait used to draw locals into his controversial sect, offering access to education and sports to convert people from vulnerable, deprived communities.
CENE is one of two Moon-backed teams (the other is in Sao Paulo) that form the sports wing of a South American Moonie kingdom, now made up of around 200,000 hectares (500,000 acres) of farmland in Brazil, bought for an estimated $25m (?14m), and at least 600,000 hectares (1.5m acres) in neighbouring Paraguay.
Followers say that through this transnational corridor Moon hopes to project his ideas across the continent. “In truth, football has the power to do something which nothing else can do – create one, single belief,” says Paulo Telles, the club’s executive president and a member of Moon’s Family Association in Brazil.
Moon’s Brazilian odyssey is said to have begun in 1994 during a fishing trip to the Pantanal, one of the world’s largest wetlands, in the state of Mato Grosso do Sul. Astonished by the area’s wildlife, he returned to begin constructing the estate which now straddles Brazil’s border with Paraguay.
The centrepiece of this ever-growing empire is the New Hope ranch, near the small town of Jardim. Here the Moonies receive followers from around the world, for visits of up to 40 days. Twelve neatly organised brick bungalows sit next to the Moonie church, a huge terracotta mansion, with the group’s logo sprouting from its roof. Foreign visitors cruise around the community in white VW vans, and during the week the area’s state school fills with children from nearby towns.
At first Moon’s arrival in Brazil sparked a mixture of curiosity and outrage among politicians and businessmen and at the very mention of “reverendo Moon” eyes still roll across Mato Grosso do Sul, an agricultural frontier in Brazil’s centre-west. Rumours about cross-border drug trafficking and brainwashing rattled round its capital, Campo Grande, and a parliamentary inquiry was set up to investigate. “We’re going to start putting people in jail,” said state deputy Nelito Camara after the inquiry, claiming that the authorities had proof of money laundering between Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay, but that followers had been coerced into silence. “I believe these people are being brainwashed and will only talk if we play hard ball.”
The Moonies were accused of evading R$31.5m ( £8.4m) tax a year. Federal police carried out raids on Moon’s property, including the headquarters of CENE, in 2002, seizing laptops, a satellite phone, a pistol and tens of thousands of pounds worth of travellers cheques.
Such controversy is lost on the team’s players, who praise their boss’s punctuality with their wages and the exposure their links to the Moonies have given them. “It’s all him,” says Jorge Henrique, the team’s trendy 23-year-old star striker, sporting a designer denim cap and immaculate Nike trainers.
“You go to Rio de Janeiro or Sao Paulo and the guys there already know who you are because of Reverend Moon.”
In the battle to win Brazilian hearts and minds, Moon seems to have struck gold. When he took over, in 1999, CENE was an amateur team of farm workers at his New Hope ranch – a university campus-like settlement known to followers as his Garden of Eden.
Since then the “yellow hurricanes” have become the dominant force in the state championship as well as one of the rising stars in the national game. Last month they narrowly missed out on a spot in the quarter finals of this year’s Copa do Brasil, losing 5-3 to the Rio team Fluminense.
“He always says sport is a way of promoting peace,” explains Mr Rodrigues, toe-punting a stray ball back towards the training session. “But I think it’s also strategic. If you have a good appearance in a country which is known as one of football’s most important places, this ends up aggregating certain types of values.”
In the CENE changing rooms, Moon remains a relatively unknown entity, who few of the players have met.
“Our business is football,” says Jorge Henrique, whose greatest memory of a Moon-sponsored tour of Korea was the food. “[Moon] never obliged anyone to do anything. Those who want to go, do.”
Yet the players have felt the force of his money. Mr Telles says Moon, a multi-millionaire whose business interests include universities, newspapers and cattle ranching, pumps around R$60,000 into the club each month. The players earn between R$3,000 and R$5,000 a month – more than double the amount their regional counterparts receive.
‘Establish a bridge’
Outside the club, Moon’s powers of persuasion have also come to the fore at regular meetings with local authorities and businessmen in the five-star hotels of Campo Grande.
The tactic seems to have paid off – the parliamentary inquiry, installed in 2002 to look into Moon’s activities on his vast ranch in Jardim, shied away from showing him the red card, concluding that his extravagant projects should be seen as “an excellent opportunity to establish a bridge with the first world and not as the installation of the Kingdom of Evil on Earth”.
Despite the recent cup defeat, employees believe Moon’s Brazilian juggernaut is unstoppable, with an increasing number of followers and supporters flocking both to the team and the evangelical and anti-communist sect.
Crucial to the group’s success is youth work, explains Mr Telles, pointing to the group’s 10 community projects, which offer football training to impoverished youngsters in the region. “This is how you form somebody,” he says over lunch in the canteen where CENE’s professional team mix with youth players, two of whom are Korean members of the “association”.
“Around one child you have at least 20 people. So look: from [working with] 1,000 people that gives you 20,000. This multiplies each year. It’s a grand project.”
Explainer: Sun Myung Moon
Money-spinning ‘messiah’, anti-communist zealot
The Unification church, or Family Federation for World Peace and Unification, as the Moonies’ sect is formally known, is the brainchild of the Korean Sun Myung Moon who is called reverend, although he has never been ordained.
Moon – originally Yong Myung Moon – was born in what is now North Korea in 1920 and imprisoned for more than two years there by the Communist regime in the late 1940s, before being liberated by United Nations troops in 1950 during the Korean war. This may account for his fervent anti-Communism. He founded his own church in 1954 after mutual disagreements with mainstream Christian denominations. It claims to have more than 4.5 million members worldwide, although in Britain there are thought to be about 1,000 followers.
The church regards itself as a Christian denomination although its theology diverges radically from other faiths. It believes that God’s plan for the loving brotherhood of mankind was stymied by the fall of Adam and Eve and not fully restored by Jesus Christ because he was crucified before man could be fully salvaged.
Moon declared himself the latest messiah in 1992, believing himself entrusted with transforming the nature of mankind through the creation of perfect spiritual and physical partnerships – hence the huge mass weddings in which partners who sometimes are meeting for the first time – have been married.
It has to be said that Moon’s own family life has not been perfect. Now estimated to be a billionaire, he has been married at least twice, fathered 13 or 14 children, been convicted of tax evasion in the US and is banned from the EU. Several of his offspring have had marital problems and at least one has had drug addiction problems.
When it launched in Britain and other countries in the 1970s and 1980s, the church was heavily criticised for its brainwashing conversion techniques – so-called “heavenly deception” – and the pressures it placed on followers. It claims to have long since abandoned these methods. It has also drawn criticism for the fortune it seems to have accumulated; it owns a string of companies, is involved in the manufacture of military equipment and pharmaceuticals (and the marketing of ginseng) and owns the rightwing Washington Times in the US and the Latin American Tiempos Del Mundo.
– Stephen Bates