Christ the Redeemer, Brazil, Rio de Janeiro, World Cup 2014, Sportsbet

A giant Christ the Redeemer  balloon floats over Melbourne as a Sportsbet advertisement. (Image: News Corp Australia/Andrew Tauber)

To many around the world, football (or soccer) is a religion. And with the World Cup now in full swing, there’s more attention than ever on the popular game. But one sports betting company created a furor when they tied gambling on the sporting event with one of the most famous religious symbols of all time.

Las week, Sportsbet.com.au floated a 151-foot tall balloon over Melbourne that resembled the famous Christ the Redeemer statue that overlooks Rio de Janeiro. The balloon featured Jesus Christ wearing an Australian World Cup jersey sporting the hashtag #KEEPTHEFAITH.

Religious Leaders React Harshly

Not surprisingly, the stunt went over a bit like a lead balloon among many, particularly those of religious faith.

“It’s stupid, short-sighted, it’s going to offend a lot of people,” child psychologist Michael Carr-Gregg told the Herald Sun. “It’s very offensive, particularly if you’re religious.”

Dan Flynn of the Australian Christian Lobby told radio station 3AW that the flying advertisement was likely to target vulnerable groups.

“In a sense Jesus is being co-opted [to increase gambling revenues] and I think the concerns that we would have is that people seeing this flying over the CBD (Melbourne’s Central Business District), children who have a fascination with Jesus, a fascination of balloons, are sort of inducted into the culture of gambling,” Flynn said. “Jesus was very much for the poor and we know the effect of gambling on the poor, they take the biggest brunt of that.”

There were also concerns from some that the stunt could offend the host nation of Brazil.

“One of the great statues in Rio is Jesus, and Brazil is a Catholic nation that takes its faith seriously and its football fanatically,” Reverend Tim Costello of the Australian Churches Gambling Taskforce said. “You don’t exploit those things that are sacred to people simply for your own advertising reach.”

Sportsbet Laughs Off Controversy

On the other hand, Sportsbet may have gotten exactly what they wanted out of the balloon: a lot of attention. They seemed to laugh off the criticisms across the board.

“Let’s be honest,” said Sportsbet PR manager Shaun Anderson, “the Socceroos need diving intervention to progress past their three group games so the message we’re aiming to get across is that for all Aussies to keep the faith in the Socceroos.”

Ads in Italy, UK Also Use Statue Questionably

Given the iconic nature of the Christ the Redeemer statue, it’s really no surprise that it has shown up in advertising for the World Cup around the globe – sometime in insensitive or inappropriate ways. This week, there was also controversy over an Italian television advertisement that showed the statue – this time in its real location over Rio – wearing an Italian national team jersey.

The Brazilian Catholic Church, which owns the rights to the image of the statue, called the ad “disrespectful,” while Edio Costantini – president of the Vatican’s sports organization – said that “we live in a world that has put God on the bench.”

Meanwhile, City AM in the UK faced similar criticism for running a gambling advertisement that featured Christ the Redeemer with his arm around a bikini-wearing model and holding alcohol – along with the slogan “there’s a more exciting side to Brazil.”