Brazil’s toxic politics stain the canarinho, the national team jersey

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Omar Monteiro Jr. ‘s hilltop bar in Rio de Janeiro, a ten-minute drive from Maracana Stadium – the cathedral of global soccer – is a haunt for Brazilian progressives. You’ll find a flattering mural of the country’s leftist president-elect on one wall. What you won’t find — at least not on Monteiro’s back — is what might be the most recognizable uniform in sports: The yellow and green jersey of Brazil’s national team.

As Brazil begin World Cup play on Thursday favored to win a record sixth title, what would normally be a moment of joyous anticipation in Latin America’s largest nation is dampened by lingering divisions in the wake of past month’s ugly presidential election. The separation tears from the seams of the canarinhothe once sacred “little canary” shirt, which was co-opted as campaign wear before, during and after the vote by supporters of the “Trump of the Tropics” – election loser Jair Bolsonaro.

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Camps set up across the country by the outgoing president’s supporters to protest the electoral victory of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva are seas of yellow and green. For many Brazilians, the adoption of the colors by Bolsonaristas tarnish a jersey made famous by generations of graceful greats of the Beautiful Game, from Pelé to Ronaldinho.

“I have a yellow shirt. I used to wear it,” Monteiro said, but “man, it’s really hard [now]. The way they appropriated the shirt. It is embarrassing to wear it. It became the symbol of the Brazilian extreme right.”

Bolsonaro has drawn criticism for his dismissal of the coronavirus pandemic, his support for the commercial development of the Amazon rainforest and his insults against women, minorities and the LGBTQ community. He narrowly lost the second and final round of the election on October 30; supporters flooded military bases to complain, without evidence, of voter fraud.

For a continent-sized, soccer-crazy country that is normally a collective dream for the hexa – a historic sixth title – the bid for the world championship raises a deeply personal question. Will the team’s run this year serve as a time of national healing? Or will it crystallize the way the era of toxic politics — overheated personal attacks, voter violence, the baseless accusations of a stolen election — can leave lasting wounds on a nation?

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The national team, typically a beacon of national pride, is already a microcosm of the country’s polarized politics. Several players have at least tacitly supported Bolsonaro, with the clearest support coming from the biggest star: Neymar. The selection’s famous forward posted a TikTok video of himself singing a campaign tune and joined the incumbent in a live broadcast. He promised to dedicate a goal to the president at the World Cup.

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Tite, the national coach, has meanwhile publicly lamented the injection of politics into team affairs. Should Brazil, the winningest nation in World Cup history, take the crown again, he has vowed to break with a tradition dating back to the 1950s by refusing to join any team visit to the capital to meet the sitting president, either Bolsonaro in December or Lula in January.

Asked about the public tug-of-war over the national football shirt last month, he told O Globo newspaper that he wanted no part in the ideological war: “I tell them, ‘that fight stays with you’.”

The current national mood stands in stark contrast to the exhilarating carnival that gripped the nation in 2002, when Brazilians cheered together as their team roared to a record-breaking fifth World Cup title. In the wake of the vote, which Bolsonaro supporters claim was stolen without evidence, some have called for boycotts of left-wing businesses. A few Bolsonaristas have suggested that progressives should decorate their businesses with the red star of Lula’s Workers’ Party so that shoppers can identify their political allegiance — an idea that some on the left say refers to the yellow Stars of David that appear on Jewish businesses was painted during the rise of the Nazi party in Germany.

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A cafe owner in the Brazilian city of Goiânia said her business had been added to one boycott list. The woman, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of retribution, said her clients skew progressively, which limits the financial damage. But she grew fearful as Bolsonaro supporters targeted her online, reposted her political views with private family photos taken from her Instagram account and Googled negative reviews of her cafe.

“Maybe these attacks worked,” she said, “because I’m thinking about not talking about politics as much anymore.”

The yellow and green shirt is ubiquitous among the thousands of Bolsonaro supporters rallying against the election results at Brazil’s Southeast Military Command Center in São Paulo, one of several ongoing protests since election night. Some protesters demanded military intervention to keep Bolsonaro in office. Vendors in the crowd sold popcorn in green and yellow paper bags emblazoned with the Qatar World Cup logo.

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Luiz Cláudio Pereira, a retired small businessman, was one of many who donned the national shirt outside the São Paulo military base last week. The Bolsonaro supporter said it was more a symbol of nationalism than of sport. “For me, the shirt represents Brazil, not the national team.”

He said Lula supporters shun the jersey out of a lack of national pride.

“I think it’s a lack of patriotism,” he said. “That’s why they don’t want to wear it. I don’t think it’s a symbol of Bolsonaro.”

Nike, which manufactures the official shirt, did not respond to a request for sales figures. Reports in the Brazilian press indicate a surge in domestic sales ahead of Brazil’s elections – driven in part by Bolsonaro supporters. But Brazil’s alternative jersey, a shade of deep blue, has also gained popularity, particularly among those troubled by the yellow and green shirt’s association with the political right.

“The divisions in Brazilian society are here to stay. It won’t go away because of a World Cup,” said Marcos Nobre, a political analyst and writer. “There is also a struggle by the left to reclaim the national shirt for progressives. Maybe it will succeed, but people will still see the national shirt as different after all this.”

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In a country where poor kids dream of rising from the favelas over football talent, and where religious shrines are dedicated to the sport, the yellow-and-green shirt has a surprisingly fraught political history. It was born out of humiliating defeat – Brazil’s 1950 World Cup loss to tiny neighbor Uruguay – and unabashed patriotism. A 1953 match to replace the then mostly white uniform had one requirement: That it use the yellow, green, blue and white of the Brazilian flag.

The winner, designed by 19-year-old newspaper illustrator Aldyr Schlee, was a shirt with a field of yellow – hence canarinho, or little canary – lined with Kelly green trim and worn with blue shorts and white socks. Years later, Schlee would be sent to prison for writings that were in opposition to the military dictatorship that ruled the country from 1964 to 1985.

In 1970, when the dictatorship identified a World Cup victory as a domestic propaganda goal and appointed a brigadier general to head its tournament delegation, many left-wing Brazilians shunned the shirt, vowing not to wear the shirt. to support team. Some — including future president Dilma Rousseff, then jailed as a dissident — described Brazil as cheering anyway.

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Polarization around the shirt faded in the era of democracy, but began to roar in 2013 when protesters against Rousseff’s left-wing government seized on the symbol. Over the past four years, the jersey has become a trademark of die-hard Bolsonaristas, with the president’s encouragement.

Bolsonaro asked his supporters to wear it on election day.

“More and more Brazil is being painted green and yellow,” he said in an August podcast. “It’s not for the cup; it’s for patriotism. Part of it because of me? Yes.”

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Some on the Brazilian left are trying to reclaim the shirt. Some, including Lula’s wife, post selfies in the jersey and make an L sign with their hands for the president-elect. Some wear versions with a red star, the symbol of Lula’s Workers’ Party, or the number 13, a designation assigned to the party on election ballots.

Others say it’s too late.

“The yellow shirts are on the streets calling for military intervention, calling for a coup, calling for the return of the dictatorship,” author Milly Lacombe said on a podcast last week. “I may be wrong, but I think the yellow shirt is unsolvable. I don’t see how… we can get this shirt back.”

Lula said this month that he will wear the jersey with pride during the World Cup.

“We don’t have to be ashamed to wear our green and yellow shirt,” he said. “The green and yellow do not belong to a candidate. It does not belong to a party. The green and yellow are the colors of 213 million people who love this country.”

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Some here are hopeful that the World Cup can begin to heal a divided nation.

Juca Kfouri, one of the country’s most celebrated sports journalists, said even the left would forgive Neymar if he soared in the coming days. “If he has a brilliant mug, people will return. Even those who hate him will have him as their idol.”

With Lula’s victory, Kfouri said, “the climate of hatred” began to fade.

“I think that the World Cup will have this character, of people going to the streets together and not asking who they voted for,” he said. “Perhaps there will be a higher percentage of blue jerseys than yellow. Maybe there will still be people who are reluctant to wear the yellow jersey. But the people who don’t have the blue will wear the yellow anyway. Because it is the color of Brazil.”


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