The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Brazil’s toxic politics stain a soccer icon: The national team jersey

A fan holds the Brazilian flag Saturday in Doha, Qatar, amid World Cup festivities. (Justin Setterfield/Getty Images)
9 min

Omar Monteiro Jr.’s hillside 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 painted on a wall. What you won’t find — at least not on Monteiro’s back — is what might be the most recognizable uniform in sport: The yellow and green jersey of Brazil’s national team.

As Brazil begins World Cup play Thursday favored to win a record sixth title, what would normally be a moment of joyful anticipation in Latin America’s largest nation is being dampened by lingering division in the aftermath of last month’s ugly presidential election. The divide is ripping at the seams of the canarinho, the 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 backers to protest the election victory of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva are seas of yellow and green. For many Brazilians, the adoption of the colors by Bolsonaristas is tainting 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 very difficult [now]. The way they appropriated the shirt. It’s embarrassing to wear it. It’s become 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 Oct. 30; supporters have swarmed military bases to complain, without evidence, of voter fraud.

For a continent-sized, soccer-crazed country that would normally be sharing a collective dream for the hexa — a historic sixth title — the bid for the global championship is raising 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, violence between voters, the unfounded 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 at least tacitly backed Bolsonaro, with the clearest support coming from the biggest star: Neymar. The selection’s celebrity forward posted a TikTok video of himself singing a campaign tune and joined the incumbent in a live broadcast. He has promised to dedicate a goal at the World Cup to the president.

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

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

The current national mood stands in sharp contrast to the electrifying carnival that swept the nation in 2002, when Brazilians cheered as one as their team roared to a record-breaking fifth World Cup title. In the aftermath of the vote that Bolsonaro backers claim without evidence was stolen, some have called for boycotts of leftist businesses. A few Bolsonaristas have suggested progressives should adorn their businesses with the red star of Lula’s Workers’ Party so shoppers can identify their political allegiance — an idea some on the left say harks back to the yellow Stars of David painted on Jewish businesses 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 was added to one boycott list. The woman, who spoke on the condition of anonymity out of fear of retribution, said her customers skew progressive, which limits the financial damage. But she’s grown fearful as Bolsonaro supporters have targeted her online, reposting her political views with private family photos taken from her Instagram account and penning negative reviews of her cafe on Google.

“Maybe these attacks have worked,” she said, “because I am thinking about not talking so much about politics anymore.”

The yellow and green shirt is omnipresent 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 demonstrators have demanded military intervention to keep Bolsonaro in office. Vendors in the crowd have sold popcorn in green and yellow paper bags bearing the logo of the World Cup in Qatar.

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

He said Lula backers were shunning the jersey out of 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 produces the official shirt, did not reply to a request for sales figures. Reports in the Brazilian press suggest a surge in domestic sales ahead of Brazil’s elections — in part driven by Bolsonaro supporters. But Brazil’s alternate jersey, a shade of deep blue, has also gained popularity, especially among those bothered by the yellow and green shirt’s association with the political right.

“The division in Brazilian society is here to stay. It won’t go away because of a World Cup,” said Marcos Nobre, a political analyst and author. “There is also a battle 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 nation where poor children dream of rising out of the favelas on soccer talent, and where religious shrines are dedicated to the sport, the yellow-and-green shirt has a surprisingly fraught political history. It was born of humiliating defeat — the 1950 World Cup loss by Brazil to tiny neighbor Uruguay — and unabashed patriotism. A 1953 contest to replace what was then a 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 imprisoned for writings that ran afoul of 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 leftist Brazilians eschewed the shirt and vowed not to support the team. Some — including future president Dilma Rousseff, then in prison as a dissident — have described cheering Brazil on anyway.

Polarization around the shirt faded in the era of democracy, but came roaring back in 2013, when protesters against Rousseff’s leftist government seized the symbol. Over the past four years, the jersey became 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 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, are posting selfies in the jersey and making an L sign with their hands for the president-elect. Some are wearing versions emblazoned with a red star, the symbol of Lula’s Workers’ Party, or the number 13, a designation assigned to the party on election ballots.

Other say it’s too late.

“The yellow shirt is on the street calling for military intervention, calling for a coup d’etat, calling for the return of the dictatorship,” the writer Milly Lacombe said on a podcast last week. “I may be wrong, but I think that the yellow shirt is irredeemable. I don’t see how … we can recover this shirt.”

Lula said this month he would proudly wear the jersey during the World Cup.

“We don’t have to be ashamed of wearing our green and yellow shirt,” he said. “The green and yellow does 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 soars in the coming days. “If he has a brilliant cup, people will return. Even those who deeply dislike him will have him as their idol.”

With Lula’s victory, Kfouri said, “the climate of hate” has begun 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. “Maybe there will be a higher percentage of blue jerseys than yellow ones. 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 one anyway. Because it is the color of Brazil.”