Brazil’s elections: how the famous yellow soccer shirt has become politicized

Neymar wearing the yellow number 10 home shirt of Brazil
Brazil are among the favorites for this year’s World Cup in Qatar

When Brazil’s 2022 World Cup shirt was released in August, student João Vitor Gonçalves de Oliveira rushed to get his hands on the shirt.

The 20-year-old went to the nearest store, grabbed the famous yellow and green top and took it to the checkout, only to be met with an excited smile.

“The shop owner assumed that I supported the current government because I bought the shirt, and he started to rage against Lula, the left-wing candidate,” João told the BBC.

João does not support the government of Jair Bolsonaro, who is running for re-election on Sunday. But if he bought the shirt, he realized that in the store, he could make people believe him.

To avoid conflict, he pretended to be a supporter of João Bolsonaro. The yellow and green shirt – made famous by Pele, Ronaldo and many others – was another sign that it had become a symbol of a divided nation.

Brazil's soccer team at the 1966 World Cup in England.
Brazil’s soccer team at the 1966 World Cup in England

“The shirt has been tainted with political meaning since 2014,” says Mateus Gamba Torres, professor of history at the University of Brasilia.

Eight years ago, millions of Brazilians took to the streets against then president Dilma Rousseff, dressed in the colors of the flag, when they demanded the impeachment of the leftist.

Then, in 2018, the colors were used again by the current president – the far-right Jair Bolsonaro.

Again this year, green, yellow and blue are the main colors at Mr. Bolsonaro’s rallies, wearing shirts, the national flag and accessories.

“The green and yellow shirt has become the symbol of those associated with Bolsonaro’s government,” says Mr. Gamba Torres, “which means that a large part of the population no longer identifies with it.”

Former Brazilian President Lula at a campaign rally in Manaus.
Former Brazilian President Lula on screen standing in front of the Brazilian flag at a campaign rally in Manaus

João’s encounter with the store owner is not the only reason he hesitates to talk about politics now. In Brazil, political conflicts can apparently be deadly.

In July, Marcelo Aloizio de Arruda – a supporter of former president and left-wing candidate Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva – was shot dead at his 50th birthday party by a police officer who was allegedly shouting for right-wing president Bolsonaro.

Before he died, Mr. Arruda retaliated and shot his alleged assailant, who spent some time in hospital before being sent to prison, where he awaits trial.

And on September 9, 44-year-old Benedito Cardoso dos Santos was allegedly killed by a colleague after a heated political argument between the two. The 22-year-old suspect remains in police custody.

Tech programmer Ruy Araújo Souza Júnior, 43, told BBC News that he only wears the shirt at home to avoid being mistaken for a Bolsonaro supporter.

If former president Lula wins the election, the shirt will “unite us again and symbolize our true love for our people, not a political party.”

Leftist candidate Lula has focused on “reclaiming” the flag. Many of his supporters, such as singer Ludmilla, Brazil’s first Grammy winner Anitta, and rapper Djonga, make it a point to wear the shirt during their performances.

Djonga, who was part of Nike’s official campaign for Brazil’s World Cup kit, told a crowd at a concert that wearing the shirt in public was an act of protest.

“They [Bolsonaro supporters] they believe everything is theirs, they embrace the meaning of family, they embrace our national anthem, they embrace everything,” he said. “But here’s the truth: everything is ours, nothing is theirs.”

But it is not only Mr. Bolsonaro’s opponents who are concerned about wearing the shirt.

“I’m patriotic and right-wing. I really want to vote wearing my yellow shirt,” says 41-year-old Bolsonaro supporter Alessandra Passos.

But because of the tension between the voters, he says he is “afraid to dress on voting day”.

Richarlison kisses the Brazilian badge
Richarlison scored in the friendly win over Ghana in September

But what do the footballers themselves think about turning the shirt into a political symbol? Brazil and Tottenham forward Richarlison says the connotations disconnect Brazilians from the shirt and flag, taking away part of the country’s shared identity.

“As a fan, player and Brazilian, I do my best to spread our identification with them to the whole world. I think it is important to recognize that we are all Brazilians and have Brazilian blood. [above anything else].”

And Nike’s new t-shirt advertising campaign features characters from different sides of the political spectrum, with solidarity as the main focus. The shirt, says Nike, “is a collective. It represents more than 210 million Brazilians. It’s ours.”

The brand also banned customizing shirts with political references or religious terms. However, many Brazilians still chose to buy the blue away shirt, which sold out within hours of its release.

Pedro in his new blue Brazil shirt after scoring against Tunisia in a friendly this week
Pedro in his new blue Brazil shirt after scoring against Tunisia in a friendly this week

Matheus Rocha, the 28-year-old futsal (Brazilian form of futsal) coach, told BBC News that he has decided to wear the blue shirt this year.

“I don’t feel like wearing a yellow shirt,” he says. “Honestly, the idea of ​​wearing it scares me, I don’t even take my old ones out of my drawer. It’s a shame, because the shirt itself is beautiful.”

He says the same sentiment was shared among his friendship group and colleagues. “RUP yellow shirt,” he says. “And I hope Brazil wins its sixth World Cup title in blue for the people.”

While many share Matheus’ sentiments, the shirt is still popular among other football fans across the country.

Supporters group Movimento Verde e Amarelo believe the World Cup will help the Brazilians get back behind the yellow shirt.

“We don’t agree with those who insist that the Seleção’s yellow shirt is dead, it’s sad to see it used as an excuse for political fights,” says team founder Luiz Carvalho.

“It makes no sense to say that the yellow shirt does not represent this or that politician, when the whole idea behind it is the complete opposite,” he added.

“When our team enters the field, so does our pride as Brazilians. So whatever happens in the October vote, the love we share must prevail, as it always did.”

In Tuesday's rally in support of President Bolsonaro, the national colors were prominently displayed
In Tuesday’s rally in support of President Bolsonaro, the national colors were prominently displayed

However, for some of Bolsonaro’s supporters, the shirt has become an even bigger symbol of patriotic love – taking on new life under his government.

“Before Bolsonaro’s government there was no sense of patriotism, because left-wing governments don’t wear our flag,” Adriana Moraes do Nascimento, 49, told the BBC.

“Thank you our president loves Brazil and has preserved these values ​​for us.”

For Adriana, the used shirt refers only to football and now shows his love for the country.

“If the left wins the election, the flag will disappear again,” he says. “Have you ever seen a flag in their hands? No. But that won’t happen, because President Bolsonaro will win.”

It is the first time that the presidential election in Brazil is so closely aligned with the World Cup, both in its schedule and in social debates.

Professor Gamba Torres says Brazilians need to disassociate themselves from shirt politics. “A shirt is just a shirt,” he says.

“Of course it has meaning, but in the end it does not represent a specific government. Governments come and go, but our people and our team will always be there.”