Jair Bolsonaro: How a yellow shirt divides Brazil


Brazil’s bright yellow shirt is a symbol that unites the country through a love of soccer and national pride, but over the past two years the adoption of the shirt by right-wing supporters of Jair Bolsonaro, who lead to protests and rallies to show their political loyalty to the Brazilian president, is causing controversy.

That famous yellow shirt was etched in the imagination of a global audience at the 1970 World Cup. Inspired by the mesmerizing performances of Pelé – he wore the number 10 shirt – the yellow shirt has represented Brazil’s success in field and has created a positive image worldwide over the past five decades.

That 1970 selection was also involved in politics, especially before the World Cup in Mexico, when General Medici, president of a nation under military dictatorship, played a key role in the dismissal of the coach -Joao Saldanha- who had overseen a perfect qualifying campaign.

Fast forward to 2020 and Bolsonaro’s critics say the iconic yellow shirt has been tainted by its close association with the Brazilian president.

    Brazil's President Jair Bolsonaro celebrates with the trophy and Brazil's players after winning the Copa America final against Peru.

Walter Casagrande, a former footballer with the Brazilian national team and Corinthians de São Paulo, remembers the feeling of scoring a goal while wearing the yellow shirt in his first game with the “selecao” in 1985.

“It was something magical,” Casagrande told CNN Sport, “like an enchanted object that gave me a huge thrill.”

Casagrande’s sentiments are on the left side of the political gulf that separates Bolsonaro’s supporters and opponents, and he feels that an element he holds dear is being misrepresented.

“I now consider the Brazilian yellow shirt to have been hijacked and appropriated by the right wing, so we cannot use it.”

Casagrande said that for him the power of the yellow shirt used to be that it represented democracy and freedom.

“Brazil is showing up horribly in the world right now,” he said. “It is the first time in my life that I see the yellow vest being used against democracy and freedom.”

Supporters of Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro pray during a caravan and protest against the National Congress and the Supreme Court for lockdown measures amid the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic in front of the National Congress on May 9, 2020 in Brasilia.

A protester holds a sign that reads

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As quickly as the left criticizes Bolsonaro, his supporters do not take long to counter the punch.

Cosmo Alexandre, a Brazilian fighter who holds several Muay Thai and Kickboxing world titles, believes the left is conflating its many problems with Bolsonaro and is using the shirt as another way to voice grievances.

As a supporter of Bolsonaro, Alexandre rejects accusations that the symbolism of the shirt is being manipulated and says the reason supporters wear a yellow shirt is simple: everyone in Brazil has a yellow shirt.

He points out that fans don’t always specifically wear the Brazilian national team shirt, and the rallies are full of people wearing yellow shirts of all kinds.

Alexandre says there is a disconnect between the shirt’s sporting reputation and the associations of what it represents politically.

“Everybody in the world knows about the Brazilian soccer team, so even if I go to a fight and wear the yellow shirt of the soccer team, everyone knows it’s Brazil,” he said. “So it’s not about politics, it’s just that the world knows about football in Brazil.”

Perhaps it is easier for some than for others to isolate football and politics in a country where football is God.

Josemar de Rezende Jr. is a soccer fan who co-founded a Bolsonaro volunteer group in his city before the election. He said he is proud of the Brazilian team’s world-beating reputation, and for him the yellow shirt “means love for the country, leadership, success and pride.”

Supporters of President Jair Bolsonaro rally against current Rio de Janeiro Governor Wilson Witzel on May 31, 2020 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

Supporters of Brazilian President Jair Messias Bolsonaro rally in support of him and to protest racism and the death of black people in Brazil's slums during a Black Lives Matter protest on Copacabana Beach in Rio de Janeiro on 7 June 2020.

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However, the issue of the yellow shirt has become so divisive that a campaign is underway for Brazil to play in the white shirt.

João Carlos Assumpção, Brazilian journalist, filmmaker and author of “Gods of Soccer”, a book on the political, sociological and economic history of Brazil, leads a campaign for the Brazilian Football Confederation (CBF) to completely abandon the yellow shirt and Go back to the classic blue and white kit from when the program started in 1914.

CNN contacted the CBF who responded that they choose not to comment on this matter, “as it is a very unique matter.”

“People loved Brazilian football because we played very well,” said Assumpção, “and if we play well in the white shirt in 2022 I think everyone will buy a white shirt. It will be very difficult to change, but I think it’s not impossible.”

A supporter of Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro cries during a rally in support of his government amid the coronavirus pandemic in front of the Planalto Palace on May 24, 2020 in Brasilia, Brazil.

Demonstrators wearing face masks raise their fists on Paulista Avenue during a protest amid the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic on June 14, 2020 in Sao Paulo, Brazil.

The white and blue jersey was considered unlucky when Brazil lost the World Cup at home to Uruguay in 1950, so they switched to the yellow jersey and went on to win five World Cups wearing it, a record of ends that is still maintained today.

Assumpção’s vision to change the color of the team is to tell the world that Brazilians want a change in the country. “Not the changes that this government is making,” clarified Assumpção.

On the other side of the political spectrum, the color yellow, including the yellow jersey, represents positive change in the country. The supporter of Bolsonaro Rezende Jr. he believes that the left’s attempt to reclaim the yellow shirt is an effort to “mischaracterize the government,” which he describes as “a patriotic government that represents and has the support of all social classes across the country.”

Supporters of Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro rally to show their support, in Brasilia, May 31, 2020, during the novel coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic.

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The political turmoil in the country reflects the ferocity of inter-city football rivalries across Brazil. Except it’s not contained by city limits and has gathered a following in recent months.

São Paulo is home to four main clubs: Corinthians, Palmeiras, São Paolo and Santos. The rivalry between Corinthians and Palmeiras is particularly intense, and in June groups from each club gathered in the street to counter Bolsonaro’s supporters.

Sociologist Rafael Castilho, member of the Corinthian Democracy Collective and coordinator of the Corinthians Studies Center, has said that for Brazil to overcome the current political situation, it will have to “unite different ways of thinking and accept the contradictory”.

Castilho explains the civic responsibility that rival clubs feel to support and join civil society movements, “as the country experiences a crisis of party representation and social movements have been intimidated by the police action”, he said, adding that “the attitude of the fans”. has gained sympathy because part of society feels represented by the courage of the fans”.

Corinthians have a history of mixing football and politics. In the 1980s during the pro-democracy movement called Diretas Já, the club team was led by the leaders of the Sócrates and Casagrande national teams.

The two intertwined football with politics when the team wore jerseys during a game in 1982 with the words “VOTE on the 15th” in an effort to motivate their fans to vote in the state’s gubernatorial election from São Paulo.

Two years later, the Corinthians were at the center of a movement called Democracia Corinthiana, which according to Casagrande put more than a million people on the streets dressed in yellow.

“It was a very important moment for Brazilian democracy, and this yellow jersey was fundamental to that movement,” Casagrande said.

SAO PAULO, BRAZIL - JUNE 10: A man walks past a graffiti of multicolored hands supporting the planet marked with a Brazilian flag on June 10, 2014 in Sao Paulo, Brazil.  The opening match of the 2014 FIFA World Cup is on June 12 in Sao Paulo when Brazil take on Croatia.  (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)

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– Source: CNN

The yellow jersey returned to the streets in the 2013 protests against former president Dilma Roussef and against corruption. A year before the World Cup was held in the South American country, conservative protesters wore shirts representing Brazil’s colors, while left-wing protesters wore other colors.

Alexander and Rezende Jr. both say the yellow is an improvement on the red shirts government supporters used to wear when the left was in power, hinting at an underlying support for communism.

“When Bolsonaro started running, his supporters used the color yellow to show that I’m Brazilian and I don’t want communism in my country,” Alexandre said.

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro presents U.S. President Donald Trump with a Brazil national team jersey at the White House on March 19, 2019 in Washington, DC.

The fight for the yellow jersey leaves some yearning to reclaim a victorious past, while others step forward to create new meaning for the iconic symbol. In a country so rooted in football, it’s a problem that’s unlikely to go away.

Assumpção believes that it is only possible for the football community and Brazilians not associated with the extreme right to get the shirt back “maybe in five years or 10, but not now. Not now.”

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