Rio de Janeiro, Brazil — Higor Ramalho, a passionate soccer fan, plans to resume his regular trips to soccer stadiums as concerns about the spread of the coronavirus abate, restrictions are lifted, and the nation gets into the spirit of the World Cup.
However, the Brazilian national team’s famous yellow jersey has been hanging in his closet since June 2018. The last time he wore it was his birthday. He doesn’t know when or if he’ll ever wear it again.
“Wearing the yellow jersey was a moment of pride for me,” the 33-year-old told CNN Breaking News.
“It was a symbol of victory. I’ve worn it not only while watching games, but also on normal days. Now I’m not wearing it anymore for political reasons. The current president, together with his supporters, turned the yellow jersey into a political campaign and a symbol of their political party.
“And since I don’t support their political ideas, I refuse to err as one of them.”
The yellow jersey, known as the “Canarinho jersey,” wasn’t always the shirt of the Brazilian national team.
It was designed in 1953, three years after the heartbreak of the World Cup final by Uruguay in the Maracana. At the time, the national team was wearing white.
Together with a newspaper, the national football association launched a competition to design a new uniform for the national team. The condition was that the new jersey should have the colors of the national flag, as the current one did not “bear the idea of Brazilian nationality.”
More than 300 contributions were submitted. The winning entry comes from Aldyr Garcia Schlee, a Brazilian who felt torn apart by the result of 1950 because he was born on the Uruguayan border.
Many years later, including a record of five soccer World Cup victories and two Copa America victories, the yellow jersey had become a symbol of optimism, happiness and unity among soccer fans.
The number 10 that Pele wore during his fascinating years on the field, Ronaldo’s number 9 when he became World Cup winner, and Romario’s number 11 during his dazzling World Cup run in 1994 became part of Brazil’s rich and successful history on the field.
But the adoption of the shirt in political campaigns, most recently by President Jair Bolsonaro and his right-wing supporters ahead of his election victory in 2018, forced a large number of fans to give it up.
Analysts say the same iconic Brazilian soccer moments are being used off the pitch to promote ideas that are contrary to the unity that made the national team and the country famous.
“Football is something iconic for Brazil, it brings everyone together most of the time,” Isabela Guedes, 25, told CNN Breaking News.
“When they [right-wing supporters] take something so useful for the country and use it with political intentions, it is as if they are stealing it from us. I don’t feel comfortable hanging a flag on my window during the World Cup because I’m mistaken for people with completely different political views.
“They took the flag and the yellow jersey and turned them into political symbols.”
Co-opting the jersey did not begin with Bolsanaro supporters. In 1970, the military dictatorship used the national flag and the team’s image and combined the essence of Brazil with the team, according to Carolina Fontenelle, researcher at the UERJ Media and Sports Sciences Laboratory.
General Medici, Brazil’s military leader at the time, also played a major role in removing the national coach ahead of the 1970 World Cup in Mexico.
With time and these efforts, a strong connection was created between the Brazilians and their team’s jersey, she added.
“Since then, the yellow jersey has been seen as a symbol. People are looking at the jersey and wearing it with pride because they feel part of a group,” Fontenelle told CNN Breaking News.
Before that, during the 2013 riots, which protested against a rise in living costs, corruption and police brutality, the shirt took on another aspect.
“The people who were part of the unrest also carried it. There were a huge number of people on the street who were protesting against many things, including the money spent on the 2014 World Cup. In 2018, the right-wing extremists wore the shirt,” said Fontenelle.
“Those who disagree are ashamed. The shirt makes you feel like you belong to a group, and that feeling is lost when used by a political group that doesn’t defend minorities.”
“During the 2014 elections, the election campaign of [centre-right candidate] Aecio Neves hijacked the colors of the Brazilian flag,” said Fontenelle.
Just over two years, a campaign led by writer and filmmaker Joao Carlos Assumpcao called on the national soccer association to abolish the famous yellow jersey and bring back the white and blue kit.
“We’re in a terrible situation with a terrible government that stole our flag,” Assumpcao had said at the time.
Several pro-democratic groups, including the Folha de Sao Paulo newspaper, tried to separate the color from the far-right campaign.
In 2020, following campaigns by Bolsonaro supporters in the Supreme Court and Congress, she urged her readers to wear yellow as part of the dissociation campaign.
#DevolvamNossaBandeira (#GiveBackOurFlag) was also supported by several political figures.
“Football is for everyone, I don’t like [the jersey] being used by people who promote racism, sexism, and discrimination,” Ademir Takara, librarian and historian at the Football Museum in Sao Paulo, told CNN Breaking News.
“The shirt is the opposite of that. It stands for unity and is not used for that purpose. There is a loving relationship between people and the shirt — the beautiful game that is connected to something they represented.
“Since 2013, it has become more of a political issue than ever before. It’s used by people with different ideas who wanted something to unify them, and the shirt was the simplest and strongest thing they saw.”
Earlier this month, thousands of Bolsonaro supporters flocked to Copacabana Beach in Rio de Janeiro, including as part of an election campaign ahead of the October elections, just a month before the World Cup in Qatar.
Many of them were wearing the yellow jersey.
Former President Luiz Inacio Lula, who had the tip of winning the polls next month, proposed at the demonstration on the anniversary of Brazil’s 200-year independence.
“September 7 should be a day of love and union for Brazil. Unfortunately that is not happening today. I believe Brazil will regain its flag, sovereignty and democracy,” Lula tweeted.
With love for the jersey, soccer fan Marina Moreno told CNN Breaking News how “frustrated” she was “to see the yellow jersey become a symbol of the current government.”
“Today, it’s almost impossible not to connect it with the current president and his supporters. It is automatic and frustrating. I don’t support the current government and I don’t want to be mistaken for any of its supporters, so I’ve decided not to carry it anymore.”