Replace or reclaim: progressive Brazil divided on fate of famous yellow shirts

News

Adoption of football jersey by Jair Bolsonaro’s radical right has inspired a campaign for new colours

Tom Phillips
Tom Phillips in Rio de Janeiro

Tue 7 Jul 2020 06.00 BSTLast modified on Tue 7 Jul 2020 10.28 BST
Shares
105
Supporters of Brazil’s president, Jair Bolsonaro, wearing the national football team’s shirts at a demonstration in Brasilia.
Supporters of Brazil’s president, Jair Bolsonaro, wearing the national football team’s shirts at a demonstration in Brasilia. Photograph: Andressa Anholete/Getty Images
It is the most recognisable symbol of Brazilian identity: the iconic canary yellow jersey in which footballing giants such as Pelé and Rivaldo have helped the nation win a record five World Cups.

But the world-famous shirt has also become the emblem of President Jair Bolsonaro’s radical right, and a group of sport lovers are now demanding it be abolished and replaced with a less partisan kit.

“We’re in a ghastly situation with a horrendous government that has stolen our flag,” said João Carlos Assumpção, the writer and filmmaker leading the campaign.

Assumpção, the author of a history of Brazil’s storied seleção called Deuses da Bola (Gods of the Ball), is calling for his country to re-embrace the white and blue shirt it used until 1950, when a devastating World Cup final defeat to Uruguay paved the way for the adoption of the canarinho.

“That loss was a national tragedy – and people started to believe the white shirt brought bad luck,” Assumpção said, adding that now was the perfect time to bring it back.

Disillusionment with Brazil’s national colours has been building among progressives for several years, with many on the left shunning the yellow shirt after its adoption by demonstrators supporting Dilma Rousseff’s highly controversial 2016 impeachment.

But under Bolsonaro – whose loyalists wear the canarinho to rallies and hang yellow and green Brazil flags from their balconies to show devotion – those frustrations have reached new heights.

“I always thought our flag and our colours were so beautiful – but for me they now symbolise intolerance, political ignorance, fascism even,” said Lucas Justiniano, 36, a São Paulo filmmaker who also wants the bright yellow shirt to be ditched.

Assumpção said he had been disgusted to see Bolsonarista hardliners wear the jersey to anti-democratic and anti-social distancing protests during the coronavirus pandemic, which has killed more than 65,000 Brazilians.

“Bolsonaristas support a series of insane and anti-democratic issues. They want to close congress, they’ve attacked health professionals and journalists. And I think we’ve reached a point where this can no longer be allowed to go on,” he said. “For me this is a fascist movement and they are using the Brazilian flag and Brazil’s colours.”

Not all progressive Brazilians back the idea, despite their outrage at Bolsonaro’s attacks on the environment, human rights, democracy and, most recently, his internationally condemned response to Covid-19.

Juca Kfouri, a leading sports writer and leftwing voice, said he understood anger at the canarinho’s “usurping” but could not abandon it. “You cannot let the crooks steal your most personal things,” said Kfouri, 70, noting that he had not renounced Brazil’s colours when the military dictatorship appropriated them in 1970, and would not do so now.

Angst over the appropriation is leading some progressives to try to reclaim yellow, rather than retire it. In recent weeks several new pro-democracy groups and one top newspaper, the Folha de São Paulo, have championed moves to wrestle the colour back from the far right.

“There’s an attempt to reframe the colour yellow, so it’s no longer a colour linked just to Bolsonarismo or conservatism but rather to the democratic movements,” said Sérgio Dávila, Folha’s editor-in-chief.

Last month the newspaper urged readers to wear yellow as part of a pro-democracy campaign it launched against a backdrop of attacks on the supreme court and congress by Bolsonaro fanatics. “We thought the Folha should also do its bit to help rescue this colour,” Dávila said.

Another campaign – #DevolvamNossaBandeira (#GiveBackOurFlag) – has received support from prominent progressives including the politician Flávio Dino, the musician Tico Santa Cruz and the influencer Felipe Neto.

“Surrendering our flag to the fascists means giving up one of the most important symbols of our fight,” Neto tweeted. “It’s the only flag we have and we must recover it, even if it hurts our ego.”

Many on the left reject the push to reclaim yellow, however, arguing it plays into Bolsonaro’s hands. “I think wearing yellow means shooting yourself in the foot right now because yellow is identified with Bolsonaro’s bunch. There’s no escaping that fact,” Assumpção insisted. “We need to wear white and blue in order to contrast ourselves with Bolsonaro.”

The Brazilian Football Confederation (CBF) said it “did not want to emit any opinion with respect” to calls for the yellow jersey’s abolition.

Assumpção said he was preparing to petition the organisation and would continue fighting for his idea. “We’ve already changed our shirt once, in 1950,” he said. “Seventy years later we can change it again.”