Jair Bolsonaro: How a yellow jersey is dividing Brazil



Brazil’s bright yellow jersey is a symbol that unites the country through a love of football and national pride, but in the past two years the shirt has been adopted by right-wing supporters of Jair Bolsonaro, who wear it during protests and rallies to demonstrate their political allegiance to Brazil. president, causes controversy.

That famous yellow jersey was burned into the imagination of a global audience during the 1970 World Cup. Inspired by Pelé’s mesmerizing performance – he wore the number 10 shirt – the yellow shirt represented Brazil’s success on the pitch and created a positive image worldwide over the past five decades.

That 1970 national team also got involved in politics, particularly in the run-up to the World Cup in Mexico when General Medici, the president of a country under military dictatorship, played a key role in removing the coach – Joao Saldanha – who had overseen a perfect qualifying campaign.

Fast forward to 2020 and critics of Bolsonaro say the iconic yellow jersey has now become tainted by its close relationship with the Brazilian president.

Walter Casagrande, a former soccer player of the Brazilian national team and the São Paulo club Corinthians, remembers the feeling of scoring a goal while wearing the yellow jersey during his first match with the “selecao” in 1985.

“It was something magical,” Casagrande told CNN Sport, “like an enchanted object that gave me tremendous emotions.”

Casagrande’s feelings lie on the left side of the political divide that separates Bolsonaro’s supporters and opponents, and he feels an item he cherishes is being misrepresented.

“Now I consider the Brazilian yellow jersey kidnapped and appropriated by the right wing, so we can’t use it.”

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

“Brazil seems awful to the world right now,” he said. “It is the first time in my life that I see the yellow jersey used against democracy and freedom.”

Supporters of Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro pray during a motorcade protesting the National Congress and the Supreme Court due to lockdown measures during 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 quick as the left is to criticize Bolsonaro, his supporters are not slow to counter the blow.

Cosmo Alexandre, a Brazilian fighter who holds multiple world titles for Muay Thai and Kickboxing, believes the left is mixing up their many issues with Bolsonaro and using the jersey as just another way to air grievances.

As a Bolsonaro supporter, Alexandre dismisses allegations that the jersey’s symbolism is being manipulated, saying the reason for supporters to wear a yellow T-shirt is simple: everyone in Brazil has a yellow T-shirt.

He points out that supporters don’t always specifically wear the Brazilian team jersey and rallies are full of people wearing all kinds of yellow T-shirts.

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

“Everyone around the world knows the Brazilian football team, so even if I go to a fight and wear the yellow shirt of the football 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.”

It may be easier for some than for others to isolate football and politics in a country where football is God.

Josemar de Rezende Jr. is a football fan who co-founded a Bolsonaro volunteer group in his city before the election. He said he is proud of the Brazilian team’s global reputation as a winner, and for him the yellow jersey means “love for the country, leadership, achievement and pride.”

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

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

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Nevertheless, the subject of the yellow jersey is so divided that there is a campaign underway for Brazil to play in a white shirt.

João Carlos Assumpção, a Brazilian journalist, filmmaker and author of ‘Gods of Soccer’, a book about Brazil’s political, sociological and economic history, is leading a campaign for the Brazilian Football Federation (CBF) to abolish the yellow jersey altogether and go back to the classic white and blue kit from when the program started in 1914.

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

“People loved Brazilian football because we used to play 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 is not impossible.”

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

Protesters in 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 an accident when Brazil lost the 1950 World Cup at home to Uruguay, so they switched to the yellow jersey and won five World Cups while wearing it – a finals record that still stands.

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

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

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

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The political turmoil in the country reflects the fierceness between intercity football rivalries across Brazil. Except it’s not constrained by city limits and has brought fans together in recent months.

São Paulo is home to four major 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 streets to protest Bolsonaro’s supporters.

Sociologist Rafael Castilho, a member of the Collective Corinthian Democracy and coordinator of the Corinthians Study Center, said that if Brazil is to overcome the current political situation, it must “unite different ways of thinking and accept the contradictory”.

Castilho explains the social responsibility rival clubs feel to support each other and join civil society movements. has received sympathy because part of society feels represented by the bravery of the fans.”

The 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 national team leaders Socrates and Casagrande.

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

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

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

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

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The yellow jersey was back on the streets during the 2013 protests against ex-president Dilma Roussef and against corruption. A year before the World Cup was due to take place in the South American country, conservative protesters wore shirts representing Brazil’s colors, while left-wing protesters used other colours.

Alexandre and Rezende Jr. both say yellow is an improvement on the red t-shirts government supporters wore when the left was in power, referring to an underlying support for communism.

“When Bolsonaro started running, his supporters used the yellow color to show that I am Brazilian and do not want communism in my country,” Alexandre said.

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro presents US President Donald Trump with a Brazilian 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 move forward to create new meaning for the iconic symbol. In a country so deeply rooted in football, it is a problem that is unlikely to go away.

Assumpção thinks it is only possible for the football community and Brazilians not associated with the far right to get the jersey back “maybe in five or ten years, but not now. Not now.”

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