CNN

Brazil’s bright yellow jersey is a symbol that unites the country through love of football and national pride, but over the past two years the adoption of the jersey by right-wing supporters of Jair Bolsonaro, who wear it during of demonstrations and rallies to show their political allegiance to the Brazilian president, arouses controversy.

This famous yellow jersey was etched in the imagination of a global audience during the 1970 World Cup. Inspired by Pelé’s spellbinding performances – he wore jersey number 10 – the yellow jersey represented Brazil’s success on the field and has created a positive image around the world over the past five decades.

That 1970 national team also dabbled in politics, notably ahead of the World Cup in Mexico when General Medici, president of a nation under military dictatorship, played a key role in the dismissal of coach – Joao Saldanha – who had overseen a perfect qualifying campaign.

Fast forward to 2020 and Bolsonaro critics say the iconic yellow jersey is now tainted by his close association with the Brazilian president.

Former Brazilian national team and São Paulo Corinthians footballer Walter Casagrande remembers the feeling of scoring a goal wearing the yellow jersey in his first match with the ‘selecao’ in 1985.

“It was a magical thing,” Casagrande told CNN Sport, “like an enchanted object that gave me tremendous emotion.”

Casagrande’s feelings lie on the left side of the political chasm separating Bolsonaro supporters and opponents, and he feels an element he cherishes is being twisted.

“Now I consider that the Brazilian yellow jersey has been kidnapped and appropriated by the right, so we cannot use it.”

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

“Brazil is appearing horribly to the world right now,” he said. “It’s 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 and protest against the National Congress and the Supreme Court over lockdown measures amid the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic in front of the National Congress on May 09, 2020 in Brasília.

A protester holds a sign saying

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As quick as the left is to criticize Bolsonaro, his supporters are quick to counter.

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

As a Bolsonaro supporter, Alexandre dismisses accusations that the symbolism of the shirt is manipulated and explains that the reason fans wear yellow t-shirts is simple: everyone in Brazil has a yellow t-shirt.

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

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

“Everywhere in the world everyone knows the Brazilian football team, so even if I go to a fight and use the football team’s yellow jersey, everyone knows it’s Brazil “, did he declare. “So it’s not about politics – it’s just that the world knows football in Brazil.”

It may be easier for some than 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 town ahead of the election. He said he was proud of the Brazilian team’s global reputation for winning, and for him the yellow jersey “means love for the country, leadership, achievement 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 gather to support him and protest against racism and the death of black people in Brazil's slums during a Black Lives Matter protest at Copacabana beach in Rio de Janeiro on June 7, 2020.

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Nevertheless, the subject of the yellow jersey has become so controversial that a campaign is underway for Brazil to play in the white jersey.

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 jersey and going back to the classic white and blue kit from when the program started in 1914.

CNN contacted the CBF who replied that they had chosen not to comment on this matter, “because it is a very unique problem”.

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

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

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

The white and blue jersey was deemed unlucky when Brazil lost the World Cup at home to Uruguay in 1950, so they switched to the yellow jersey and won five World Cups wearing it – a finals record that still holds today.

Assumpção’s vision for changing the color of the kit 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 a positive change in the country. Bolsonaro supporter Rezende Jr. believes the left’s bid to reclaim the yellow jersey is an effort to “distort the government”, which he describes as a “patriotic government that represents and enjoys the support of all classes social across the country.

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

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The political turmoil in the country mirrors the ferocity of intercity football rivalries across Brazil. Except it’s not contained by city limits and has been bringing fans together for the past few 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 streets to counterprotest Bolsonaro supporters.

Sociologist Rafael Castilho, member of the Corinthian Democracy collective and coordinator of the Corinthians Study Center, 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 each other and join civil society movements, “as the country faces a crisis of party representation and social movements have been intimidated by police action “, he said, adding that “the attitude of the fans has won 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’s team was led by national team bosses Socrates and Casagrande.

The pair intertwined football and politics when the team wore shirts at a game in 1982 displaying the words ‘VOTE 15’, in a bid to motivate their fans to vote in state government elections from Sao Paulo.

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

“It was a very important moment for Brazilian democracy, and that yellow jersey was at the heart of that movement,” Casagrande said.

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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 to take place in the South American country, conservative protesters wore shirts in the colors of Brazil, while left-wing protesters used other colors.

Alexandre and Rezende Jr. both say the yellow is an improvement on the red t-shirts government supporters wore 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,” said Alexandre.

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 winning past, while others push forward to give new meaning to the iconic symbol. In a country so deeply rooted in football, it’s a problem that is unlikely to go away.

Assumpção believes it is only possible for the football community and Brazilians not associated with the far right to reclaim the jersey “maybe in five years or 10, but not now.” Not now.”

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