Earlier this month, on the afternoon of 8 January, thousands of supporters of ex-President Jair Bolsonaro rioted in the country’s capital, Brasília. The riot occurred exactly one week after the inauguration of President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, following his victory over the incumbent Bolsonaro. The leftist, who is popularly known as Lula, returns undertake his third term as the President of Brazil, a position which he previously held from 2003 – 2010.
A march was held by supporters of his predecessor, the right-wing nationalist, Bolsonaro, and it reached its terminus at the National Congress of Brazil. The sea of “bolsonaristas” were wearing yellow and green, with most wearing the most recognisable symbol of the country, the Brazilian national football jersey.
The protesters flooded the ramps leading to the roof of the modernist Congress building and destroyed public property in events that starkly mirrored a similar attack which occurred nearly two years ago when supporters of President Donald Trump stormed the US Capitol in Washington DC.
Since when has the iconic strip been so wrapped up in politics?
It started in around 2013, when protests flared up, initially concerning issues of transport in the most populous city in Brazil, São Paulo. The initial protests were organised to express frustrations against increases in prices for bus, train, and metro tickets but they soon became widespread across the country, encompassing the vast spending for the Confederations Cup which therefore intensified demonstrations.
The Confederations Cup was a football tournament held in Brazil in 2013, as a prelude to the 2014 FIFA World Cup. Many protesters dressed in the famous yellow and green jersey to object against the government spending millions to host these tournaments. Protesters were also displaying their dissatisfaction at claims of corruption and embezzlement in the government. The movement grew from protests solely against rising transport costs to a national protest movement, one which was the largest since protests against former President Fernando Affonso Collor de Mello in 1992.
As the Brazilian national football strip is seen as the strongest symbol of patriotism in the country, many activist wore the kit to emphasise their national identity which was opposed to the government’s policy which was seen to be rife with corruption.
Although these demonstrations originally started from the left, they were quickly swamped with the idea that these protests were non-political party and there was a sense that political parties were not welcome at these demonstrations.
A big slogan that came out of this protest movement was ‘My political party is Brazil’ and, to show this, demonstrators wore the foremost symbol of the nation: the shirt of the national football team.
This is when the protests ventured away from the left as this slogan was seen as problematic by many Brazilians as there is no democracy without a plurality of opinions which are represented as political parties and so this slogan played into the hands of the far right who were trying to portray all political parties as corrupt.
The far right then were seen to have hijacked the yellow shirt and it has been seen as their property ever since. In every far-right rally for Bolsonaro, the vast majority are in yellow shirts. A lot of these protests desire the security of traditional hierarchies.
It was this yellow army that invaded the congress building, the presidential palace and the supreme court building earlier this month and there has been a significant sense of discomfort with this hijacking of the yellow shirt. For some time there were attempts at push back and during the World Cup in Qatar, representatives of other political persuasions tried to confirm that the yellow shirt belongs to all citizens of Brazil. This has all been very polarising in Brazil and football journalist, Tim Vickery stated that during the World Cup it was the only time that you could see someone wearing a yellow shirt and not automatically assume that they were on the far right.
These protesters tried to force the involvement of the armed forced and many protesters have been camped outside armed forces barracks for over two months to take control. In Brazil, many view these protests as an attack on the democratic institutions and structure in the country and so they are distancing themselves from one of the key symbols of their movement, the national shirt.
CBF Statement: “The Brazilian national team shirt is a symbol of the joy of our people. It’s to cheer, vibrate, love the country. The CBF is a non-partisan and democratic entity. We encourage the shirt be used to unite and not separate Brazilians.”
The Brazilian Football Confederation (CBF) is the governing body of football in Brazil and they have blatantly distanced themselves from the far right by repudiating this act of political vandalism and attempts to force a coup d’état. They have tried to emphasise the fact that the Brazilian shirt is above party politics, however this has been challenging, especially when considering that the far right was the president until a few weeks ago.
The yellow and green jersey is arguable the most famous in the sport and represents the skilful and daring style of Brazilian football. This South American country is known for their dominance in the world cup over the years, having won the coveted trophy 5 times. Brazil, wearing the iconic yellow and green strip, are the most successful national team in FIFA World Cup.
The shirt has been contaminated, and it is now no longer a symbol of national pride, a shirt that footballing greats such as Pelé, Ronaldo and Ronaldinho wore, but instead it is the symbol of a divided nation.
It is a huge travesty that the famous football shirt is becoming attached to a political identity.