How former President Jair Bolsonaro highjacked Brazilian symbols and why the World Cup may change that.

On October 28th, just two days before the second round of the Brazilian elections, between ‘Lula’ da Silva and incumbent Jair Bolsonaro, a group of people wearing Brazil football team jerseys and waving Brazilian flags gathered in front of Mackenzie University, a traditional school in São Paulo city centre. On the other side of the road, three girls were leaving a supermarket when one of them noted in a disapproval tone: “Oh, no… they are all in yellow”. Her conclusion has become obvious to almost everyone in the country now: these were  Bolsonaro supporters. It’s been years since the followers of the now-defeated president monopolised the use of several national symbols to back up the controversial far-right leader.

The arrival of the World Cup and a heavy correlation between those elements and Bolsonaro influenced how Brazilians would cheer on the ‘Seleção’. However, Lula’s victory in the polls and the FIFA tournament getting underway in Qatar have begun to change and impact this volatile issue.

The far-right uniform

The political use of the national team jersey started slowly in 2013 when a wave of protests hatched around the country. Demonstrations against the public transport fare in São Paulo escalated to encompass other grievances. After a few days, the various demands turned the movement into a general revolt against the political class. To express this and to show that they were not supporting a specific political party, some began to show up to the rallies wearing the (then impartial) iconic yellow Brazilian jersey as a symbol that could appeal to and unite all Brazilians. 

Two years later, when the impeachment of president Dilma Rousseff began, the protestors, in favour of the process, again showed up in the yellow jersey. But this time, most of those who went to the rallies bought into the idea. The gatherings became a yellow sea of people. On the other hand, protests against the impeachment would usually wear red representing the Workers Party. The colour palette of Brazilian political polarisation was born. 

At the time, a popular Tumblr page sprung up mocking the situation. Displaying a gallery of people in Brazilian shirts, the goal was to guess if the pictures were taken during a protest or the 2014 FIFA World Cup hosted in Brazil. 

With Rousseff’s fall, the far-right ascended to power, culminating in Bolsonaro’s election in 2018. In this period, the use of the jersey, the flag, and the national anthem were used massively to sell the idea that they were the ones in favour of the people’s and country’s interests, causing an aversion to these symbols in the subsequent years among many opponents of Bolsonaro’s regime.

It is worth noting that this is familiar territory in Brazil’s history. Many politicians used football as a vehicle to boost popularity. Most notably, the military dictatorship promoted several celebrations in the wake of Brazil’s World Cup win in Mexico in 1970. At the time, there was political persecution, torture, and an economic crisis, and the victory was used to numb the population to those problems.

World Cup fever 

Traditionally during World Cups, Brazilians would decorate balconies, drive with flags hanging out of the car window, and wear yellow to support the national team. But as of 2022, this was precisely how Bolsonaro’s supporters displayed their political preferences. With the election second round just 22 days before the first match of the FIFA tournament, the symbols were highjacked by far-right supporters, and with the World Cup now under way, decorations for the football championship are barely to be seen, something very odd in Brazil.

Some attempts have been made to reappropriate the symbols, with minimal effect. Lula, the now president-elect, during his political advertising on TV, aired a clip featuring man wearing the now infamous yellow jersey, with “Lula 13” on the back (13 was the electoral number voters should type in the poll to cast a vote for Lula). He also waved the national flag in many public appearances, including his victory celebration, to disassociate it from his rival, but this proved challenging at first.

One thing that made the football link even stronger was the intervention of Neymar. The player revealed himself as a strong Bolsonaro supporter, causing many people to associate the Brazilian national team with the far-right. He even promised to honour the president while celebrating his first goal in the World Cup.

The player’s name appeared recurringly throughout the electoral campaigns, and during an interview for a popular podcast, Lula said that Neymar supported Bolsonaro because he had forgiven the PSG star’s income tax debt. The striker’s representatives condemned the statement, but it was too late: it already became a meme. During Lula’s victory celebration, the crowd at Avenida Paulista in São Paulo chanted: “Hey, Neymar, you will have to declare (your taxes).”

Other team members also declared support for Bolsonaro, including Dani Alves and Ederson. Even Mateus Bachi, manager Tite’s assistant coach, caused a political controversy after he liked several posts on Instagram with homophobic content.

The current situation has made many Brazilians root against the national team in the World Cup. English teacher Nathalia Rodrigues, 24, is one of them: “Most players who express themselves politically are pro-right, pro-guns, and against LGBT+ rights. Neymar, for example, was always controversial, but we used to put that aside when Brazil played. We are not dazzled by football anymore.”

World Cup begins, things start to change

People gathered in a bar in São Paulo city centre early in the afternoon. At 4 pm, local time, Brazil would debut in the World Cup against Serbia. Many wearing the yellow jersey have added something to disassociate themselves from Bolsonaro. Red star buttons, the symbol of the workers’ party, or red hats were the most common. Some used the jerseys with Neymar’s name scratched out and “I’m not pro-Bolsonaro” written below. 

Many Brazilians now seem to want to disassociate the national team from the far-right, and the first game in the World Cup was perhaps the beginning of that. Even more so because of the match star, Richarlison. The Spurs striker scored both goals and became instantly loved by the country. 

Opposing teammates such as Neymar, Richarlison is active on social media fighting for social causes. He has donated money to COVID vaccine research in Brazil and protested against racism and police brutality in Rio’s favelas. After the game, people started to praise him on the internet as the new Brazilian hero who would change the perception of the national team.

At the same time, Bolsonaro supporters, still protesting the election results, swapped the yellow jersey for black to say: “We are not partying or interested in the World Cup.” This could be the beginning of a twist, but only time, and the following chapters of the FIFA championship will tell. For now, people are just enjoying the optimistic atmosphere that slowly emerges in the country with the Brazilian results in the tournament. As heard in the streets of São Paulo after the win against Serbia: “How good is it to be able to wear the Brazilian jersey again?”

Henrique Castro Barbosa, born and raised in São Paulo, Brazil, is a journalist and geographer. He writes about culture, sports, politics, and the environment, and is an avid Corinthians fan.