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Why some Brazilians won't be wearing their national soccer colors for the World Cup

Brazilians who voted against President Jair Bolsonaro are torn about sporting the yellow soccer jersey after the far-right leader and his supporters adopted the shirt.

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Fans arrive to the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil round of 16 match between Brazil and Chile at Estadio Mineirão in Belo Horizonte, Brazil, on June 28, 2014.
Fans arrive to the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil round of 16 match between Brazil and Chile at Estadio Mineirão in Belo Horizonte, Brazil, on June 28, 2014. Pedro Vilela/Getty Images

RIO DE JANEIRO — It's probably the most recognized soccer shirt out there: the canary yellow with bright green trim. Brazil has worn it during all five of its record World Cup titles. But at home, the national colors have been steeped in controversy ever since far-right President Jair Bolsonaro adopted them as the emblem of his brand of nationalist politics.

Bolsonaristas, as the president's followers are known, wear the jerseys and wrap themselves in the Brazilian flag at marches and rallies supporting his conservative religious, anti-LGBTQ and pro-gun rights messages.

Bolsonaro downplayed the coronavirus pandemic and oversaw a devastating COVID-19 death toll. He slashed Amazon protections leading to record deforestation. And he has tried to challenge the election results after electoral authorities declared victory last month for his rival, President-elect Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva.

In Brazil, the yellow shirt has become the equivalent of the red MAGA hat worn by followers of Bolsonaro's ally, former President Donald Trump.

Soccer fan Vanessa Morales says she just can't wear the Seleção's shirt during this year's World Cup.

"I'm not going to wear either the green or yellow," she says, not wanting to be confused with Bolsonaro's supporters. She'll wear her local team Flamengo's red-and-black jersey instead. "It's difficult that a [political] party ended up dominating our T-shirt."

But she says hopefully when Lula takes office in January, more Brazilians will wear the national soccer jersey once again.

Reclaiming the yellow

A supporter of Brazilian President-elect Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva wears a shirt with election campaign stickers during the runoff vote in Rio de Janeiro, Oct. 30.
A supporter of Brazilian President-elect Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva wears a shirt with election campaign stickers during the runoff vote in Rio de Janeiro, Oct. 30. Bruna Prado | AP

President-elect Lula's supporters have been selling their own version of the national jersey in the bright yellow and green colors. It has a small picture of Lula on the front, and a 13 — his election candidate number — on the back.

Vendor Renato Monteiro says he's sold 20,000 of the shirts to Lula voters in the last two months.

"They're buying it because Bolsonaro thought the symbol was his, but in fact it was not his, it belonged to the people. We rescued the symbol of our homeland," he says from his small stand at a weekend outdoor market in Rio de Janeiro.

Brazil's soccer confederation, CBF, is neutral on the political front, but launched a campaign to encourage citizens to rally around the jersey and the team. And one of the country's largest beer companies, Brahma, is urging Brazilians to wear it during the World Cup.

Ronaldo of Brazil celebrates scoring the winning goal during the FIFA World Cup 2002 semi-final match against Turkey played at the Saitama Stadium in Japan on June 26, 2002. Brazil won the match 1-0.
Ronaldo of Brazil celebrates scoring the winning goal during the FIFA World Cup 2002 semi-final match against Turkey played at the Saitama Stadium in Japan on June 26, 2002. Brazil won the match 1-0. Alex Livesey/Getty Images

In a country where soccer is practically a religion, maybe there will be a moment when Brazilians can forget what divides them and unite under one color, yellow.

Thursday is their first opportunity of the 2022 World Cup to do so — as Brazil plays Serbia in Doha at 2 p.m. EST (4 p.m. Brasília time).

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Transcript :

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

Brazil, one of this year's favorites to win the World Cup, plays its first match later today. Now, fans at home are not sure about sporting the team's national jersey, which, during the recent contentious presidential contest, became synonymous with Brazil's far-right president. NPR's Carrie Kahn has the story.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Singing in Portuguese).

CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: It's become a familiar sight at marches and rallies of the nationalist supporters of Brazil's president, Jair Bolsonaro.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Chanting) Hut, hut, hut, hut (ph).

KAHN: Nearly all wear the canary yellow soccer jersey and wave the national flag - symbols, they say, are emblematic of their movement led by Bolsonaro. The right-wing leader who narrowly lost last month's reelection bid left the country deeply divided. He's claiming fraud, and his supporters are still protesting and still wearing the jersey.

VANESSA MORALES: (Speaking Portuguese).

KAHN: That's why some sports fans, like Vanessa Morales, says they won't wear the jersey, even while watching the national team possibly win a hexa - a sixth World Cup title. She doesn't want to be confused with a Bolsonaro party supporter.

MORALES: (Speaking Portuguese).

KAHN: "A party that ended up taking over our T-shirt." She says it's sad not being able to wear it anymore. Instead, she'll wear her local red Flamengo team's T-shirt, like she's doing at a recent parade in Rio de Janeiro.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Chanting in Portuguese).

KAHN: She says hopefully in the new year, when Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva takes office, Brazilians will wear the national soccer jersey once again.

Lula's supporters aren't waiting that long. They've created their own version of the famous jersey, says vendor Renato Monteiro, making brisk sales in an outdoor market in Rio de Janeiro.

RENATO MONTEIRO: (Speaking Portuguese).

KAHN: Monteiro says, "We've rescued our homeland from Bolsonaro with the jersey-style T-shirt." It sports a picture of the bearded president-elect on the front and Lula's election candidate number, 13, on the back. "It belongs to the people, and we've taken it back," he adds. And profits aren't bad either. He says he's sold 20,000 in the run-up to the World Cup. But Brazil's soccer confederation wishes the country would just put politics in the past.

(SOUNDBITE OF AD)

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Rapping in Portuguese).

KAHN: It's running this ad with its own take on a popular Brazilian song encouraging pride for the (speaking Portuguese) - yellow shirt.

(SOUNDBITE OF AD)

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Singing in Portuguese).

KAHN: "Come on, Brazil. Come on, yellow shirt," it goes. One of the country's biggest beer companies is hoping to focus on soccer and, of course, alcohol consumption, too.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Chanting in Portuguese).

KAHN: But these three soccer fans, who've come to celebrate at their local team's recent parade, say political reconciliation is possible. One voted for Lula, one for Bolsonaro and one abstained.

LEANDRO CORREIA: (Speaking Portuguese).

KAHN: "Look," says 40-year-old Leandro Correia, "the election is over. If we can come together all under one color, yellow, then the country can. It's time to unite Brazil." Although, he jokes, of course that will be way easier if Brazil wins the World Cup.

Carrie Kahn, NPR News, Rio de Janeiro.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONEY MARK'S "CROWNS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.