Brazil’s soccer team won its ninth Copa America title on Sunday, wearing the squad’s legendary yellow and green jersey. But in the nation’s bitterly polarized political environment, some fans felt unable to wear the colors.
The team’s Nike Inc.-designed jersey has long been worn with pride by ordinary Brazilians. But over the past few years it’s been adopted by the political forces that lifted President Jair Bolsonaro to power.
Brazil beat Peru 3-1 in Rio de Janeiro for its first Copa title since 2007. But it was at the same Maracana stadium in the 1950 World Cup final that Brazil suffered one of its most devastating defeats against Uruguay; in the wake of that national tragedy, the yellow jersey known as the Amarelinha was created.
Maracana was also where Brazil racked up its last big championship, defeating Spain in the 2013 Confederations Cup. Protests against government spending on stadiums didn’t prevent the World Cup the next year. Then-President Dilma Rousseff boasted, “Brazil is dressed up in green and yellow; the idea there wouldn’t be a Cup has been buried.”
Unrest continued, however, and protesters began wearing team colors as they demanded Rousseff’s ouster and an end to corruption. Defenders of the left-wing leader tended to dress in red. The conservative movement kept using the uniform at rallies for Bolsonaro, who surfed the wave of public anger over graft and anti-Workers’ Party sentiment to victory. They still wear the Amarelinha at pro-government demonstrations; those wearing red have faced attacks.
When Bolsonaro took office, there was hope that Bolsonaro might work to reduce polarization, but he’s reinforced it, according to Rafael Cortez, partner at political consultancy Tendencias. Bolsonaro has seen his support falling; his approval rating after 100 days was lower than any other leader since the country’s return to democracy, according to polling company Datafolha. His support base, however, remains passionate and vocal.
“Part of the electorate that gravitates toward the center-right and has a link to the yellow and green aesthetic isn’t necessarily Bolsonarist; it’s anti-Workers’ Party,” Cortez said. “To recover and preserve popularity, or prevent a bigger fall, Bolsonaro is drawing closer to the aesthetic connected to the conservative movement, making his presence felt at the games.
Bolsonaro attended the tournament opener and the team’s July 2 match against arch-rival Argentina alongside Economy Minister Paulo Guedes. He took a halftime stroll on the sideline and waved the Brazilian flag for adoring fans. Argentina’s soccer federation complained to the league that he violated rules prohibiting political acts.
On Sunday, he celebrated with a simple tweet and took to the field soon after the match, prompting much of the stadium to erupt with boos. But booing isn’t proof of rejection, said sportswriter Juca Kfouri, as Brazilians traditionally subject their leaders to such treatment. In the Maracana, it’s been said fans will even boo a minute of silence.
Bolsonaro is far from the first Brazilian president -- on either side of the spectrum -- to bask in reflected soccer glory.
And fans at the stadium were hardly representative of the electorate at large. With tickets for the game starting at 190 reais (US$ 50) -- or a fifth of the monthly minimum wage -- those in attendance were middle- and upper-class, groups largely sympathetic to the president.