SAO PAULO — Brazilians are heading to the polls to determine their next president on Sunday, bringing an end to a heated contest that will determine the fate of its democracy, the future of the Amazon rainforest and whether right-wing President Jair Bolsonaro will win a second term that would allow him to accelerate his attacks on both.
Many of Bolsonaro’s supporters are casting their ballots while wearing the iconic canary yellow soccer jersey that Brazil’s national soccer team has made famous around the world. But many Brazilians opposed to Bolsonaro can no longer stand the sight of the shirt — and wouldn’t wear it even if you promised them that doing so would guarantee a victory in next month’s World Cup.
The yellow jersey has become a potent cultural and political signifier in a bitterly divided Brazil: Bolsonaro, an admirer and ally of former U.S. President Donald Trump, has helped turn it into Brazil’s equivalent of the red MAGA hat.
It’s a cliche that soccer determines the national mood of Brazil, but the national team and its yellow shirt have long been used for political purposes. The military dictatorship that ruled Brazil from 1964 to 1985 used the team’s success — Brazil won the 1970 World Cup crown during military rule — and its yellow shirts as a symbol of pro-regime patriotism. The jersey took on political significance again in 2015, when it was ubiquitous at protests against leftist President Dilma Rousseff.
Bolsonaro, a longtime fan of the dictatorship, cemented its status as an emblem of the Brazilian right-wing during a 2018 campaign that fully co-opted the jersey, the flag, and the green and yellow colors into signifiers of a particular type of patriotism meant to exclude the left, its supporters and anyone else Bolsonaro saw as an illegitimate piece of the national fabric.
During this election, Bolsonaro has wrapped the jersey into the conspiracies he’s spread about voter fraud as he’s sought to undermine the legitimacy of the contest. Bolsonaro has trailed his leftist rival, former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, in polls, and is widely expected to attempt to question the results if he loses the election Sunday.
In August, he warned that da Silva’s backers would “start wearing green and yellow” to “deceive” other Brazilians. Before the first-round vote on Oct. 2, he criticized the Superior Electoral Tribunal, which oversees elections and has been the subject of a relentless stream of attacks from Bolsonaro, for banning voters from wearing the national team jersey to the polls.
The court issued no such decision.
Bolsonaro’s most ardent supporters have worn the jersey while calling for military intervention against Brazil’s Congress and Supreme Court. They’ve used it to blanket the streets of Brasilia and Rio de Janeiro in yellow and green during rallies meant to pave the way for a potential effort to challenge the election results.
The national team’s members have largely refrained from an election defined by political violence and hyperpolarization. Tite, the team’s manager, recently said he wouldn’t take the team to Brasilia after the World Cup even if it won, and most of its players — even those who have supported Bolsonaro in the past — have stayed on the political sidelines.
Three of the team’s most prominent faces, however, have broken ranks. Thiago Silva, who plays for English club Chelsea, has posted Bolsonaro slogans on social media. Dani Alves, a former Barcelona great, has endorsed the president.
Neymar, the face of Brazil’s national team who plays his club football for Paris Saint-Germain, has been a particularly strident supporter: Last week, he appeared on a streaming event with Bolsonaro and promised to dedicate his first goal of the 2022 World Cup to the president. He has appeared in television advertisements that Bolsonaro has run ahead of the election.
Brazil’s blue away jersey is less controversial and has been a hit among Brazilians since Nike released the country’s new World Cup kits this summer. The company doesn’t allow customers to order jerseys that use the names of Bolsonaro or da Silva, who, coincidentally, won his first term in office just months after Brazil’s last World Cup title in 2002.
Da Silva has also used the country’s soccer symbolism throughout his campaign: The lifelong fan of Corinthians, a São Paulo club whose players took a pro-democracy stand against the dictatorship in the 1980s, has donned the team’s logo at campaign events. Antifascist groups associated with Corinthians and other clubs are a mainstay at da Silva marches.
Da Silva also boasts support from high-profile Brazilian players of the past. Walter Casagrande, a Corinthians star who was instrumental in its pro-democracy movement, endorsed da Silva and has appeared at campaign events. Raí, part of Brazil’s 1994 World Cup-winning team, declared his support for da Silva during international soccer’s biggest award ceremony earlier this month. Juninho Pernambucano, who appeared 40 times for the national team, filmed an ad for da Silva.
In the 1980s, the movement calling for the return of direct elections and democracy in Brazil reclaimed yellow from the dictatorship, making it the official color of its protests. This year, groups behind anti-Bolsonaro protests have adopted yellow and green in an effort to keep it from symbolizing the right-wing president’s side alone.
Da Silva has made frequent use of the Brazilian flag that Bolsonaro claims as his own at events and rallies: It served as the backdrop for a pro-democracy event da Silva held Monday night, and he waved the flag throughout a massive pre-election march in São Paulo on Sunday.
Most of the crowd was dressed in the traditional red of the Workers’ Party, but others wore versions of the yellow jersey, often adorned with “Lula For President” stickers or the Workers’ Party’s symbol, a red star.
Near the end of the march, a man leaned out of his apartment window high above the street. Wearing the yellow jersey, he waved a flag that read “Fora Bolsonaro!” — or “Bolsonaro out!”
A da Silva victory on Sunday may lead many more of his supporters to resume wearing the yellow kit next month, when Brazil will begin its quest for a sixth World Cup title as one of the favorites in Qatar. But his campaign has already told its supporters not to let Bolsonaro and the right own the national colors — or the jersey that’s so well known around the world.
“Green and yellow are ours,” the emcee of Monday’s event said before da Silva addressed the crowd. “Green and yellow are for all Brazilians.”