How Brazil's Beloved National Soccer Team Became a Symbol For a Disastrous Presidency
Why this matters
As the Seleção Canarinha heads to Qatar as favorites in the 2022 FIFA World Cup, everything from its bright-yellow kits to its star player have become symbols for the previous far-right president, Jair Bolsonaro, and the fierce political battle ongoing in Brazil.
On the night of Brazil’s October runoff election, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, winner of 50.9% of the vote and the presidency, promised to unite the country. That promise will be incredibly hard to accomplish, considering how much the far-right outgoing leader, Jair Bolsonaro, has exacerbated social and political divisions as president. The incoming leader, known commonly as “Lula,” is now tasked with improving a plummeting economy, weak international standing, environmental destruction, high levels of income inequality, and more.
But his biggest task – one that may not be as easily tangible to measure – is to repair a deep rift created by a nasty and bitter election.
As the 2022 FIFA World Cup approaches, the rift has pitted two sides of the country against one another at a time when Brazilian communities historically have come together to support the Brazil national football team, the Seleção Canarinha. At the center of this political conflict is the national team itself – and its signature bright yellow and blue kits.
The iconic kit is a symbol of sporting excellence. The jersey of the Seleção has also historically been a symbol of national identity and oneness, rallying Brazilians across five World Cup titles.
But under Bolsonaro, the yellow shirt has come to symbolize Brazil’s far-right movement. His supporters have worn it at rallies to show their allegiance to him. When the players themselves take the pitch in Qatar donning the yellow tops, it will be more than symbolism; indeed, many Seleção stars support the losing far-right politician. Neymar, Brazil’s former captain and biggest star, shared a video of himself dancing to a Bolsonaro jingle for his 11.4 million TikTok followers. The video was captioned “22,” the number of Bolsonaro’s party as it had appeared on Brazil’s electronic ballots, depicting an explicit endorsement of the right-wing leader. Other prominent active players such as Lucas Moura, Thiago Silva, Dani Alves, and Alisson have also shown support for Bolsonaro.
“It’s an awkward time to be a Brazilian football fan,” says João Teles, an assistant coach with the under-16 team at Grêmio FBPA Academy. The academy, which has produced some of Brazil’s most recognizable stars, including legendary Ronaldinho (also a Bolsonaro supporter), is located in Rio Grande do Sul, the southernmost state of the country.
“This election has torn it, and the rest of the country, apart,” Teles says. “Everyone is hostile, and you can feel the judging looks. It’s a shame. You can’t even wear the Brazil top without stares.”
The Seleção Softened Bolsonaro’s Extremism
In a short space of time, the Seleção kit has become a powerful cultural and political signifier, similar to the red MAGA hat that former United States President Donald Trump, a Bolsonaro pal, popularized.
“Bolsonaristas have kidnapped the yellow top. It’s tainted in my eyes. I don’t see myself wearing it for a long time,” says Teles, who makes it no secret that he voted for Lula.
“I banned my players from wearing football tops to training because some showed up with the Seleção shirt, and parents started asking questions,” Teles said. “My boys weren’t happy about it because they all pretty much live in their football tops, but I had no other choice.
“It doesn’t matter that Bolsonaro has lost. The shirt will always be associated with what he stands for. How can I, a good citizen of my country, wear that shirt, knowing that it symbolizes death, destruction, and hatred? I won’t do it.”
Lula supporters look around Brazil and decry the death, hatred, and destruction that occurred in their country the past four years under Bolsonaro, particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic. His reaction to the public health crisis was deemed “disastrous” by Brazil-based researchers from Human Rights Watch. When a journalist pointed out to him that Brazil’s death toll had surpassed China’s in the spring of 2020, Bolsonaro replied, “So what? I’m sorry, but what do you want me to do?”
“Seven hundred thousand died in our country because of him. The way he handled the pandemic was unacceptable,” Teles says. “I know that football was the last thing on people’s minds, but my boys were at risk and still coming to trainings. Why? Because the academy followed the club. And the club followed the state. And the state followed the president’s ruling.”
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Under Bolsonaro, Brazil plummeted into a deep economic crisis, leaving many extremely vulnerable. Bolsonaro has also stirred hate toward communities that go against his beliefs, specifically toward people in the Northeast, the country's poorest region. In both rounds of the election, Bolsonaro failed to win in any of the nine states that occupy the region.
“When Bolsonaro was elected, it was like a permit for people to showcase how prejudiced they are. Bolsonaro brought many of Brazil’s problems to the surface. He attacks marginalized groups and promotes violence against them,” says Júlia Belas, a Brazilian football journalist based in Salvador in a state called Bahia, where Lula won 72% of the vote.
“During [Bolsonaro’s] rule, the economic crisis left millions of people hungry, and prices of essential items spiked, such as food, gas, and fuel,” Belas says. “Bolsonaro has never shied away from xenophobia and prejudice against people from the Northeast.”
Bolsonaro rallied hard in the Northeast right before the second round of voting in an attempt to close the gap between himself and Lula, but it was no use. Since his introduction to politics, Bolsonaro has targeted the Black and Indigenous communities in the Northeast, labeling them uneducated and illiterate, while undermining their struggles. Bolsonaro also called people in the Northeast “lazy” and “not fit for procreation.”
Bolsonaro’s aggressive, prejudiced politics alienated much of Brazil’s population. In response, he looked for ways to gain support, eventually identifying the country’s love of the Seleção as a valuable opportunity. Politicians deploying soft power tactics is not new, and sport is often one of the easiest ways to gain public approval.
As Bolsonaro sought out the Seleção as one such tool by using their imagery as propaganda and attending dozens of matches during his presidency, players lined up behind him. In the leadup to the runoff election, Neymar doubled down on his support for Bolsonaro, appearing in a live stream on Bolsonaro’s YouTube channel, saying: “The values that the president represents, they are the same as mine, those of my family. He defends the people, the children, the family. It’s important to take a stand. I call on those who hesitate to do so. It’s a right; it’s important to express your values. I’m proud to do that.”
When Neymar, who also competes for the Qatari-owned Paris Saint-Germain in France’s Ligue 1, received backlash for his support of Bolsonaro, he dug in further, tweeting, “They talk about democracy and a lot of things, but when someone has a different opinion, they are attacked by the very people who talk about democracy. Go figure.”
“When Neymar campaigns for Bolsonaro, he is trying to protect his interests. … But it’s not only about that,” Belas says. “Football players like Neymar are sometimes disconnected from reality, as many upper-class people in Brazil are. He also was the main provider for his family since he was a teenager and hasn’t lived in Brazil for many years, so there is an out-of-touch factor.
“I recently saw people wearing shirts that said, ‘Not all Brazilian football fans are Neymar fans.' I think that sums up how controversial he is at the moment.”
Teles is scathing in his assessment of Neymar and what the national team has come to symbolize. “He’s a national embarrassment in my eyes,” he says, anger lacing his voice. “I truly mean that. I know it sounds dramatic. But he has turned his back on his people by supporting this man. He came from a humble background growing up in São Paulo, which is not far from here [Rio Grande do Sul]. He seems to have forgotten it all.
“Why would I support these people [at the World Cup]. I love football, of course. I am a coach. But I would much rather like the people that I am cheering for.”
Bolsonaro Supporters Saw a Rising Brazil
“Bolsonaro will win,” Pedro Souza told me confidently a day before the runoff. “I am sure of it. No one expected it to be as close in the first round.”
Souza is a part of Brazil’s diaspora, having left the southern state of Santa Catarina when he was 13. According to him, his mother believed that a private education outside Brazil would do him well. He spent nine years in Lisbon, Portugal, before moving to pursue higher education at the University of Toronto, one of Canada’s top universities.
“I don’t understand Lula supporters. They call us stupid and misinformed. I am well-educated,” Souza said, describing himself as a nationalist. “Intelligent people know that Bolsonaro is the best candidate. I know that Bolsonaro is the best candidate to lead Brazil into the future.”
In Souza’s eyes, an endorsement from Neymar was a massive win for Bolsonaro, as was the support from Lucas Moura, a Seleção player who also competes for Tottenham Hotspur in the English Premier League.
Like Neymar, Moura has also been outspoken about his support for Bolsonaro. In an interview that took place before the election, he said: “I am a right-wing conservative, I follow Christian and family principles. I don’t see a perfect presidential candidate, but I can’t deny that Bolsonaro is the closest to what I believe. Lula supports everything I am against. Left-wing ideology, socialism, and even Communism, which is nothing but Nazism. Supporting Lula is almost impossible.” Moura went further on Twitter, calling Lula’s ideology “indefensible.”
Souza said that, despite what many claim, he believes Bolsonaro is in fact a unifying national leader: “He will lead people like me, and my family, but he also has been a voice for the working class and those who live below the poverty line.”
During the upcoming World Cup, Souza said he will be proudly wearing his yellow Brazilian top. “I am not a huge football fan if I am going to be honest,” he said. “It is a sport that is for the working class, so it isn’t something I associate with. I much prefer Formula 1. But Bolsonaro has given this shirt a new meaning. It isn’t just about football. I will wear it proudly when Brazil plays in Qatar. To me, it symbolizes a country that is entering a new era of global power.”
After Lula was announced as the winner, Souza got in touch to say that he is confident that “the true Brazilian people will fight this decision” and that he supports those who are blocking the roads across the country in protest.
“We’ve had our democracy taken away from us, and we will fight to get it back,” he said, despite Bolsonaro himself backing off threats to refuse a peaceful transition of power.
The easy narrative is that those with affluent upbringings were more inclined to vote for Bolsonaro while everyone else leaned toward Lula. But that would oversimplify a complex situation, says Afonso Almeida, the son of a cattle rancher who lives in the state of Rondônia.
“I voted Bolsonaro. I do not agree with most of what he says. It was what was best for my family and my future,” Almeida adds. “Now that he has lost, I am not sure what will happen.”
Over 70% of Rondônian voters went for Bolsonaro. His commanding lead over Lula in rural areas like Rondônia was linked by many to voters’ desire for more farmland. Bolsonaro has made it no secret that he favors economic growth over the preservation of the Amazon rainforest. When he was first elected in 2019, he slashed environmental agencies’ budgets, fired environmental experts, advocated to remove Indigenous land rights, and decreased the efforts to fight illegal logging, ranching, and mining. The destruction of the Amazon increased by 88% in June 2019, six months after he took over office.
“It’s a short-term solution, I know. Like I said, Bolsonaro is not someone who has ideas I agree with. I think climate change is real, for example. I am also not a racist like he is,” says Almeida. “But for me, what is important is feeding my family now. And that is why my vote went to him.
“There is no need to dwell on the past now that he has lost. No one I know has the time or the money to waste to protest these results.”
Almeida hopes that Lula can at least make it easier for his community amid rising costs. He stresses that he’s constantly worried about his personal future and that sport and the national team won’t distract him from real-life issues.
“I hope Brazil loses in the World Cup,” he says. “It’s not that I don’t care about football, but what happens when they win? They are going to come to parade the trophy in front of a bunch of rich people down south. Who will pay for that? My taxes, I suppose.
“They aren’t even good people. It wasn’t a shock that Neymar wanted Bolsonaro to win. That man hasn’t given back to this country since he left. And I am not saying he’s obligated to, but he acts like he does. I absolutely believed Lula when he said he doesn’t pay his taxes,” Almeida says, referring to Lula claiming that Bolsonaro let off Neymar for his income tax debt.
“It’s like that saying, ‘You either die a hero, or you live long enough to become the villain.’ That’s Neymar in my eyes, and the eyes of many in Brazil, I think,” Almeida says. “I hope he gets hit with a tax evasion charge in the middle of the competition. That would be funny.”
‘Taking Back’ the Blue and Yellow
Teles, Belas, Souza, and Almeida provide a glimpse into a Brazil that has become deeply divided, swinging between the left and the right. Both sides of the political spectrum maintain resilient, unwavering bases, leaving little room for compromise or support for the national team. Still, some are looking for ways to rediscover national pride as the Seleção heads to Qatar.
“I bought a yellow Brazil jersey for the first time in years, with Formiga’s number 8,” says Belas, referring to the legendary Brazilian player on the women’s national team. Supporting Formiga, the only player in history to play in seven World Cups and seven Olympic Games, is Belas’ way of reclaiming the yellow shirt, and fighting the hatred associated with it.
“Now there is a growing movement of taking back the national symbols such as the colours, the flag, and the anthem,” she says. “I am Brazilian; nothing can take that away from me. I love to watch the World Cup. I want us to win, so why not buy a jersey to represent that? Even though it may be associated with Bolsonaro and everything that comes with him now, his government will end.”
Hype and anticipation are building in Brazil as the World Cup nears. Players dedicate their whole professional careers to this event. As the kings of football, the Seleção have long played with a unique blend of athleticism, flair, and samba. And every four years when the World Cup comes around with a competition that is so rooted in Brazilian nationalism, there are high expectations.
But this time, when Brazilians get ready to watch and celebrate their beloved team, there might be a tiny voice in their heads reminding them that, although they have left Bolsonaro in the past, the yellow shirts that they are cheering for have come to represent the man they finally got rid of, the man whose legacy is still to be sorted out, the man who now represents those shirts just as much as the incredible footballers donning them in Qatar.
The World of Football
The Qatar World Cup looks destined to be a debacle, from the scheduling for teams and athletes to the human rights abuses around workers at the event, to the logistics and after-effects of holding the event itself.
At the same time, soccer is changing like all sports – becoming more cross-pollenated between cultures and nations, maneuvering through a massive influx of cash, and modernizing on and off the pitch.
We offer a look at the state of world football through the lens of the 2022 FIFA World Cup.