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

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
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.

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.
Bruna Prado / AP
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AP
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.

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.
/ Alex Livesey/Getty Images
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Alex Livesey/Getty Images
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.

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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Carrie Kahn
Carrie Kahn is NPR's International Correspondent based in Mexico City, Mexico. She covers Mexico, the Caribbean, and Central America. Kahn's reports can be heard on NPR's award-winning news programs including All Things Considered, Morning Edition and Weekend Edition, and on NPR.org.