The origins of Brazil’s national jersey and its changing symbolism 70 years later

Aldyr Schlee, o criador da "canarinho", camisa oficial da Seleção Brasileira | Imagem: Gilberto Perin, uso sob licença CC BY-NC 2.0

Aldyr Schlee, creator of the ‘canarinho,’ official shirt of the Brazilian national team | Image: Gilberto Perin, use under licence CC BY-NC 2.0

In September 1953, the newspaper Correio da Manhã ran a competition calling for proposals for a new kit for the Brazilian national football team. Three years after the team lost a World Cup at home against Uruguay, in the episode known as the Maracanazo, this was an attempt to give a new look to Brazil's most important outfit.

The requirement was to use the national flag’s colours in place of white, which was already used by other teams.

A 19-year-old who lived near Brazil's southern border with the country that caused the so-called “Maracanazo” defeat, and who sympathized with the Uruguayans, began to sketch some ideas on paper. The yellow shirt, the “canarinho,” created by Aldyr Garcia Schlee, was the chosen one and it turned into one of the most iconic in world football. Its premiere was in 1954.

After 70 years the Brazilian jersey, which has had several versions and seen five world titles since, has become a symbol used by right-wing and far-right protesters in Brazil, something very distant from Schlee’s life. He died in 2018. 

Schlee's son, who bears the same name as his father, Aldyr Rosenthal Schlee, spoke with Global Voices about his father's experiences as a journalist, illustrator, academic, writer, and pro-democracy activist.

“It's a very sad thing to see what happened, because my father — politically, obviously — would never have sided with the people who have been wearing this shirt lately,” Rosenthal Schlee said.

Schlee, beyond football

The creator of the shirt which became a national symbol was born in Jaguarão, in Rio Grande do Sul, on the border between southern Brazil and Uruguay, which today has around 26,000 residents. Raised in the middle of two cultures, as a teenager he moved to the Brazilian city of Pelotas, about 140 kilometres away.

It was there that Aldyr raised his family and began a journalistic career, illustrating goals from matches in a local newspaper.

Soon after, he built academic and literary careers. As a doctor of humanities, he was a university professor, founded a university and a newspaper, and won awards in journalism and literature.

Desenhos e rascunhos de Aldyr Schlee | Imagem: Arquivo pessoal

Aldyr Schlee's drawings and sketches for the Brazilian national team shirt | Image: Personal archive, used with permission

The younger Aldyr observed that, as it was a time when the sport did not yet attract large amounts of money, the prize for and the public reaction to the shirt's creation were not that significant.

It was through the internet, decades later, that his father became well-known:

O futebol não tinha as proporções que tem hoje. A gente não pode imaginar o futebol dos anos 1950 (com a importância que tinha naquela época) com a importância que tem hoje. Hoje qualquer coisa no futebol é uma coisa milionária, mas naquela época era tudo semiprofissional.

Football didn't have the proportion it has today. We can't imagine football of the 1950s (with the importance it had at that time) given the importance it has today. Today anything in football is something for millionaires, but back then it was all semi-professional.

As well as having his drawing chosen, Schlee got an internship at the newspaper that organized the competition in Rio de Janeiro. His son recalled that this period “was the most important thing for him,” and he often thought of it.

For democracy

He describes his father as a defender of democracy, who always “stood against anything totalitarian,” such as the military dictatorship in Brazil which followed the 1964 coup d'état.

Aldyr Schlee was never linked to political parties, but his son remembered that he was nevertheless summoned by the police and detained.

On one occasion, he was accused of being a communist because he had shown his university students a text “that spoke of the way the Constitution was being violated with [how the situation] was at that moment,” as he recalls:

Uma aluna levou o texto para o pai dela, que entregou para um capitão do Exército, que era parente deles […] Em função disso meu pai passou a ser acusado de ser comunista, teve que enfrentar Inquéritos Policiais Militares (IPMs), respondendo por subversão e pela forma como sempre se postou.

A student took the text to her father, who gave it to an Army captain who was a relative of theirs […] As a result, my father was accused of being a communist, he had to face Military Police Investigations (IPMs), questioned about subversion and the positions that he always took.

The son also noted that the repression and censorship of the time had a direct impact on Schlee's academic career, and prevented him from defending his doctoral thesis, which discussed peoples’ right to self-determination:

A vida familiar ficou muito difícil. Chegamos a pensar em fugir para o Uruguai. Isso só foi melhorar quando terminou a ditadura, lá no final dos anos 1970 e início dos anos 1980.

Family life became very difficult. We even thought about fleeing to Uruguay. This only improved when the dictatorship was nearing its end, in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

Founder of the Faculty of Journalism at the Catholic University of Pelotas (UCPel), Aldyr was left outside of the institution during the years of military rule. His career as a law teacher was also affected.

Desenho de Aldyr Schlee enviado para o concurso que definiria a camisa da Seleção Brasileira, em 1953 | Imagem: Arquivo pessoal

Design by Aldyr Schlee sent in 1953 to the competition which would develop into the Brazilian national team's shirt | Image: personal archive / used with permission

“The little yellow shirt” as a right-wing tool

In 2015, the yellow shirt began appearing at protests against the government of then-President Dilma Rousseff (PT, Workers’ Party). Dilma was impeached in 2016.

With the rise of the far-right politician Jair Bolsonaro (now in the PL, Liberal Party), the kit was increasingly appropriated by conservatives and his supporters.

Aldyr's eldest son criticized this appropriation and spoke about its impact on the family:

Eu acho que no fundo ele estaria muito triste, assim como a gente está. Eu até converso muito com a minha mulher e ela tem uma posição — que eu acho que é a mais inteligente — que é de que a gente não pode largar mão desta camiseta. Assim como não pode largar mão da bandeira nacional. Isso não é deles, isso é nosso. Eu mesmo tenho muita dificuldade de vestir essa camiseta. Eu não vesti [na Copa do Mundo de 2022]. Até torcer pra seleção brasileira na Copa do Mundo foi muito difícil.

I think deep down he would be very sad, just like we are. I even talk to my wife a lot [about it] and she takes a position — which I think is the most intelligent — which is that we can't give up on this shirt. Just as we can't give up on the national flag. It's not theirs, it's ours. I myself have a hard time putting on this T-shirt. I didn't wear it [at the 2022 World Cup]. Even cheering for the Brazilian national team at the World Cup was very difficult.

With the 2022 presidential elections, the victory of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (PT) and the World Cup, the debate on the change in the meaning of the canarinho shirt intensified, with rappers, Black movements, and favela residents seeking to reclaim the kit, as reported by the outlet UOL. 

About a week after Lula's inauguration and with the invasion by Bolsonaro supporters of the three centres of power in Brasilia, on January 8, the Brazilian Football Confederation (CBF) also addressed  the political use of the shirt:

The shirt of the Brazilian national team is a symbol of our people's joy. It's for cheering, celebrating and loving the country.

CBF is a non-partisan and democratic body. We encourage the shirt to be used to unite and not to divide Brazilians.

Last November, shortly before the World Cup, CBF had already started a campaign to stop the shirt's use by the right. At the time, Bolsonaro supporters were camping out around the country, questioning the election result.

Schlee's son, however, is skeptical about the possibility of reclaiming its meaning in the current context

Eu vejo com muita tristeza essa apropriação indébita. Hoje, quando vejo alguém na rua, fico desconfiado. Olho de lado, não quero chegar perto dela. Não tenho condições de vestir hoje esta camiseta, assim como meu pessoal também não.

I view this misappropriation with great sadness. Today, when I see someone on the street [with the shirt], I get wary. I look sideways, I don't want to go near them. I don't feel like I can wear this shirt nowadays, and neither do my friends and family.

Aldyr Rosenthal also observed that, years ago, his father had already stopped putting much importance on being the shirt's creator, and used to cheer for Uruguay. In 2018, Schlee joked that he would choose a new all-brown kit for the country, as “it was all crap.”

On the border

Living across borders influenced Aldyr Schlee's life, especially in literature. His last book, published posthumously, was the Dictionary of Pampeana Sul-Rio-Grandense's Culture. His son says:

Toda obra do meu pai é fundada nesta região entre Jaguarão e Rio Branco, entre o extremo sul do Brasil e o nordeste do Uruguai. Esta é a diferença que eu faço: entre o Aldyr Schlee, o guri que nasceu ali e veio para Pelotas depois, foi ser desenhista/jornalista, e o escritor que ficou preso — e quis ficar preso — naquela microrregião. É aquele que sempre diz que aquilo ali é uma terra só: é até o título de um livro dele.

All my father's works are based in the region between Jaguarão and Rio Branco, between the far south of Brazil and the northeast of Uruguay. This is the difference I make: between Aldyr Schlee, the kid who was born there and came to Pelotas later, [who] was to be a cartoonist/journalist, and the writer who was trapped — and wanted to be trapped — in that microregion. He is the one who always said that [the region] there is just one land: it is even the title of one of his books.

The two countries were present in Aldyr's life until his death on November 15, 2018.

A day after his death, Brazil played Uruguay in a friendly match in England, the country where football was created. A posthumous tribute was held, with a minute's silence and an image of Schlee displayed on the screen in the Emirates Stadium in London. Brazil won the match 1-0.

A passion for football changed his life forever. Aldyr Schlee loved not only field football, but also table-top football — a passion passed to the first child who today, like his father, participates in sports championships.

Schlee died in 2018, aged 83, of cancer, leaving three children, three grandchildren, more than 15 published literary works, and a passion for football and for life beyond borders.

A minute's silence in London for Aldyr Schlee, responsible for creating the Brazilian national team's shirt. The gaucho died yesterday at the age of 83, in Pelotas.

A beautiful tribute to Aldyr Schlee in London.

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