Many happy returns to the Brazil football shirt

The world’s most recognisable football shirt turns 60 today, and its story is as compelling as the national team it has come to represent.
Brazil player Pele models the yellow shirt in 1970. Getty Images
Brazil player Pele models the yellow shirt in 1970. Getty Images

In the rich history of Brazilian football, 1954 was not a particularly memorable year.

Four years previously, the country had – in what was seen in Brazil as a catastrophe – lost the World Cup final on home soil; four years later, the country claimed a first title in Sweden.

In between, Brazil simply slipped out of the 1954 tournament in Switzerland at the quarter-final stage.

The year would merit merely a footnote in the annals of Brazilian football were it not for what happened on March 14, 1954.

Sixty years ago today, in front of 112,809 spectators at the Maracana in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil wore a canary-yellow jersey for the first time.

At the same stadium four years earlier, when Brazil fell to a humiliating 2-1 defeat to neighbours Uruguay in the World Cup final, the national team had worn white shirts with blue collars.

The match remains the single most sickening loss in the country’s history and continues to be known as “The Defeat”.

In recent months, it has even inspired a tongue-in-cheek Puma advert featuring the “Ghost of the Maracanazo”.

Barbosa, the brilliant Brazilian goalkeeper, shouldered most of the blame to the extent that, 20 years later, he would overhear a woman describing him to her son as “the man who made all of Brazil cry”.

The white shirt also drew condemnation. It lacked patriotism, critics said, and failed to inspire.

A newspaper competition was organised to design a new shirt, the only stipulation being it must include all four colours of the Brazilian flag: yellow, green, blue and white. The winner was a 19-year-old newspaper illustrator named Aldyr Garcia Schlee, whose creation was judged the most “harmonious” of 301 entries.

“Watching Brazil wearing my shirt for the first time against Chile was nice,” Schlee wrote in The Guardian newspaper in 2009. “But the most thrilling moment came when they took me to present the strip to five stars of the team. I was so nervous; they were my idols.

“When it came to meeting Zizinho, he gave me a smile and whispered: ‘Don’t worry, all this is [nonsense]!’ This was a great lesson about football. There was a lot of marketing nonsense even back then.”

Brazil won their qualifying match against Chile 1-0, but later lost to Hungary at the finals. They had to wait four more years before tasting the success they so craved and, even then, they did not do so in yellow shirts, having had to acquire blue jerseys ahead of the final to avoid a colour clash with Sweden.

Pele, who scored twice in his country’s 5-2 victory, told The National earlier this year his Brazilian teammates had feared for their performance when told they would not wear yellow.

“Now, I don’t think the shirt makes any difference to the team, only the TV and media,” Pele said. “But I remember when I played my first World Cup in Sweden and we met them in the final. All the players thought ‘Oh, my God’ and were afraid because we had to change shirt. Then we played in blue and won the World Cup, so clearly it didn’t make much difference.”

In 1962, Brazil won the tournament again, this time in yellow, and they repeated the feat in 1970. The finals in Mexico marked the first time a World Cup had been broadcast in colour and the inventive, swashbuckling style of Brazil’s play quickly became synonymous with their yellow jerseys.

As a youth in France, Zinedine Zidane grew up pretending to be Brazilian during mock World Cups on the streets of northern Marseille. When asked recently by to describe his early impressions of Brazilian football, he said: “Celebration, joy, happiness and the yellow shirt!”

Nowadays, the jersey is synonymous with Brazil and Nike’s top-selling international shirt.

When the 2014 kit was unveiled last year, team coach Luiz Felipe Scolari half-joked that “the shirt looks great; the only thing missing is a sixth star”, representing six World Cup championships.

There is one man who is less enamoured. When Schlee won the newspaper competition, as well as a cash prize he was awarded an internship at the publication and the opportunity to live with the Brazil squad. From a small town close to the Uruguay border, he quickly became disillusioned by the Brazilian players’ hedonistic lifestyles.

He returned home soon after and continues to feel more of a bond with his neighbours than he does with his compatriots.

“I guess it’s fate that I have a greater affection for Uruguay than Brazil,” he wrote.

“I saw Brazil play Uruguay in Montevideo a few years ago and cried at the Uruguayan national anthem, not the Brazilian one.”

In Alex Bellos’s book Futebol: The Brazilian Way of Life, Schlee revealed he feels guilt for creating the shirt. “It has been hijacked by the Brazilian Football Confederation,” he said. “The shirt is not a symbol of Brazilian citizenship; it is a symbol of corruption.”

It is also a symbol of extraordinary coincidence: the most recognisable shirt in the world, designed by a Brazilian lacking in affection for Brazil, and rendered necessary only because his native country had lost to the country to which he feels more allegiance.

For a country so rich in footballing folklore, the story of Brazil’s football shirt is fittingly golden.

Follow us on twitter at @SprtNationalUAE

Published: March 14, 2014 04:00 AM


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