If any football shirt can truly claim to be an icon of world culture, Brazil’s famous golden yellow and green is surely the one which stands above all others.
The “Canarinho” jersey rose to prominence as Brazil enjoyed unprecedented international fortune through the 1950s, ’60s and 70s. So strong is their association, that these colours are now synonymous with success.
In 1971, following their third World Cup triumph, the CBD added a star above the crest to commemorate each title. However, the iconic design of the kit originated from a place in the national team’s history which was much more bleak.
Brazil played their first matches in white shirts, and this tradition continued through the first three World Cup competitions before the outbreak of the Second World War. In 1950, Brazil hosted the competition, and with an unbeaten record and 21 goals scored leading into their final match against Uruguay, the home nation had every expectation to lift the trophy. With a new competition format in place that year, in fact all they needed was a draw against Uruguay to seal their first World Cup title.
Of course, victory famously eluded Brazil, as they lost 2-1 to their Uruguayan neighbours in a match remembered as The Maracanazo (“The Agony of Maracanã”). The devastating loss lead to an outpouring of national grief, with celebrations hastily cancelled, and scapegoats found. One was Brazil’s goalkeeper Barbosa. Another was their traditional white kits, which Rio de Janeiro’s Correio da Manhã newspaper derided as ‘meaningless’.
In 1953, after their campaign for change received popular support, Correio da Manhã was given the backing of the Brazilian Sports Confederation (CBD) to launch a competition to outfit the national team with a new kit. Rules stipulated that the new kit must include the colours of the Confederation (the same as those of the national flag), as well as the established CBD crest. However, neither the word ‘Brazil’, nor the country’s flag were permitted to appear on the kit due to regulations.
Would-be designers were asked to send their entries on a 20 x 25 centimetre card, which they also specified “must not be rolled”. The winning entry was to be decided by a judging panel, consisting of “a representative of the Brazilian Society of Fine Arts, two representatives of the press, one from the Correlo da Manha… and three representatives from the CBD, under the chairmanship of the President of the CBD.” The winner not only got to have their design made into a reality, but would receive a prize of 4,000 cruzeiro.
The competition received around three hundred entries, but the winner was 19 year old Aldyr Garcia Schlee, a Brazilian illustrator who had seen the loss against Uruguay in 1950 from the other side of the border. While watching a film in a Uruguayan cinema close to his home town, the projector was switched off so that an announcement could be made; “Brazil 1, Uruguay 2. Uruguay were World Champions!” At that moment, Schlee claimed it was impossible not to have become a Uruguay fan.
When the competition was announced, Schlee dismissed it, having initially misunderstood the rules, believing that all four colours of the flag needed to be present on the shirt. Later, he realised that need not be the case, and produced shirt designs favouring the yellow and green which he felt represented the Brazilian identity. Blue shorts with a white trim and white socks were his elegant solution to the need to also feature those colours, after creating dozens of different design concepts.
He sent his final design by registered mail to the newspaper’s offices in Rio de Janeiro along with his name and address, as well as a pseudonym, “Alschlee”, as the rules demanded. The day before the winner was formally announced, the newspaper printed one of Schlee’s illustrations, with a caption stating the future Brazil strip was to be yellow and green shirts, blue shorts and white socks.
The new strip was worn for the first time in March 1954 against Chile, a 1-0 World Cup qualifying match victory for Brazil. The tournament itself that summer did not see any improvement in fortunes, but that was to change in Sweden four years later. With the inclusion of young stars such as Pelé, Vavá and Garrincha, Brazil exorcised the ghost of the Maracanazo and lifted the Jules Rimet trophy in extraordinary fashion. As the Schlee colours clashed with those of Sweden, however, they were forced to wear blue change shirts for the final.
Brazil retained their title at the 1962 World Cup in Chile, and were expected to win again in England four years later. Their achievements were clear for all to see during this period, but it must be remembered that almost all press, television and newsreel coverage of their matches at that time was in black and white.
The first World Cup to be widely televised in colour was Mexico 1970. Arguably, this is how the Canarinho became the iconic piece of sportswear it is to this day. As the first team to be seen by a worldwide audience, lifting the trophy in glorious technicolour while having played with such style, the impression Brazil made was indelible.
Since 1970, Brazil have appeared in a further three World Cup finals, winning two, all while wearing their vibrant yellow, green, white and blue,
Schlee died in 2018, having lived a life as colourful as his creation. He was imprisoned multiple times during Brazil’s military dictatorship because of the views in his political writing, which severely disrupted his career as a teacher. In later life he became an author of fiction, preferring to write in Spanish over his native Portuguese. When interviewed by Alex Bellos, for the book Futebol: the Brazilian Way of Life, Schlee was asked what it meant to him to see the Brazil players wearing his strip. “Nothing,” he replied. “In fact I feel guilty. The shirt has been hijacked by the Brazilian federation who sold it to Nike. The shirt isn’t a symbol of Brazilian nationalism. It’s a symbol of corruption and the status quo.”
It’s fair to say that many of his compatriots would disagree, and while they have since suffered ignominious defeats that rival 1950, it appears that the colours Aldyr Schlee envisioned all the way back in 1953 are strong enough to survive any sporting or political crisis.