Leftwing Brazilians are hoping to use their country’s first World Cup match to reclaim its well-known yellow and green football jersey from Jair Bolsonaro’s far-right movement.

The canarinho (little canary) shirt has become the most potent symbol of support for Brazil’s nationalist leader, who won power in 2018 but had his hopes of a second term dashed last month after leftwing former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva won the presidential election.

Lula, who will take power on 1 January, is spearheading efforts to wrest back control of the football shirt, as well as other Brazilian symbols such as the national anthem and flag.

The 77-year-old has announced he will watch Thursday’s match against Serbia wearing a canarinho with the number 13 – which represents his Workers’ party (PT) – emblazoned on the back. Leftwing football fanatics can download the design from Lula’s official website and make a shirt of their own.

“We can’t be ashamed of wearing our green and yellow shirt,” Lula told reporters recently. “[It] doesn’t belong to one particular candidate. It doesn’t belong to one particular party. Green and yellow are the colours of 213 million citizens who love this country.”

Marcelo Freixo, another prominent leftwing politician and football aficionado, said he would watch Brazil’s Qatar debut wearing a yellow and green shirt paying tribute to his local team, Flamengo, as well as the storied Seleção.

“Fascist movements have always expropriated national symbols [but] … we won the election and it’s now time to reclaim all of our national symbols, which belong to all of us,” Freixo said. “The Brazilian flag, the Brazilian team and the national anthem have never belonged to the far right.”

Reginaldo Lopes wearing the canarinho.
Reginaldo Lopes wearing the canarinho. Photograph: Tom Phillips/The Guardian

Reginaldo Lopes, a PT congressman and Lula ally, sported the canarinho during a recent interview with the Guardian – a look that would once have instantly marked him out as a Bolsonarista.

“It’s supposed to send the message that we are recovering democracy and that symbols such as our flag and our jersey belong to everyone, and not just to one political faction,” said the Lopes. “It’s wrong for one … political faction to try and appropriate something which is a symbol for all Brazilians.”

Not all leftwing Brazilian are finding it easy to re-embrace a jersey that has come to represent an extremist president who devastated the Amazon and whose calamitous Covid response led to nearly 700,000 citizens dying.

The reconciliation has been further complicated by the fact that several leading Brazil players – including the star striker Neymar – are Bolsonaro backers.

“I’m not ready to wear the [yellow] shirt yet,” said Priscila Motta, a 43-year-old publicist, as she dropped her son off at school on Thursday wearing Brazil’s blue away shirt. “I don’t want to be confused with a Bolsonarista.”

André Porcaro, a 41-year-old engineer from the city of Eugenópolis, said he planned to pull on his yellow shirt for the first time since the 2018 World Cup on Thursday.

“I think that today – specifically today – the yellow shirt isn’t linked to politics. Today, if someone sees me wearing the shirt on the street they won’t automatically assume I’m a Bolsominion,” Porcaro said, using one of the derogatory names for followers of the outgoing president.

Jair Bolsonaro at an election rally in October
Jair Bolsonaro at an election rally in October. The national team’s football shirt became synonymous with his supporters. Photograph: Buda Mendes/Getty Images

But would Porcaro still be wearing yellow on Friday? “I don’t think so,” he said. “Perhaps I’ll just wear it during the World Cup … I think it’s almost impossible to dissociate the yellow shirt from this political movement.”

Freixo believed the time had come to counterattack against Bolsonaro’s authoritarian bid to kidnap the canarinho. “We must reclaim these symbols and democratise them,” he said, as Brazil’s players prepared to launch their quest for a sixth World Cup title.

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