Only a fool would argue against the belief that the canary yellow of Brazil is the most recognisable football shirt in the world. To think of the World Cup is to think of one of the World’s greatest players lifting the trophy above their head, wearing the iconic yellow jersey, be it Pelé in ’70, Romario in 94 or perhaps Ronaldo in ’02.
Synonymous with flair, imagination and creativity, the Little Canary is a colour most football fans would probably avoid, but almost all are eager to pull on when taking to the field, as if it will magically bless them with the skill of Ronaldinho or free kick ability of Roberto Carlos. But it could all have been very different and those same fans might have been eager to pull on a plain white shirt with blue trim had it not been for one of the biggest upsets in football history and a Uruguay fan from Pelotas.
The 1950 World Cup final is still a cause of immense pain for Brazil fans old enough to remember it, whilst those too young to remember are reminded of it more often than they might like. Brazil were in championship winning form, scoring eight goals and conceding just two on their way to topping their First Round group. In a new format, proposed by the tournament organisers, the World Cup winner would be decided using a second group stage involving the four teams who had qualified from the first round, each team playing each other once, whoever topped the group would be crowned World Champions.
A Seleção continued their fine form in the opening two games of the final group, scoring an impressive thirteen goals and claiming all four points against European heavyweights Spain and Sweden. All that stood between them and the World Cup was an unfancied Uruguay side who, almost everybody agreed, would need a miracle to defeat the red hot Brazilians.
The Brazilian fans were expectant, their team would emerge from the game as winners, the national press had already named them as victors and almost 174,000 people crammed into the Maracanã in anticipation of watching one of the biggest foregone conclusions in the World Cup’s somewhat brief history. Ninety minutes later an almost silent Maracanã watched on as Jules Rimet beckoned the Uruguayan captain back onto the pitch to receive the trophy. Rimet was unable to make a speech as he too had been caught up in the whirlwind expectancy of a Brazilian win and prepared just one, Portuguese, presentation.
Brazilians, just like all football fans, were desperate to apportion blame for “The Defeat”, rather than accept the possibility that they might have been beaten by the better team, or simply outfoxed tactically. The obvious scapegoat was Vasco da Gama goalkeeper Moacir Barbosa, beaten at his near post by Ghiggia, the scorer of Uruguay’s winning goal, Barbosa would later say “The maximum punishment in Brazil is 30 years imprisonment, but I have been paying, for something I am not even responsible for, for 50 years.” However, there was a further, unusual, scapegoat that suffered as a result of the loss, the white shirt with blue trim that the national team wore as a home jersey.
The general consensus was that the shirt wasn’t patriotic enough, what did white and blue have to do with Brazil? And in a country famed for it’s overindulgence in all things superstitious it wasn’t long before people started to blame the “unlucky”, “unpatriotic” colours for their national humiliation. As quick as you can say Ricardo Izecson dos Santos Leite (Kaka’s real name) a national competition was launched to find a shirt that included all four colours of the national flag, not just blue and white.
The winner was 19 year old Aldyr Garcia Schlee, an illustrator for a newspaper, who lived in a small town near the Brazil/Uruguay border. His design of a yellow shirt with green trim, blue shorts and white socks stood out from the other 301 entries as the most “harmonious” and the Brazilian football authorities chose it as their new home kit. The Little Canary was born and within four years of it’s first outing (1954) the coveted World Cup had been won and a new superstition born, the luck of the yellow jersey (this is despite the fact that Brazil were forced to wear away colours in the 1958 final as their opponents, Sweden, also wore yellow).
The yellow jersey went from strength to strength, eventually becoming what it is today, but what of it’s creator? Part of Aldyr’s prize was an internship with the newspaper that ran the competition, he moved to Rio and stayed with the national squad, but soon returned to Pelotas, disgusted by the attitude and lifestyle of the players he lived with. His career as a journalist flourished, but was interrupted by the coup of ’64 which resulted in him being imprisoned three times. He holds a Brazilian passport, but supports Uruguay. The town he grew up in, Jaguarão, may lie on the Brazilian side of the border, but it has a very Uruguayan identity. Even his work has a distinctly Oriental Republic feel to it, his short stories sell much better in Uruguay than in Brazil. A journalist, an accomplished academic, a published author, Aldyr has done and achieved more in his life than most of us could ever hope for, but it still pales in significance compared to the achievement of designing such an iconic shirt, whether he regrets it or not.
Regardless of Aldyr’s opinion of his creation, or nation and regardless of the assertion that the shirt has lost some of it’s charm due to now infamous sponsorship deals, the Nike deal of ‘96 that led to Parliamentary Commission Inquiry of 2001 for example, the Little Canary has earned it’s place in football history as the most famous shirt ever made.
This guest piece for The Elastico was written by Simon from the Debatable Decisions site. Simon can also be found on Twitter (@deb_decisions).