The Brazilian national team’s kit – yellow jersey, blue shorts, white socks – is as synonymous with soccer as the New York Yankees navy-and-white pinstripes is to baseball or the Kelly green and white of the Boston Celtics is to basketball.
First worn to victory in a World Cup final when Brazil won the Jules Rimet trophy for the second time during the 1962 tournament in Chile, the iconic uniform has become a symbol of the country’s joga bonito style of play, and of winning.
The irony about the uniforms is they were designed in the aftermath of Brazil’s most stinging World Cup loss by a little known cartoonist who actually supported his country’s 1950 on-pitch nemesis, Uruguay.
The equivalent of 10 percent of Rio de Janeiro's citizens – 200,000 people – crammed into a bursting Maracanã stadium to watch the final of the 1950 Cup. They and most Brazilians with access to a radio watched and listened in horror on July 16, as the Uruguayan winger, Alcides Ghiggia, sent a low shot toward the right post that got past Brazilian keeper Moacir Barbosa with 11 minutes left in the match and sealed Brazil’s stunning fate.
Aldyr García Schlee was not one of those Brazilians.
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The 15-year old student was across the Mauá International Bridge from his hometown of Jaguarão, watching a movie in neighboring – and now reviled – Uruguay. Sitting inside the Cine Rio Branco, García Schlee was in the middle of watching a matinee when the lights were turned on and a voice on the loudspeaker proudly announced Uruguay’s victory.
García Schlee was slightly upset by Brazil’s loss, but the result also reinforced his admiration for the tiny nation to the south.
“I am certain today that Uruguay had a team which was better equipped and better organized than Brazil,” García Schlee told journalist Alex Bellos for his book, “Futebol.”
“Even with the disadvantage of not being able to draw and being 1-0 down, I believe they had more guts.”
Three years after that game, which the Brazilian playwright Nelson Rodrigues declared the country’s Hiroshima, García Schlee was clocking time as an illustrator for the sports pages of a small newspaper in Pelotas, a town about 60 miles from the Uruguayan border, when he decided to enter the competition to design the Brazilian national team uniform.
The rules of the competition – which called for the use of all the colors of Brazil’s flag: blue, green, white and yellow – at first stumped the young artist.
“No team uses four colors. And the colors in the flag are colors that don’t go well together,” García Schlee said. “How can you put yellow and white together on a shirt – what you get is the national team colors or the Holy See!”
After going through more than a hundred designs ranging from uniforms with vertical green and yellow stripes to ones with blue, green and white socks, García Schlee finally arrived at what would eventually become one of the most iconic sports uniforms in the world.
His cousin sent the hand-painted design to Rio where it joined about 300 other applications to be reviewed by the Judging Commission and the Brazilian Society of Fine Art.
García Schlee’s design not only earned him a cash prize but also a year in Rio de Janeiro, where he interned at the newspaper Correio da Manhã and lived with the national team at the São Januário stadium.
Instead of being a highlight of his life, the year became a nightmare. The naïve country boy was scandalized by the womanizing and partying of the players he shared living quarters with.
As soon as he could, García Schlee headed back south and has remained there – and close to the Uruguayan border – ever since.
While he did design a few more jerseys, his career has taken more turns than a well-placed corner kick. He has been a designer, an awarding-winning journalist, a college professor who was imprisoned three times during Brazil's military dictatorship and, most notably, a novelist.
García Schlee’s books eschew the typical tales of gauchos that are popular in southern Brazil and instead focus on the contradictory lives of those living on the border. He writes in Spanish, has gained more fame in neighboring countries than in Brazil – despite twice winning the country’s prestigious Bienal literature award – and his home is a virtual shrine to his beloved Uruguay.
His home country has not done much to try and win back his favor.
Besides the government imprisoning him, the Brazilian Football Confederation (CBF) has apparently forgotten his contribution to the national team.
In 1996, the CBF signed a $1.6 billion deal with Nike, giving the sports giant the rights to the yellow and green jerseys.
Not a dime of that money has wound up in García Schlee’s bank account.
Which is probably just as well, since García Schlee sees the Nike deal as an affront to everything that was once good about Brazilian soccer.
“The shirt is not a symbol of Brazilian citizenship,” he said. “It is a symbol of corruption and the status quo.”
Do we even need to mention which team García Schlee will be rooting for at this summer’s World Cup? One thing’s for sure, it won’t be wearing a uniform he designed.