By Kieran Ahuja
Believe it or not, Brazil haven’t always been the world beaters we know them to be in the 21st century. Back in the 1950’s, there was a national identity crisis when the country lost to their continental neighbours Uruguay in the 1950 World Cup. Brazil hosted the tournament, the first held since 1938 due to World War II. After a convincing qualifying campaign and two high-scoring victories in the final round (7-1 against Sweden and 6-1 against Spain), Brazil went to the final convinced of their imminent victory; newspapers had already printed headlines declaring Brazil’s World Cup win.
It took thousands of workers around 2 years to build the Maracanã stadium, which had a capacity of around 200,000. A moat had to be constructed between the pitch and the terraces in order to protect the players from the fans. So, when Alcides Ghiggia scored Uruguay’s second goal, clinching the title for them, an estimated 200,000 Brazilian supporters (the biggest crowd at any football game ever) fell silent. Years later, Ghiggia said: “Three people have silenced the Maracanã – Frank Sinatra, the Pope, and me.”
What followed was a period of national mourning that transcended football. Football was, and to a lesser extent, still is the most intrinsic part of Brazil’s national identity. To lose the World Cup final in the circumstances that they did in the 1950 World Cup was devastating to Brazil as a country. Nelson Rodriguez – a Brazilian playwright – said somewhat hyperbolically: “Our catastrophe, our Hiroshima, was the defeat by Uruguay in 1950.”
So in 1953, national newspaper Correio de Manha ran a competition; design a new kit for the national team. A white kit, they argued, did not sum up Brazil. Therefore, the new kit should incorporate the colours of the national flag; green, which symbolises Brazil’s verdure; yellow, which symbolises Brazil’s gold reserves, then blue and white to symbolise the celestial globe. The prize was $5000 and the pride of having the team wear your design.
The winner was Aldyr Schlee, a 19 year-old from the border between Brazil and Uruguay. Ironically, decades after designing the national kit, he revealed that he supported Uruguay at international level. Nevertheless, his design became emblematic of a team with perhaps an unparalleled international reputation.
Schlee said that he drew over 100 designs for the canarinho (‘canary’) jersey, and struggled to get all four colours of the Brazilian flag to work cohesively in one kit. Even in Schlee’s illustrations, the players look dynamic, as if dancing across the page.
The yellow shirt with the green piping has become an aesthetic signifier for some of the best goals ever scored, and some of the best football ever played. Although Brazil also failed to win the 1954 World Cup, being knocked out by Hungary in what is commonly thought to be one of the most violent matches ever played, the 1958 tournament marked the ushering in of a dynasty in international football.
Although he did not play until the final game of the group stage, the 1958 World Cup also saw the international introduction of Pelé, often cited as the best player of all time. The duo of Pelé and Garrincha proved to be dynamic, entertaining and lethal – Brazil never lost a match in which they both played. Defeating host nation Sweden in the final, the 1958 World Cup was the start of Brazil’s love affair with the competition.
Although Pelé was injured for the majority of the 1962 World Cup, Garrincha proved himself to be lethal enough in front of goal to retain the title for Brazil. With a dazzling ability to dribble round any defender, the ‘little bird’ remained unfazed by the absence of his strike partner. Although not remembered to be one of the best World Cups, with the tournament marred by violence, a low goal tally, and an earthquake in the host nation of Chile which killed thousands, Brazil beat Czechoslovakia in the final to take home the Jules Rimet trophy for the second time.
However, the World Cup most closely associated with Brazil is the 1970 tournament. The first World Cup broadcast in colour, football fans all over the world watched as Brazil sambaed their way through the tournament in beautiful style. Most football fans at the time would not have seen all of the teams’ national kits before; as John Motson pointed out, “I still have memories of trying to pacify angry viewers in the 1970s who still watched black and white, and saying ‘for the benefit of those watching in black and white, Spurs is in the yellow shirts.'” Therefore, Brazil playing o jogo bonito at the 1970 World cup in the kit designed for them by Aldyr Schlee cemented the iconography of the canarinho.
With possibly the best international team of all time, Brazil ambled their way through the competition showcasing the exciting, technical and artistic prowess of their style of play. When they had come up against the more mechanical English style of football in the 1966 World Cup they had struggled, but they prepared physically and mentally for the 1970 iteration of the tournament, knowing that their main challenges would be competing with the more steadfast style of play favoured by the European teams and the high altitude at some of the Mexican stadiums.
Optimising the use of Brazil’s myriad number 10’s, manager Mário Zagallo used a 4-2-4 formation that enabled him to field Pelé, Rivellino, Gérson, Jairzinho, and Tostão simultaneously. Not used to seeing such beauty and artfulness alongside such effective and concise football, football fans the world over fell in love with the Brazilian team. Still so heralded nearly half a century later, it is easy to say that we view the 1970 Brazil team through rose-tinted glasses. It only takes a quick gander through some YouTube videos to prove that notion as false.
It took 24 years for Brazil to clinch their fourth title, maintaining uncharacteristically average performances in the tournaments between 1974 and 1990. This meant that Brazil’s latter two World Cup wins involved newer players that brought a more modern iconography to the yellow shirt. Traditionalist Brazil fans remember Pelé, Gérson and Garrincha. Modern day fans have as much breathtaking football to associate with the Brazil team; we think of Roberto Carlos’ physics-defying free kick. We remember Ronaldinho making a fool of David Seamen. We remember Ronaldo with his shit hair lifting Brazil’s fifth world cup trophy in 2002.
And all of these moments over the last half century are brought together by the same thing. Players, locations and managers change. But the vision of a brazil team dancing through defences in canary yellow has been one of permanence, one that has been lacking in recent years. Aldyr Schlee, perhaps unknowingly, unified some of the greatest moments in footballing history under a single image. Here’s to hoping that Brazil’s jogo bonito, to which he gave a uniform, did not die with him.
Kieran Ahuja is co-founder, writer and creative director for 5WFootball. Follow him on Twitter here.