Aldyr Garcia Schlee.
The phrase ‘Brazilian footballer’ is like the phrases ‘French chef’ or ‘Tibetan monk.’ The nationality expresses an authority, an innate mystique and a will excite the fans of any club around the world. The phrase also has the unique ability to prize open the bank accounts of even the most frugal of club owners, hypnotised by the history and flair of Brazil, clubs across the globe pay a premium for the services of any player that has so much as set foot on the Copa Cabana.
The most recognisable symbol of Brazilian football and Brazilian footballing identity is the yellow jersey worn by La selecao. In Paris, New York, Tokyo, and many other non-Brazilian cities, these shirts are worn in stadia, 5-a-side pitches and playgrounds like badges of honour, symbol of footballing royalty.
As iconic as the kit is, it had humble, and unusual, beginnings. The unlikely designer of the world-famous kit was a prize-winning writer named Aldyr Garcia Schlee who came up with the design in 1953, when he was just nineteen.
The desire for a new kit arose from the most traumatic defeat in Brazilian footballing history. Played in front of two hundred thousand fans at the Maracanã Stadium, hosts Brazil lost the 1950 World Cup final to fellow South American’s Uruguay. The tournament, which was meant to have been the crowning moment for Brazilian football, is now remembered only for “The Defeat,” or “The Fateful Final.” Ghiggia, who scored the decisive goal in Uruguay’s 2-1 victory, later said, “Only three people have, with just one motion, silenced the Maracanã: Frank Sinatra, Pope John Paul II, and me.”
In the wake of the loss, it was felt that the team’s kit—white, with blue collars—was insufficiently patriotic. With the support of the Brazilian Sports Confederation, the Rio newspaper Correio da Manhã held a competition to design a new strip using the colours of the Brazilian flag.
Garcia Schlee, who was then an illustrator living in the town of Pelotas, near the Uruguayan border. Initially, he recalled, he was put off by the idea that all of the national colours had to be included on the shirt: “How can you put yellow and white together on a shirt.”
Eventually, he settled on the yellow shirt, blue shorts, and white socks that have become so familiar to football fans. The design was chosen over three hundred other entries. Part of Garcia Schlee’s prize was an internship at the sponsoring newspaper. The shy young artist moved to Rio from the provinces and was given lodgings with the members of the national team. It was an unhappy arrangement. Garcia Schlee was shocked by the drinking and womanising that went on. “The players were a bunch of scoundrels,” he said, and he soon returned to his home state of Rio Grande do Sul, where he has lived until his death in 2018.
The new kit did not immediately change Brazil’s fortunes. Though they defeated Chile 1-0 at Maracanã in the strip’s début, Brazil lost to Hungary in the quarter finals of the 1954 World Cup (more to come on that later), in Switzerland. It was not until 1958, in Sweden, that the Brazilians finally became world champions. Ironically, they were prevented from wearing Garcia Schlee’s design in the final, because their opponents, the host nation, also wore yellow. Brazil had not brought another colour to wear in Sweden. The team improvised what has now become its away strip: “Having no other kit prepared, Brazil cut off the national emblem from its yellow tops and sewed them on to blue shirts bought at the last minute in Stockholm city centre.
It was not until 1962, in Chile, that Brazil would become world champions while wearing Garcia Schlee’s shirts. A feat they have achieved a further 3 times, making them the most successful nation in World Cup history. In 1996, Nike reportedly paid two hundred million dollars for the rights to the Brazilian kit, then the largest single sponsorship with a national sports team.
As Brazil’s football team prospered, Garcia Schlee endured a number of setbacks. After a military coup in 1964, he was imprisoned and lost his teaching job. His doctoral thesis on “national self-determination” was impounded by the army, delaying his degree by a dozen years. Nevertheless, he went on to a successful career as a journalist, university professor, and novelist.
Though he lived his whole life in Brazil, Garcia Schlee’s football loyalties were always with neighbouring Uruguay. On the day of “The Defeat,” in 1950, the fifteen-year-old Garcia Schlee had gone across the border to see a matinée of the latest Roy Rogers film. The screening was interrupted to announce the news of Uruguay’s victory at the Maracanã, and to play the Uruguayan national anthem.
Garcia Schlee said that it was impossible not to become a fan of Uruguay at that moment. The fact that he designed the most recognised icon of his native country does not sway him. “The shirt is not a symbol of Brazilian citizenship. It is a symbol of corruption and the status quo.” To the rest of the world it is a symbol of creativity, invention and is perhaps the only kit that truly encapsulates the phrase “the beautiful game”.