New Jersey

Roman Mars:
This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars.

Announcer:
[speaking Portuguese]

Roman Mars:
When a Brazilian soccer player scores a goal, the announcer starts slow and it builds until it reaches a glorious crescendo.

Joe Sykes:
They do this all over the world now, but it started in Brazil and there is something particularly triumphant about it there.

Roman Mars:
That’s producer, Joe Sykes.

Joe Sykes:
That’s because soccer means so much to Brazil.

Fernando Duarte:
How can I explain what soccer means to Brazilians without sounding corny? But I think I’m going to have to sound corny, okay.

Joe Sykes:
That’s Fernando Duarte, a BBC journalist who wrote a book about Brazilian soccer. Soccer, or football as I call it being British, arrived in Brazil in the late 19th century. At first, it was a game played in elite circles and in cities, but poor and working-class Brazilians struggled to make the game their own.

Fernando Duarte:
The only time the elites were robbed or they were deprived or something by the poor people, or by the common folk is when football ceased to be a game for the elites and it became a mass sport.

Roman Mars:
Soccer eventually became so popular and beloved in Brazil that their national team’s soccer jersey has become as much a national symbol as the country’s flag.

Fernando Duarte:
You’re going to see many more people in Brazil wearing the shirts than waving the flag as a sense of belonging. No matter if you earn peanuts picking up old soda cans on the street or if you were a millionaire when you wear that shirt you’re just like one of us.

David Goldblatt:
Those shirts are extraordinary. They are scintillating. In fact, I think the word is coruscating.

Joe Sykes:
That’s the soccer writer and historian, David Goldblatt.

David Goldblatt:
There are flashes of diamond light coming off of those shirts.

Roman Mars:
The Brazilian soccer shirts are so iconic that non-soccer fans all over the world can often picture them, but for those of you who can’t, the shirt is a bright canary yellow with green trim around the collar and sleeves. They’re worn with blue shorts, a pure primary blue. Compared with other soccer jerseys, the uniform is joyful and bold. It seems to capture something essential about Brazil.

Joe Sykes:
But it wasn’t always this way. In fact, Brazil used to play in plain unremarkable white shirts.

Roman Mars:
The story of how the uniform changed goes back 70 years to an epic soccer game that Brazilians will never forget. After years of lobbying, the World Cup arrived in Brazil in 1950. At the time, the country was culturally and internationally kind of unknown. This was Brazil’s big moment to show the world what it was made of.

David Goldblatt:
The 1950 World Cup was understood by the Brazilian population as an opportunity to say to the world, Brazil has arrived.

Joe Sykes:
They knew this World Cup was their chance to tell everyone.

David Goldblatt:
We have modernized. We have been transformed. We have moved from being an agricultural plantation economy to a new urban industrialized economy, and this is our way of showing it.

Joe Sykes:
The main symbol of that coming out, apart from what was happening on the soccer field, was the stadium named the Maracana in Rio de Janeiro.

David Goldblatt:
It looks like the stadium from outer space. I mean it is this fabulous flat, white, concrete oval with amazing flying buttresses.

Joe Sykes:
Just like this huge flying saucer that had dropped down in the center of the city.

David Goldblatt:
But done with this sort of incredible sort of modernist elegance. I mean, it was the greatest stadium built since the Colosseum.

Joe Sykes:
So they had this stadium, the people were behind them, the government was pushing the tournament whenever possible. Now all they needed was a successful team.

Fernando Duarte:
The expectations were high because of this whole climate, this whole atmosphere of optimism.

Announcer:
“Goal!”

Joe Sykes:
In one of their earlier games, Brazil strode confidently onto the field in their white uniforms and proceeded to demolish Sweden 7 to 1.

David Goldblatt:
Brazil were absolutely fantastic in the opening rounds. They were slaughtering everybody. They’re scoring goals all over the place. They beat Spain 6-1.

Joe Sykes:
They also beat Mexico and Yugoslavia. The tournament was going exactly to plan.

Fernando Duarte:
It was this whole atmosphere of like sporting bliss. Now all they had to do is get a draw of Uruguayan in the last match.

Joe Sykes:
Because of a quirk in the tournament structure, all Brazil had to do to win the World Cup was tie against Uruguay in their final game.

Roman Mars:
Uruguay historically had been a really strong team, even though they’re a tiny country, almost 50 times smaller than Brazil. But by the time this 1950 World Cup came along, Uruguay was a waning power in soccer, so beating them or at least tying them seemed totally doable, not a problem.

Joe Sykes:
Still, Uruguay was no pushover, especially when they were playing against Brazil. Uruguay actually used to be a Brazilian province, so they had this chip on their shoulder about their older, bigger next-door neighbor.

Fernando Duarte:
That whole thing of being Uruguayan, and going against the odds, and fighting against an old colonial power.

Joe Sykes:
It spurred them on.

Roman Mars:
Meanwhile, the whole of Rio is now thinking about just one thing, the World Cup final.

David Goldblatt:
There really is mass hysteria about it. Everybody knows about it. Everyone is engaged with it. Everyone wants to go. No one can talk or think about anything else.

Joe Sykes:
In Brazil, people like to say that if everybody who claimed to have been in the stadium that afternoon was actually there, the stadium would have needed to be the size of the moon.

Roman Mars:
And it was a big crowd. Some estimate that there were 250,000 screaming fans packed into this flying saucer stadium, which is something like 80,000 people overcapacity.

Joe Sykes:
And the players, when they walked out, were just hit with this wall of noise.

David Goldblatt:
The place is noisy. It is a ruckus.

Roman Mars:
But in the first half, neither team scores.

Fernando Duarte:
So the crowd was getting nervous. Everybody was getting tense.

Roman Mars:
Then finally, Brazil scores a goal.

Announcer:
“Goal.”

Roman Mars:
Just after half time, a low shot across the goalkeeper into the bottom corner of the net.

Announcer:
“Goal.”

Joe Sykes:
And there is just this relief that surges all around the crowd. Even the journalists run on and embrace the players.

Roman Mars:
Because basically everyone there thinks the game is all over, that Brazil has won the World Cup. But then…

Announcer:
“Goal, Uruguay.”

Joe Sykes:
Uruguay scores…

Announcer:
“Goal, Uruguay.”

Joe Sykes:
… about halfway through the second half.

Fernando Duarte:
The description by whoever was there is like the stadium fell very, very nervous and this nervousness went to the players, almost like they were losing the game. And then comes the moments that everybody will always narrate.

Joe Sykes:
Alcides Ghiggia, one of the Uruguayan wingers, gets the ball and dribbles down the right side toward the goal. And just as he’s looking up to pass the ball, he notices…

Fernando Duarte:
That the goalkeeper, Barbosa was actually walking to try to anticipate a cross.

Roman Mars:
Which meant Barbosa was out of position, so instead of passing the ball, Ghiggia shoots…

Announcer:
“Goal.”

Roman Mars:
… and scores.

Announcer:
“Goal, Uruguay! Ghiggia. They pulled a goal, Uruguay.”

David Goldblatt:
All of the reports talk about the most extraordinary silence in the stadium.

Fernando Duarte:
Alcides Ghiggia once said in his book, “Only three people in the history of the Maracana silenced the crowd, Frank Sinatra, Pope John Paul II and me. It’s almost like a graveyard. Some of the players don’t even remember what happened. It was a state of catatonia or something like that.”

Roman Mars:
As you have probably guessed by now, Brazil does not manage to get another goal to tie the game and Uruguay wins. As the game ends, the fans stream out of the stadium and back onto the streets of Rio.

Fernando Duarte:
It’s almost like some kind of apocalypse happened, and people just went somewhere else. There was this feeling of solitude, this feeling of numbness. And Rio de Janeiro wasn’t a party city on that night, on the night of July 16 1950.

David Goldblatt:
There was a lot of public crying. There is a lot of hyperbole.

Joe Sykes:
One Brazilian player that caused the defeat, Brazil’s Hiroshima.

Roman Mars:
All right, well, that’s just ridiculous.

David Goldblatt:
Which I think is both in bad taste and an exaggeration, but people were really blown away.

Joe Sykes:
The recriminations came thick and fast and soon racist accusations started to fly. Barbosa, the guy who played goalkeeper for the Brazilians was black. He and two other black players on the team were scapegoated in the popular press, and Barbosa was even hassled on the street.

David Goldblatt:
His life was made difficult. There is a tragic story he tells later in life of hearing a woman whispering to a child, “This is the man who made all of Brazil cry.”

Joe Sykes:
After that, the Brazilian team didn’t pick another black goalkeeper to start in the World Cup for over 50 years, and this wasn’t a coincidence. After that game, black goalkeepers were regarded as less reliable than white ones in Brazil.

Roman Mars:
Which is disgusting. But Barbosa wasn’t the only focus of Brazilian blame. In fact, everything about Brazilian soccer was scrutinized down to the uniforms the players were wearing.

Fernando Duarte:
The authorities felt that the white shirt was cursed, and I think everybody else in Brazil did.

David Goldblatt:
And above all, there was the determination never to play in white shirts again.

Roman Mars:
It was pretty unusual for a team to completely transform their uniform. Most countries have played in the same colors since the first World Cup back in the early 20th century. But the Brazilians decided their uniform was a problem, so in 1953 the Brazilian soccer authorities set up a competition and advertised it in a national newspaper that’s distributed all over Brazil. They wanted people to write in with their designs for a new uniform.

Joe Sykes:
The contest had only one stipulation. The color of the uniform had to include all the colors of the Brazilian flag.

Roman Mars:
Green, blue, white and yellow, a design that would truly represent Brazil.

Joe Sykes:
Hundreds of people entered the contest, including this guy.

Aldyr Garcia Schlee:
“My name is Aldyr Garcia Schlee and I’m from Jaguarão on the border with Uruguay.” (via translator)

Joe Sykes:
Aldyr Garcia Schlee. He was just 19 when he entered the competition, a young man who had grown up in a little town right on the border between Brazil and Uruguay. Schlee wasn’t a designer. He was working at a local newspaper as an illustrator. He says, when he first heard about the competition, he thought it’d be too difficult.

Aldyr Garcia Schlee:
“Yeah, the first impression I had was that this was foolish. That was ridiculous because it’s rare to have a team with four colors.”

Roman Mars:
Working four colors into just the shirt would have been hard, but eventually, Schlee realized he could use the whole uniform to spread out the colors.

Joe Sykes:
He tried blue shorts with a green shirt, a yellow and green striped shirt with white shorts, a green and yellow striped shirt with blue shorts. He came up with over 200 different designs until eventually, he had it.

Roman Mars:
Blue shorts, white socks, and a yellow shirt with green trim around the neck and the sleeves. He sent the design off and a few weeks later, he looked down at the newspaper and saw his design staring back at him. He had won.

Aldyr Garcia Schlee:
“After there, it was just a party. My feet didn’t touch the ground and I was celebrating in the newsroom where I worked. It was like something impossible had just happened.”

Joe Sykes:
After he won, Schlee got to bask in the glory of it all for a while. He went to Rio and did an internship with the newspaper that had sponsored the contest. He even lived with the Brazilian players for a few months. But eventually, he returned to his small town and kind of forgot about the shirt for a while. But pretty soon the shirt was Brazil. In 1962, the Brazilians won the World Cup in Chile and they were wearing Schlee’s uniform.

Roman Mars:
Players like Pele wore the yellow shirt and dazzled the world with their extraordinary skill and beauty. Then color TV comes along and the whole world can watch Brazil in brand new Technicolor like in the 1970 World Cup in Mexico.

David Goldblatt:
I was five when the 1970 World Cup was played and I saw Brazil win the ’70 World Cup in shimmering yellow shirts.

Joe Sykes:
Here is soccer historian, David Goldblatt again.

David Goldblatt:
For me, there is a memory there that I think lots of people have, even if they didn’t see it, of dazzle, of brilliance, of amazing sort of global South sunshine, of flair.

Joe Sykes:
Where Brazil had failed in 1950, the following years saw success after success. They won World Cup after World Cup. Their yellow shirts becoming as much a hallmark as their intricate footwork and dazzling play. Schlee’s design became iconic, a symbol of Brazil, full of sun and life.

Roman Mars:
But for Schlee life wasn’t quite living up to the image of Brazil he had created. He started working as a writer and academic. And in 1964, a brutal U.S. backed military dictatorship took power in a coup.

News Reporter:
“Anti-Goulart demonstrations that greeted the now-deposed Brazilian president at Miami Airport…”

Joe Sykes:
The new military government cracked down on people it considered to be subversive, including academics. Like a lot of other professors and students, Schlee was arrested for basically being on the political left. When he got out of jail, he was expelled from his teaching job and was banned from leaving the country.

Aldyr Garcia Schlee:
“Yeah, I was my traumatized. My wife and my children, we suffered a lot.”

Roman Mars:
The dictatorship lasted for about 20 years. But despite the difficulties of living under the watchful eye of the military police, Schlee became a successful writer and he developed an academic specialty.

Joe Sykes:
Schlee spent his life writing about the border between Brazil and Uruguay.

Aldyr Garcia Schlee:
“I am a citizen who has a heart and a body divided between Brazil and Uruguay.”

Joe Sykes:
Schlee was technically born in Brazil, but less than a mile from the border with Uruguay. In fact, when he was a kid, his father helped build a bridge across the river that separates Uruguay from Brazil.

Aldyr Garcia Schlee:
“I am from the era when the bridge was built. My father went to help build the bridge, so I’ve always been very connected to Uruguay.”

Joe Sykes:
Schlee’s experience growing up between two countries and his experiences under military rule have helped shape his feelings about Brazilian nationalism. Even though he designed a shirt that could be considered more patriotic than the Brazilian flag, he’s actually very wary of patriotism.

Aldyr Garcia Schlee:
“It is an idea that competes with the ones that I had to live without limits and live without borders.”

Roman Mars:
Schlee may not be a Brazilian patriot, but the soccer fan in him can’t help but be proud of the Brazilian team.

Aldyr Garcia Schlee:
“Brazil won the championship five times. This is a source of pride. It’s an honor for all of us.”

Roman Mars:
But Schlee has a secret, or at least something he never used to share with people who knew he was the designer of the famous yellow shirt.

Joe Sykes:
Schlee roots for Uruguay. For many in Brazil, this is blasphemy, but not for him.

Aldyr Garcia Schlee:
“We are one people, one board, or community. Even if you have two languages, the people have only one culture identity.”

Roman Mars:
Schlee feels culturally connected to both Brazil and Uruguay, but he ultimately had to pick one country’s team to root for.

Aldyr Garcia Schlee:
“Soccer divides me too.”

Joe Sykes:
So these days when Brazil plays Uruguay, Schlee, like a lot of other soccer fans, suits up in his favorite jersey, but not the yellow shirt he designed, a sky blue one, the color of Uruguay. Then he crosses the border from Brazil to Uruguay and finds some quiet bar to watch the game.

Comments (8)

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  1. That Guy

    Hate to be that guy, but the sound bite you use with “Gooooooal” is actually in Spanish, from a Spanish radio station.

    1. 99pi

      We re-edited the piece to address this (should be updated if you download it again).

  2. SW`

    I have to say, when I saw the title for this episode, I thought it was going to be about the Garden State and not about football uniforms. Alas, no love for New Jersey.

    1. MikeFromNJ

      Same. It was interesting, but not as much as our beloved state.

  3. Great story, unknown even for us brazilians. The yellow jersey is so iconic we take for granted that she always existed, like the sun ;)

  4. edaces

    I’m a Brazilian living in the UK and one of the first cultural shocks I experienced when arrived here the the ‘lack of enthusiasm’ by the football narrators on TV when a goal was scored. It’s so bizarre to us that lots of us living here watch the match on TV on mute with the audio of any Brazilian online radio simultaneously.
    And yes, the shirt has this powerful connection with our country identity. Whenever we need to show support, not necessarily sports related, we just put the shirt on. This is happening a lot recently due to the current political troubles going on there.

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