independent

Thursday 17 April 2014

Brazil feel the heat in quest for glory

Scolari embracing emotions of a nation ready to 'die if we don't win'

Spain coach Vicente del Bosque holds the World Cup trophy at the draw for the 2014 finals in Brazil

While England sweat like a jockey in a sauna against Italy, Brazil will strive for coolness as they journey across their vast homeland for group games against Croatia, Mexico and Cameroon.

The heat placed on the hosts is of the emotional variety but will be a lot more onerous than humidity.

"We are the hosts, so that means that the minimum we have to do is win," said former Chelsea manager and now restored Brazil coach Luiz Felipe Scolari.

The maximum would be to end all arguments about where the real power in football currently lies. For the home of 'joga bonito' to call itself the spiritual home of expressive football is no longer enough.

Brazil needs to affirm its status not just as an exporter of fine footballers but the world's biggest superpower in an age when the rise of the big European clubs is powerfully expressed through the Champions League.

When Pele said of the World Cup, "it's a box of surprises," he was not to know the draw would be so kind to Brazil and Argentina, and so unforgiving to England and Italy (who meet in Group D) or Spain and Holland, who reprise the 2010 final in their very first fixture, in Salvador on June 13.

As a fan of heavyweight American fiction, Roy Hodgson may have read John Updike's 'Brazil' – a piece of magical realism, rather like England's games against Italy and Uruguay before a concluding fixture against Costa Rica.

Scolari will not care about the country that inflicted such a miserable experience on him at Stamford Bridge. He has fulfilled Brazil's destiny once – in Japan and South Korea in 2002 – and now the nation has asked him to do it again on home soil.

PRESSURE

The pressure is intense but the portents are good. The Selecao have already raised the trophy five times since 1958 and won the Confederations Cup this summer, beating the reigning world and European champions Spain 3-0. Yet the old sense of birthright, of entitlement, has faded somewhat with the growth of European power.

After the Confederations Cup victory, Brazil's captain, Thiago Silva, said: "It was hard before to hear some people implying Brazil were not inspiring fear anymore. I'd love to hear their thoughts now."

In an interview with Fernando Duarte he revealed some of the insecurities that stalk a land where the failure to win at home in 1950 still gnaws at the national consciousness.

"We spent three days talking about how to play Spain, in the build-up to the final," Thiago said. "We heard the Bayern Munich guys talking about their impressions of tiki-taka when they played Barcelona in the Champions League.

"Phil Scolari then asked us: 'What do you want to do?' We replied at the same time: 'We want to attack them'. Fair play to big Phil, it was a very good psychological move. But we had to attack Spain if we wanted to win."

Spain's domination faces a stringent test in South American conditions, with Holland, Chile and Australia in their group. Brazil and Argentina will be thrilled to see the champions softened up while they face weaker opposition in their respective groups.

The neutral's dream final match-up of Lionel Messi (Argentina) v Cristiano Ronaldo (Portugal) would be surpassed only by a Brazil-Argentina showdown, with Neymar taking the role of Messi's counterpart.

Scolari is cast as a bit of a Gene Hackman-style brute but his method for dealing with domestic expectation is more subtle than his image implies. By his side is Regina Brandao, a Sao Paulo university professor who has helped him with psychological evaluations since the late 1990s.

According to 'The New York Times', Scolari wrote to his players on the eve of the Confederations Cup final, insisting "YOU are the special people" and "the sun's smile, with its rays of hope, is there to say: go and fulfil your journey".

He used quotations from Martin Luther King Jnr and Walt Disney. "Everything we do, every game we play, makes the whole country go up and down," the striker Fred said. "(Scolari) helps us handle the feeling that people will die if we don't win."

There is the nub of it. While England travel to a World Cup with the lowest expectations in living memory, Brazil are haunted by a sense that "people will die if we don't win".

To avoid mass fatalities, Scolari has assembled a strong core of players: Thiago, Hulk, Neymar plus David Luiz, Willian, Ramires and Oscar from Chelsea, and Paulinho from Spurs.

Brazil as a nation of jugglers and magicians is a myth. Pragmatism has ruled for at least two decades (since the 1994 tournament in the United States) but Scolari can still expect lectures from romantics, at home and abroad.

"I am criticised in Brazil for saying what I think, but I believe if you can't play beautifully and win, you need to play in another way," he said.

IDIOT

"You need to play ugly. For me, playing beautifully and winning is great but playing beautifully and losing is horrible. Whoever says the opposite is an idiot."

The most hellish outcome for Brazil would be Messi's Argentina jigging with the trophy in Rio on July 13. The best players in both countries now form a large proportion of Europe's A-list. Last year Brazil provided Europe's 478 top-division sides with over 500 players. Chelsea, for example, would be hard to imagine these days without the elusive ingenuity of Oscar, the drive of Ramires.

But this export industry needs its hour of glory back home, where the talent is rooted in Brazilian social culture, and the economics of deprivation. This World Cup will bring a fascinating clash of the continents, with Spain, Germany and the rest all toiling to adapt and the big South American nations looking to declare ownership of football's soul.

Even more than that, a Brazil win would bring new money flooding into the domestic leagues, with their new stadiums and enhanced infrastructure. But never underestimate the emotional element, which Scolari will look to embrace – but also keep in check. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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