Hosts need success to solve public image crisis
Sympathy with Scolari but 'mercenaries' must deliver to get weary fans back onside
Published 12/06/2014 | 02:30
"So who do you fear a little? Perhaps the Argentinians?" I asked Cafu, at an art exhibition celebrating sublime Brazilian football, set in the cool elegance of the Parque do Ibirapuera here, two evenings ago.
"We fear no one. We will lose to no one," said a man who knows more about World Cup finals than any other Brazilian, having played in three and won two of them.
That is the Brazilians and their football team for you. There was a modicum of half-hearted talk about complacency in this city's newspapers yesterday, the term 'frio na garriga' (butterflies in the stomach) cropped up and Tostao, one of the fabled class of Mexico 1970, spoke wisely by cautioning that Luiz Felipe Scolari's European-based players – strangers to many in this vast land – will be branded "mercenaries" if the country loses.
But losing does not appear to come into the equation.
Part of the reason for that is Scolari – or 'Felipao' as he is universally known here in the more elegant Portuguese articulation of 'Big Phil'. At a time in the four-year football cycle when the Brazilian manager traditionally comes under fire – Dunga was being crucified in 2010 for leaving Neymar at home – Scolari is seen as the saviour.
By virtue of giving the nation a hope that seemed entirely extinguished when they laboured under his predecessor Mano Menezes just two years ago, the 65-year-old is even more popular than when he managed Brazil to World Cup triumph 2002.
The news that his nephew has died in a car crash only cemented the affection yesterday. One by one his players hugged him in training.
The bonhomie masks a genuine fragility about Brazil's hopes, though. Tostao's talk about mercenaries was wise because this squad has a serious image problem.
Neymar is adored because he was so clearly betrothed to this city and to the Santos club, two hours away on the coast, where he stayed and played his way into national affections.
Others, like David Luiz and the gifted midfielder Hulk, are strangers among their countrymen.
Previous generations are not exactly helping erase the cynicism about the players having their noses in the trough. News here that Ronaldo, part of the 1994 champions, has an interest in the company which has sold the plastic seats that are in each of the new World Cup stadiums has done the team's image pitifully little good.
This is the reason why the World Cup group stage has been organised into a grand tour of the nation, taking in Brasilia and Fortaleza on the north-west coast: an arduous, 2,436-mile familiarisation project guaranteed to keep them away from the Maracana until the final. In contrast, Belgium will travel 430 miles.
Hulk has been creating interest and was depicted with his cartoon character's green body in one of the papers yesterday. He is valued for his ability to drop deep from his advanced midfield position, do the hard work and draw some of the responsibility and the opposition's attention away from Neymar – the team's fulcrum on whom a worrying amount rests even at the age of 22.
The national angst about him has reflected the heavy dependency on the folk hero these past few weeks.
There were fully 20 pictures of Neymar yesterday in the 12-page sports supplement of the Diario de Sao Paulo newspaper which proclaimed "Forca Felipao" on its front cover, and the anxiety when he twisted an ankle in a session before the cameras at the weekend reached near hysteria.
It was nothing. Neymar looked excellent in training on Tuesday and scored two superb goals before the cameras.
Brazilians also worry about the players they have lost for all time. This developing nation, struggling desperately for the kind of civic transparency which can help it throw off poverty and chaos, has so little attraction to offer its best players that football has become one of its export industries.
Much time and space has been taken up in the past two weeks with preoccupations about the significant role Brazilians may play in the teams who will challenge them.
Though Spain's Diego Costa is the obvious one, no one has forgotten that two Brazilians – Eduardo da Silva and Sammir – are in Niko Kovac's Croatia squad who are the country's first opponents in the stadium here tonight. Eduardo adorned a back page headlined "Fogo Amigo" (Friendly Fire) yesterday.
That's not the only concern. A lot of talk has surrounded the Japanese referee for tonight, Yuichi Nishimura, who also refereed the Brazil-Netherlands game in which Felipe Melo was sent off in the 2010 finals.
Nishimura justifiably gave Melo his marching orders for a stamp but suspicion remains. There was definite racist innuendo contained in Diario de Sao Paulo's headline about the Asian yesterday: "Open your eyes." This is by no means a politically correct country.
At last, the pre-tournament phoney wars and fears can slip away. The Brazilians ought to be good enough to advance past their first opponents, though their awareness of what lies ahead was revealed by this week's training tactics.
Scolari has had them working on small pitches, refining the slick, high-intensity one-twos which will be part of the plan seen as a requirement to beat Croatia. The Balkan threat lies in Luka Modric and the team's speed and touch.
Scolari has said they'll win the tournament though it is unclear whether that is simply a strategy to keep the fans with them. The fight for hearts and minds will not be an easy one.
On the one-hour drive out to the Arena da Sao Paulo yesterday afternoon, there were only 12 Brazilian flags in evidence amid the hundreds of skyrise windows.
The English nation is infinitely more excited. But then Brazil is digesting the incredible amounts of money which have been put into this tournament: 25.8bn Brazilian Reia (€8.5bn) – with a full 31pc on stadia which in at least three cities are not necessary.
They will tell you here that a sum of money like that would buy a huge facility to supplement Sao Paulo's beleaguered Hospital dos Clinicas, where you wait half an hour if you are an emergency case and eight hours if not.
Pele yesterday called on the Brazilian nation not to put too much pressure on this team and not to let the protests create a mood of negativity.
"Give them space. Let them play. Corruption and bribes in football has always been known to the Brazilian people. It has nothing to do with the team," said Pele. The nation will take some persuading. It may take a footballing tour de force to win them over. (© Independent News Service)