Tuesday 12 December 2017

'We need to make sure the pressure doesn't turn into something too bad'

Brazil are nervous as they seek to conquer world on home soil, says Fernando Duarte

As the biggest idol in the Brazilian team, another level of expectation weighs on Neymar. Photo: Buda Mendes/Getty Images
As the biggest idol in the Brazilian team, another level of expectation weighs on Neymar. Photo: Buda Mendes/Getty Images

Fernando Duarte

It felt as if every one of the 11 players on the pitch was wearing the wrong boots. After taking the 1970 World Cup finals by storm, Brazil were faltering at a crucial moment. After only 19 minutes in their semi-final, Pele and co had fallen behind to Uruguay, courtesy of a mis-hit Luis Cubilla shot that made the goalkeeper Felix look silly. Worse, the team looked over-anxious.

Fortunately, a moment of brilliance by Clodoaldo resulted in an equaliser that brought huge relief at the stroke of half-time but still did not spare Brazil from the mother of all dressing downs by their manager, Mario Zagallo.

"Zagallo gave us bollocking in the dressing room – I had never seen him that angry," says Carlos Alberto, captain of that mythical side. "He kept saying that we should forget all that talk about the past. During preparations for that game the press kept on talking about the Ghost of 1950 and even a group of experienced players like ours were affected. Imagine these boys now."

In the second half, Brazil scored twice to complete a comeback that may not have properly avenged the famous defeat on home soil by their South American neighbours but still sent them to the final and brought some kind of closure to Zagallo, who witnessed the loss in Rio as a territorial army soldier brought in to provide security for the 1950 World Cup games.

The anecdote, nonetheless, is used by Carlos Alberto to exemplify the pressure that the Neymar generation are already under and that will increase come Thursday, when Brazil open their campaign against Croatia in Sao Paulo.

Unlike the glorious 1970 team, who contained first-team survivors from the disastrous campaign that was Brazil's participation in England in 1966, the class of 2014 arrive home largely untested at the biggest stage. Of the 23 men called up by Luiz Felipe Scolari last month, only six have experienced a World Cup – goalkeeper Julio Cesar, centre-back Thiago Silva, full-backs Dani Alves and Maicon, as well as midfielder Ramires.

Since Brazil were spared the league-formatted South American qualifiers for 2014, most of the group can only draw on last year's Confederations Cup for competitive football in Brazil's colours. So the talk of the 1950 final defeat adds to the pressure.

That the Uruguayans were close to upsetting Brazil in the warm-up tournament will not help either – the centre-back partnership of Silva and David Luiz had a nightmare afternoon in Belo Horizonte and Brazil were grateful to Julio Cesar for saving a penalty in the 14th minute. "Uruguay are the only team to have rattled Brazil in the last few months," says Brazil legend Zico.

Naturally, supporters are wondering how Brazil will react to so much history and expectation. In the build-up to the tournament, Scolari has focused on players' responsibilities, while appealing to national pride, a formula similar to the one he used to spur Portugal into their first major final at Euro 2004 – never mind that Luis Figo and co were beaten in that match at home by Greece.

Carlos Alberto Parreira, who has had two stints as national manager and is now acting as Scolari's de facto deputy, has praised the hunger shown by Neymar and his team-mates. "This group might be formed by a lot of players who have not been to a World Cup but they are aware of the opportunity presented to them in the form of a chance to win it at home," he says.

"They want it, it's quite different from working with players that have already been at the top," explains Parreira, who oversaw an apathetic defeat by France in the 2006 quarter-finals, a side boasting several 2002 World Cup winners, including an overweight Ronaldo.

Brazil are in much better place since Scolari took over in November 2012. They had been pickpocketed by Mexico in the London Olympics final and were then enduring a three-year dry spell against established sides, in which a flattering 3-2 defeat by Germany in Stuttgart in 2011 had rung an orchestra of alarm bells. Spirits were lifted by victories over Italy and Spain last year but the apprehension remains, thanks also to a draw that put the Selecao in a possible collision course with either Spain or Holland in the first round of the knockout stages.

"We know Brazilians always expect the Selecao to win and it wouldn't be different now that we have a second chance to lift the World Cup at home," admits the captain Silva. "But we need to make sure the pressure doesn't turn into something too bad. A lot of people are still talking about 1950 and the only way we will write a new chapter will be by winning in 2014."

As the biggest idol in the Brazilian team, another level of expectations weighs on Neymar. After a first season in Barcelona that failed to ignite La Liga and the Champions League, the World Cup has become an even more defining moment for the 22-year-old, who has scored 31 goals in 48 matches for Brazil in the past four years.

"The pressure to perform follows you since you play youth tournaments. I'd rather enjoy the experience of playing in a World Cup than to fear it. I've had this dream ever since I was little kid."

Awarded the tournament in 2007 without any competitors thanks to much horse trading at FIFA, Brazil promised a tournament that would not be marred by the desperation shown by football's ruling body while dealing with the South Africans in 2010. But the plan to have an event largely bankrolled by private investments has backfired spectacularly: delays and Brazilian bureaucracy have sent costs soaring and the 2014 tournament will be the most expensive of all time. Fewer than half the non-football related projects will actually be anywhere near completion by the time Brazil and Croatia kick-off on Thursday.

That was gasoline poured on the fire of popular unrest that has set sights on the tournament, to the point where public support for the World Cup fell from more than 75 per cent of Brazilians in 2007 to 52 per cent earlier this year. Violent protests have erupted in Brazil since last year.

Although Brazil's players were quick to defend the democratic right to dissent in a country that spent a third of the 20th century under some form of dictatorship, the feeling is their performance over the next month will have a strong influence on the popular mood beyond the national enthusiasm for the game.

So far, there is a strange and subdued atmosphere in some cities in Brazil. The journey from the Tom Jobim international airport to downtown Rio de Janeiro is marked by heavy traffic and posters reminding travellers of Brazil's long-dreamed second shot at a home World Cup. The city used to be covered in the national colours of green and yellow every four years.

It can throw a hell of a party, though, but that more than ever will depend on how Scolari's side fares on the pitch. For Neymar and co, the pressure is on.


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