Brazil vs Colombia World Cup 2014 preview: How Big Phil is helping his flock cope with the pressure

Scolari is using motivational techniques and a psychologist as his Brazil side prepare for tonight’s Colombia match

Fortaleza

When describing what it was like to take a penalty in a World Cup final, Andrea Pirlo wrote: “I was the manual worker who struggles to make it to the end of the month; the rich businessman who’s a bit of a s*** the teacher; the student; the Italian expats who’d never left our side during the tournament; the well-to-do Milanese signora; the hooker on the street corner. In that moment, I was all of them.”

Luiz Felipe Scolari, the big man from the cowboy country of Rio Grande do Sul, is at this moment all of Brazil; a nation of 200 million that has become a republic of one. Ever since the three glittering Jules Rimet trophies won by men like Pele, Mane Garrincha and Jairzinho, playing football that seemed the stuff of fantasy, the debate in Brazil has always been how you win as much as whether you win.

Read more: How Scolari is helping his team cope
Match preview: Brazil vs Colombia
Want to know Brazil's secrets?

The debate is over. If Brazil are to win the World Cup on home soil, they are not suddenly going to blossom into the team of Socrates and Falcao. They are going to have to grind their way to the Maracana.

Scolari always considered fools those who banged on about the shimmering beauty of Tele Santana’s side that in 1982 competed with the Hungary of 1954 and the Dutch of Johan Cruyff as the best team to fail to win the World Cup.

Speaking before the draw was made in December, he remarked: “I have been criticised for saying this; but if you can’t play beautifully and win, you have to play the other way. You have to play ugly. It is great if you can play beautifully and win but if you play beautifully and lose, well, that’s horrible. People who want me to do that are idiots.”

This evening, they face Colombia, a team who are regarded in South America much as the Europeans regard Ireland – good for an after-match party but unlikely to linger too long in a tournament. Colombia are coming to the Castelao in better form than Brazil and in James Rodriguez they have a better striker.

Read more: Who will be king? Neymar or Rodriguez
5 reasons Brazil will win
5 reasons why Colombia will win

In the round of 16 they took apart Uruguay, who may have been demoralised by Luis Suarez’s expulsion but were still South America’s reigning champions. They did so with the kind of certainty Brazil did not seem to possess when facing Chile in Belo Horizonte.

That Brazil’s goalkeeper, Julio Cesar, was in tears before the penalty shoot-out and that Neymar broke down during the national anthem when they were last in Fortaleza to face Mexico led to raised eyebrows among the array of former world champions who daily pass judgement on Scolari’s team. James Rodriguez scores during Colombia's 2-0 win over Uruguay Brazil will keep a keen eye on top scorer James Rodriguez

Carlos Alberto, the man who lifted the Jules Rimet Trophy in 1970, was withering: “The team is crying when it’s singing the anthem, crying when they get hurt and crying when they take a penalty. Enough! They say it is the pressure of playing at home but they should have been prepared for this. The team is not 100 per cent ready.”

Managing a home team in a World Cup is a unique pressure. Alf Ramsey and Aimé Jacquet, who steered England and France to football’s greatest prize, did so with the kind of thorough contempt for their critics Scolari possesses. Jacquet’s first act on winning the World Cup was to launch a bitter, emotional attack on the French sports paper L’Equipe.

By contrast, Helmut Schön appears to have had something of a breakdown midway through the 1974 tournament, with his captain, Franz Beckenbauer, taking effective charge of the West German squad. Berti Vogts, part of the side that won the trophy in Munich, recalled: “Many of us would have willingly packed up and gone home, such was the unmitigated pressure on us.”

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It is many times that in Brazil, where their failure to win the 1950 tournament at the Maracana was described by the nation’s foremost playwright, Nelson Rodrigues, as “our Hiroshima”.

Forty-four years on, Barbosa, Brazil’s goalkeeper in that game against Uruguay, was not allowed to meet the 1994 squad before they flew to the United States lest he bring them bad luck. The memory of Ronaldo’s breakdown on the morning of the 1998 final at the Stade de France is still fresh.

“Everything we do makes the country either depressed or rejoice,” said Fred, whose performances in this World Cup have been pilloried. “Big Phil helps us cope with our fear that people will die if we don’t win.”

The news that Brazil’s players had seen a psychologist on Tuesday raised eyebrows still further. It may come as a surprise, given his gruff, bulldog demeanour, but Big Phil has always employed a psychologist, long before it became fashionable to ring Dr Steve Peters. Regina Brandao, who works at a Sao Paulo university, has been with Scolari since the 1990s. Julio Cesar saves two penalties in the shoot-out as Brazil scraped into the quarter-finals of the World Cup against Chile Julio Cesar is mobbed after his two shoot-out saves against Mexico

The Brazilian FA (the CBF) has always taken a proactive, if somewhat unconventional approach to taking care of the Selecao’s needs. In 1962, when the squad arrived at their base in Vina del Mar on Chile’s Pacific coast, an official was sent to a local brothel to organise exclusive access for the team so they would not become bored during the tournament. Eight years later, the CBF employed specialists from Nasa to monitor the squad’s fitness.

Brandao’s approach is far more conventional, relying on questionnaires that ask Scolari’s players to choose on a numerical scale how they feel on certain subjects. She did the same for Portugal, whom Scolari managed to the final of Euro 2004.

She found the Portuguese players more neutral in their feelings, especially when it came to picking up yellow cards or conceding a goal. The Brazilians were much more emotional, far more concerned about what people thought of them – which when a World Cup is being staged in their own country is likely to be an enormous handicap.

“They are much more intense than players from other countries – both in good and bad ways,” she concluded when delivering the results to Scolari before he picked his final 23.

Scolari does a lot of the motivating himself. Before last year’s Confederations Cup final against Spain, every member of the Selecao woke up to find their manager had slid a letter underneath the door of their hotel room. The letter contained quotes from Martin Luther King and, more improbably, Walt Disney.

When they assembled in the Maracana’s changing room, the men who represent a nation that has won more World Cups than any other found a whiteboard on which Scolari had written: “Nothing is more dangerous than yesterday’s victories.” It was true then and it is truer now.

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