Brazil's boys feel the heat
Can this side erase pain of 1950, when the hosts let down a nation, as World Cup returns in 2014? It's not looking good
"There is always pressure playing for Brazil," said World Cup winner Ronaldo this week, when asked how his successors in the national team would cope with the expectation that being hosts will bring in 2014.
The pressure the selecao experience in 20 months' time will, however, be as great as any team has faced, as can be illustrated by what happened when an elderly Uruguayan presented his documents to a young Brazilian immigration official at Rio de Janeiro's airport a few years ago.
She stared in silence at the name in the passport.
"Is there a problem?" asked the visitor.
"Are the you the Gigghia?" she said.
Alcides Gigghia replied, "That's me, but 1950 was such a long time ago."
The young official, born a quarter-century after Gigghia scored the winning goal against the hosts in the 1950 World Cup final, put her hand on her chest and said: "In Brazil we feel it in our hearts every day."
Brazil have subsequently won the World Cup five times but the shock of 1950, when little neighbours Uruguay snatched victory in the newly built Maracana, still lingers. In Futebol: The Brazilian Way of Life, from which Gigghia's story is taken, Alex Bellos relates how the Fateful Final and the Defeat (always capitalised in Brazil), is regarded as the nation's "JFK moment". It has spawned more books, films and column inches than any of the victories.
Brazil had won their previous matches in the final pool 7-1 and 6-1. No result other than triumph was considered. Early newspaper editions carried pictures of the Brazil team with the headline: "These are the world champions". When Uruguay won 2-1 no one knew how to react. Eventually Jules Rimet found the Uruguay captain on the pitch and quietly handed over the trophy which bore his name. Pele, then 10, said later there was "a sadness so great, so profound, it seemed like the end of a war with Brazil the loser and many people dead".
In the post-mortem even the shirts were blamed. At the time Brazil played in white shirts with blue collars. Following a national competition for a new design they adopted the now fabled canary yellow jerseys.
The 2014 finals are the first in Brazil since 1950. Again the nation is agog with expectation. Though the economy is slowing, Brazil is increasingly confident about its place in the new world order. The World Cup will be followed by the Olympics in 2016, underlining the South American powerhouse's growing status.
There is concern over the infrastructure and preparations, but that is not unexpected, what has come as a nasty surprise is that there are also worries over the team. Destiny demands that the selecao will lay the ghosts of 1950 for once and for all. The Maracana is being rebuilt for the occasion. It is a heavy responsibility for any football team to carry and increasingly the question is being asked: are they up to the task?
On Thursday Brazil won 6-0, but that was against Iraq, in Sweden, the latest gig in a never-ending world tour that rivals Bob Dylan's version and appears motivated more by financial considerations than football ones.
Brazil have played a dozen friendlies in the last 12 months, three at home, three away, and six in neutral venues from the United States to Qatar to Switzerland. They have won 10, but aside from Argentina, Denmark and the US the opposition have been moderate.
In the competitive arena results have been worse. In the 2011 Copa America Brazil were held by Paraguay and Venezuela, a team they used to thrash, beat Ecuador, but then lost in the knockout stages to Paraguay on penalties.
This summer they lost the Olympic final. That may seem no big deal in Britain, but in South America Olympic football matters. Brazil had never won gold but intended and expected to this time. The over-age players were Thiago Silva, Hulk and Marcelo. The team also included Neymar, Ganso, Leandro Damiano and the English-based trio Sandro, Rafael da Silva and Oscar. In charge was Mano Menezes, the national-team coach.
Many expected Menezes to be fired after the Olympics, especially as it followed defeats for the senior team against Mexico and Argentina. Brazil's Fifa ranking has plummeted to 14th, their lowest since the ratings began. Adding to the sense that he is scrabbling around for solutions, Menezes has called up 65 players in the last year. Ronaldo himself said, in London this week, with tongue only half in cheek: "It is easier to organise a World Cup than to win one. I may have to make a comeback."
So far Menezes has survived, but the fresh availability of Luiz Felipe Scolari, recently fired by Palmeiras, has added to the sense of vulnerability though Menezes insisted: "I don't feel more or less pressured."
While many in Brazil are calling for Scolari, who led them to their 2002 title after taking over a struggling team, neutrals may wish Menezes holds on. For while Scolari, like Dunga in 2010, developed a team at odds with Brazil's heritage, Menezes has sought to revive it. Instead of deploying two defensive midfield spoilers and relying on a counter-attacking style Menezes, in his own words, wants Brazil to "return to our traditions of a strong passing game with individual skills". That means Oscar in midfield instead of Gilberto Silva.
Only one of the XI which started Brazil's 2010 quarter-final defeat to the Netherlands played in Malmo on Thursday. That was Kaka, who was making his first appearance since that 2-1 loss in Port Elizabeth. The revitalised Real Madrid midfielder scored and Menezes will hope he maintains his form to 2014 for a youthful Brazil team will need the experience of players such as him, Thiago Silva and Dani Alves.
There will be nearly 200 million people following their every kick in the finals. "We cannot underestimate the added pressure of playing at home," said Menezes.
Anyone who doubts this need only study the fate of the man who was beaten by Gagghia at his near post on 16 July 1950, Moacyr Barbosa. He was voted the goalkeeper of the tournament but only played for Brazil once more and died, destitute, in 2000. Seven years prior he had been turned away from a Brazil training camp in case he brought bad luck. Barbosa, one of the three black players in the team, all of whom were made scapegoats to varying degrees, said, "In Brazil the most you can get for a crime is 30 years. For 43 years I have been paying for a crime I did not commit." He added the saddest day of his life came in 1970 when a woman pointed him out to her son and said: "Look at him. He is the man who made all Brazil cry."
In 1950, the pressure before kick-off was so great Uruguay's Julio Perez wet himself during the anthems. Sixty-four years of hurt later will Brazil's young men, who have grown up on these tales of woe, be good enough, and strong enough, to cope with the burden of erasing them?
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