Rocky road to Brazil: Tostao fears a Thatcher effect at World Cup

Key figure in legendary 1970 title winning side unsure who to support this summer fearing home triumph could boost unpopular regime at Brazilian FA

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The Independent Football

While Romario howls in protest at overspending and Ronaldo grins cheesily from the pulpit of Fifa officialdom, another of Brazil's former greats is in two minds about what the World Cup might mean for his country.

Could hosting this summer's finals lead to the same outcome for Brazil as occurred in Britain when the patriotism generated by Margaret Thatcher's pursuit of the Falklands War served to distract people from their grievances with her, to such an extent that she was re-elected off the back of that eventual triumph?

"Exactly!" agrees Tostao, a key figure in the legendary 1970 World Cup side of Pele, Jairzinho, Rivelino and more, but now an influential newspaper columnist. "If Brazil win, we'll have to put up with Jose Maria Marin [the unpopular head of the Brazilian FA] and the politicians saying how the World Cup was a huge success and that Brazil is the country of football, where everything is perfect."

It is easy to portray Brazil as a footballing field of dreams, where barefoot kids kick oranges across the beach and every favela is home to a bunch of budding superstars. But the reality is more complex, as last June's huge street protests against political corruption and ramshackle public services showed.

A conversation with Tostao, whose stories are full of warmth and nostalgia, yet are also suffused with an underlying frustration at the problems plaguing his country, reveals both the good and the bad of Brazil hosting the World Cup. "The World Cup always brings a sense of patriotism, which the press and the football authorities play on," said the former forward. "Lots of people get caught up in the mood and cheer on the national team. But now, with this World Cup, it's unclear whether the same thing will happen, because of last year's street protests."

So on which side of the Romario vs Ronaldo divide does Tostao stand? "I'm not as aggressive as Romario. I try not to offend people," he says. "But I've criticised the World Cup and the Brazilian football authorities a lot in my column, and the lie that they told us when they said hosting the tournament wouldn't use public money."

Given all the negativity that surrounds the event, what will his personal feelings be when he watches the World Cup in Brazil?

"Of course, given my history with the national team, I hope Brazil win. But it's an ambiguous situation. Brazilian domestic football is in a mess, and winning the World Cup might even have negative consequences."

It is not an uncommon sentiment in Brazil. While Fifa and the government fear that a return of the mass street protests of last June could disrupt the World Cup and create a negative image of Brazil, many feel the country would benefit more in the long term from further demonstrations aimed at shaking up a complacent political class. If the hosts go far in the tournament, football could once again serve to distract people from their grievances, as it has so often in the past. Perhaps Tostao should support Argentina?

"That's one solution, support Argentina!" he laughs. "But seriously, lots of people feel the same way. We want things to go well, we can't be defeatist or pessimistic, but also we can't just pretend everything is fine. And if Brazil win, it might make the process of change more difficult."

Yet amid all the negativity that surrounds the World Cup, the high quality of football played by Brazil this week in Johannesburg, as they dismantled South Africa 5-0, was a reminder of what can be looked forward to this summer.

It was an impressive display, even allowing for the feebleness of the opposition, with Oscar probing cleverly, Fernandinho forceful and vibrant, and Neymar at his mercurial best. Despite worries over the goalkeeper and striker positions, coach Luiz Felipe Scolari, who has shown tremendous loyalty to his players ever since last year's Confederations Cup triumph, appears to have few doubts over his final squad list.

According to Tostao, who retired from the game aged 26 due to problems with his vision, there are good and bad points about such an approach. "The advantage is that you have an organised team that knows how to play together. The disadvantage is that it is harder for new players to come in if some of the squad suffer a dip in form. Some of Brazil's first-choice players haven't been great over the last year," he wrote after the South Africa game.

There is a chance that England could meet Brazil in the quarter-finals this summer. What does Tostao remember about that World Cup afternoon against Alf Ramsey's side in Guadalajara almost 44 years ago?

"I didn't play that well, but I was involved in the goal," he says with considerable understatement, for it was his weaving run into the penalty area and looping pass that put Pele in position to roll the ball on to Jairzinho's thunderous boot for the winner.

The photo of Bobby Moore and Pele embracing after the game is a reminder that then England took on Brazil as equals. Yet since that day Brazil have won three World Cups while England have mustered a solitary semi-final in 1990. So why have England stood still?

"England were tactically innovative back in 1966 [when they won the trophy]," says Tostao. "And of course they had a generation of great players, and they were playing at home. It seemed to me that they kept the same system for a long time, lots of balls in the air, lots of crosses. It was all about someone getting down the wing and getting the ball into the area.

"Over the last 20 years, England have achieved much less than they should, given the players they have. Today, on paper, it's a good side, but as a unit they can't seem to move on. They're too predictable – very organised, but essentially repetitive. They seem to be stuck in the past."

Finally, who does Tostao believe will win the World Cup? "I think there are four contenders: Spain, Argentina, Germany and, of course, Brazil.

"And if we win, home advantage will be a big reason why."

Move over Rio, Salvador wants to party

England fans wanting a break from sweaty Manaus or traffic-clogged Sao Paulo could do worse than try a trip to Salvador, after the city announced this week that it plans to recreate the city's legendary carnival for two days during the World Cup. And a welcome of a different kind is being prepared in Belo Horizonte, where Roy Hodgson's men play their final group game. The landlocked city, whose motto is "nao tem mar, vamos pro bar" ("we've got no beach, so we may as well go to the pub"), has an Association of Prostitutes, who are offering free English classes to members.

Neymar shows his boyish side

Alongside Neymar, Oscar and Fernandinho, one of the stars of Brazil's 5-0 thumping of South Africa in a friendly this week was the small child who ran on to the pitch after the game. It also showed that Neymar, on whom Brazil's hopes will rest this summer, remains untroubled by the controversy that surrounds his contractual arrangements with Barcelona, at least when he is surrounded by his Brazilian team-mates. His grin as he rescued the delighted boy from security guards, then carried him off to be tossed into the air by the rest of the team, shows that his moleque ("cheeky kid") spirit is still alive and kicking.

Scolari hails the Mexican wave

Brazil's World Cup opponents have another reason for hoping that the huge street protests of last June do not return during the World Cup. Before his team's handsome victory in Johannesburg this week, coach Luiz Felipe Scolari said that the key moment in Brazil's recent revival had been the game against Mexico in the Confederations Cup. "That game in Fortaleza was when the protests reached their peak," Scolari recalled. "We got together as a group and tried to capture the spirit of what was happening. It was an important moment." The challenge now is to repeat it.

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