World Cup 2014 - Fred interview: 'I don't see myself as special,' says the Brazil striker

The man leading the line in Brazil’s quest for World Cup glory has an unglamorous profile (and name) but tells James Young in Rio that with home help they are confident of raising trophy

Rio

Surrounded by global superstars such as Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo and Neymar, the name of the striker who hopes to fire Brazil to World Cup glory might have more than a few casual football fans rushing to Google. But as Brazil prepare to take on Panama in their penultimate friendly before the tournament begins, Fred, who plays for Fluminense, intends to change that.

“We’re extremely confident,” he tells me. “This might be the most important World Cup ever for Brazil. After all, the last time the World Cup was held here we lost. Now we want to exorcise the ghosts of 1950.” He is referring to the Maracanazo, the nickname for the final game of the 1950 World Cup, when the hosts were stunned by Uruguay in front of 200,000 expectant fans at the Maracana.

A strong, effective striker with an unerring eye for goal, Fred is not the kind of player to beat three men and score a Messi-style wonder goal, as he admitted in a recent interview with the Brazilian TV network Globo. “I never saw myself as being anything special,” he said, describing the early days of his career.

But he emerged as a key part of the side that swept aside Italy, Uruguay and Spain to lift the Confederations Cup last June. That triumph represented a long-awaited upswing in Brazil’s fortunes, after the country had struggled through a prolonged loss of form and confidence following defeat by the Netherlands in the quarter-finals of the South Africa World Cup in 2010.

Fred, who was the Confederations Cup’s joint top scorer with five goals, including two in the final against Spain, puts a large part of the transformation down to the influence of coach Luiz Felipe Scolari.

“We feel we’re one of the favourites for the World Cup, and winning the Confederations Cup has a lot to do with that,” he says. “Scolari is like a father to us. He gives us a hard time, but he’s got a big heart. The players respect his  honesty. He gives us tremendous confidence.”

 

Fred’s road to the World Cup has not been easy. He was born in a small town in the countryside of the state of Minas Gerais; his mother died of a heart attack when he was just seven years old. “I don’t remember her very well,” he told Globo, “but I have an image of her taking me to watch my dad play football. She loved the game.”

He eventually signed for America from the city of Belo Horizonte, where England will play their final and potentially decisive group game against Costa Rica on 24 June. The club, interestingly, plays at the Independencia Stadium, where England were humiliated by the United States in the 1950 World Cup.

After starring for America’s city rivals Cruzeiro he moved on to Lyons in France, where he won three Ligue 1 titles and played regularly in the Champions League. His good form earned him a call-up to the Brazil squad for the 2006 World Cup in Germany, alongside the likes of Ronaldinho, Kaka, Adriano and Ronaldo. “I was a 22-year-old kid back then. I didn’t have the same responsibility I have today,” he remembers. “The squad was full of superstars. I was just a back-up, really.” But he still managed a goal after coming on as a substitute against Australia.

Eventually, however, his club form dipped, and in 2009, frustrated with life in France and his lack of first-team opportunities, he left Lyons after four years and returned to Brazil. “It was a personal choice to come back home,” he says. “I also had offers from Italy and England.”

Today he is unconcerned about making the leap from Brazilian club football to the World Cup. “Of course, there’s a big difference between playing in Brazilian domestic football and playing in the World Cup. But there’s a big difference between playing in European football and playing in the World Cup, too,” he argues. “The World Cup is completely different from any other competition.”

Despite viewing Brazil as World Cup favourites, Fred knows the hosts will face stiff competition. “Germany and Spain are probably a little ahead of the pack, but you can’t rule out any of the teams that have won the World Cup before, such as Argentina, Holland, France, Italy or Uruguay,” he says, curiously missing England off his list of former champions. “And there are a few dark horses too, like Portugal and Belgium. We have to watch out for nasty surprises.”

Remembering how during the Confederations Cup the Brazilian fans captured the patriotic spirit of the mass political protests that raged in the streets outside the stadiums, Fred believes that playing at home will give them a huge advantage this summer. “Fifa say only the first verse of the national anthem should be played before the games. But the fans continued singing long after the music stopped, and it really inspired the team,” he says of last year. “We started every game at 100mph and steamrollered the opposition. Brazilians live and breathe football, and that will make a huge difference.”

At the moment here in Brazil it is difficult to avoid the connection between the World Cup – and the country’s chaotic preparations for the event – and the turbulent political climate.

Fred believes firmly in Brazilians’ right to protest. “Constructive criticism is a good thing,” he says. “I condemn all that’s wrong with my country. I want a better, safer Brazil, free of corruption and with better public health, education and transport. I hope the World Cup can be a turning point. Things have improved a lot, but there’s a long way to go until we have the kind of country that Brazilians deserve.”

The 30-year-old striker, who the Spanish press recently linked with a move to Barcelona, is coy on the subject of a return to European football. “Of course, it’s a possibility. But for the moment I’m totally focused on the World Cup, and giving the Brazilian people their sixth title.”

Barring any last-minute surprises or injuries, the Brazil team to take the field against Croatia in the opening game of the World Cup is likely to be as follows:

Julio Cesar (Toronto FC)

The perfect example of Luiz Felipe Scolari’s philosophy of relying on players he knows and trusts. The fact that Cesar plays in the MLS troubles the Brazil coach not a jot.

Marcelo (Real Madrid)

The left-back is at the top of his game at the moment, and has carried his excellent club form over into pre-World Cup training.

Dani Alves (Barcelona)

One of only six members of an inexperienced squad to have played in a World Cup previously.

David Luiz (PSG)

Scolari sees none of the defensive liabilities that so irritated Jose Mourinho, even saying he was pleased when Luiz was on the bench at Chelsea, as it meant he’d be “fresher for the World Cup”.

Thiago Silva (PSG)

Brazil’s captain – a quiet, elegant leader at the back, considered by many to be one of the world’s best central defenders.

Paulinho (Tottenham)

Another player whose sputtering club form has not caused Scolari’s faith to waver. The manager loves his ability to get forward and score key goals, such as the winner in the Confederations Cup semi-final against Uruguay last year.

Luis Gustavo (Wolfsburg)

The team’s most understated player. An effective, tidy defensive midfielder.

Oscar (Chelsea)

In a side that lacks a truly creative midfield schemer, Brazil instead rely on Oscar’s neat touch and intelligence to be the hub of the team’s passing game.

Neymar (Barcelona)

The criticism Neymar receives in Europe baffles Brazilians, with Scolari even going so far as to suggest a foreign media conspiracy against his players. Can hardly be blamed for the odd inconsistent spell after his huge step up to Barcelona, and remains the magician in Brazil’s ranks. The country’s success or failure rests largely on his slender shoulders.

Hulk (Zenit)

Brazilians are divided in their opinions of the chunky attacking midfielder, but he has never let Scolari down. May come under pressure from youngster Bernard or Chelsea’s Willian during the tournament.

Fred (Fluminense)

Plays a vital role in Brazil’s tactical system, holding up the ball with his back to goal and pouncing on whatever chances come his way.

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