World Cup 2014: Ian Herbert - The ghost of 1950 is haunting Brazil: the notion of home failure sharpened by a growing divide between players and public

The players now are pop stars who belong in England, Italy and Germany

Pity the Brazil players. Yes, I mean pity them, because slowly and inexorably the ghost of 1950 is beginning to reveal itself. And though they are laughing about it now, it’s not an entirely comfortable kind of laughter.

You know the story. The seemingly insuperable Brazil team, lining up to face Uruguay in the World Cup final of that year in the Maracana, with the nation so sure of success that the early editions of Rio de Janeiro’s O Mundo carried an image of their players alongside the headline: “These are the World Champions.”

And then, the Brazil goalkeeper Barbosa was done on his near post by Alcides Ghiggia for the decisive goal in a 2-1 defeat, the shame of which he took to his grave when he died penniless and still broken. If anyone thought that this memory had been exorcised, then Puma has put paid to it with an excellent new advert, currently showing in Uruguay, featuring a ghost wearing the colours of La Celeste and the No 50 on his back, cavorting around the Copacabana beach, on top of the Sugarloaf Mountain cable car and the rebuilt Maracana. “El fantasma del 50 ya esta en Brasil” (“The ghost of 50 is still in Brazil”) is the pay-off.

Since Brazil’s erudite and intelligent Deputy Sports Minister, Luis Fernandes, had proved so convivial at a dinner which concluded my week’s tour of the country on Friday, it did not seem undiplomatic to show him the ad. It was after he had laughed – a not entirely edgy laughter – that Fernandes reflected on how the agonies which followed that 1950 defeat were a manifestation of the “stray dog mentality” at the heart of the Brazilian psyche, which reveals itself whenever a setback of significant proportions occurs. “In this country you are either first or you are last,” he told me. “Second place might as well be last place.”

The “stray dog” complex was first articulated by the writer Nelson Rodrigues, eight years after the 1950 final, to define Brazilians’ innate inferiority complex, which Ghiggia’s goal for the Uruguayans affirmed. “The opposition is irrelevant. Brazil is always playing against itself, against its own demons, against the ghosts of the Maracana,” is how the writer and journalist Alex Bellos puts it in his book Futebol, a brilliant and essential companion to this summer.

My tour of Fortaleza, Manaus and Rio last week also included a cherished opportunity to meet and talk with Zico, arguably the most loved of all Brazilian players – and one who never lifted the most important trophy, despite his part in the joga bonito of 1982, perhaps the most naturally gifted Brazil team of them all. It was at the new Maracana that we chatted and he told of how his father, Jose Antunes Coimbra, had never set foot in the stadium again, having been among the crowd of 200,000 on 16 July 1950. “If he came to Maracana to watch me play then I never saw him,” Zico said. “It was the first World Cup after the war – a different type of World Cup and maybe the first worldwide event after the war, when Brazil was chosen to stage it because it had a reputation for being such a welcoming country. But the tragedy of war was the tragedy of football for us.”

Zico’s talk of the current Brazil squad also shed light on the unmistakable sense that the nation will be less forgiving of failure this summer than it was 32 years ago in Spain, when he and Socrates and Falcao did not even make it to the semi-finals, having been felled by the Paolo Rossi hat-trick in Barcelona which instead inspired the Italians on to glory. The players had to face the music back then, he said, because most of the squad played their club football in Brazil. “When I came back I would be getting out of bed in Rio and walking to the grocery store. The consequences of defeat were in front of you.”

He reflected that it is different for the current generation who, come July, will quickly be restored to their careers in Europe. “If you play in different countries you are not here to be put on the cross any more,” Zico said. The escape route available to Neymar, David Luiz and Oscar explains how the generation brought up on Zico have fallen out of love with the national team. “They all seemed to be soldiers of the country back then. Now it doesn’t matter whether we win or not. The players are pop stars who belong in England, Italy and Germany,” said Raoul, in Rio, a child of the 1970s who spoke for many I met. Fernandes acknowledged that there had been “much criticism” of the national team in Brazil’s media, despite the renewed confidence in Luiz Felipe Scolari produced by the Confederations Cup triumph last June.

This summer, as in 1950, Brazil is presenting an image of itself to the world; hoping that the lasting impression will be one of a relatively new democracy, fast developing from the state grip of the dictatorship years which are only 29 years behind it. Fernandes rejected the notion that triumph in the Maracana – built for 1950 and rebuilt for 2014 – will impact on Dilma Rousseff’s campaign to retain her presidency in the elections which follow three months after the tournament. But everyone knows the old self-doubts will resurface with defeat, which is why Scolari and his men may wish to avert their gaze from Zico’s pronouncements about their chances. “The Brazilians are very used to this heavy responsibility,” he concluded. “We are not really prepared to be the second one but only the winner. The champions. All the football players know this.”

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