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Jun 5, 2014

Selecao and Sao Paulo: a troubled relationship

Brazil head coach Luiz Felipe Scolari believes a final with Argentina would be the perfect end for the 2014 World Cup.

Few dress rehearsals could be more interesting than Brazil's warm-up game against Serbia on Friday. Not only because it will pair Neymar & Co. against opposition a tad more threatening than Panama, but the friendly will take place in Sao Paulo, the same city in which the host nation will kick off the World Cup versus Croatia on June 12, and whose relationship with the Brazilian national team could not be more explosive.

While the tournament opener will take place at the new Arena Corinthians, Friday's game will be played at the Morumbi Stadium, a venue at which there has been no love lost between fans and the team in the past. 

The Paulista public is famous for giving the Selecao a hard time, and there was no better example than in the 1950 World Cup, when a raucous reaction to a 2-2 draw with Switzerland rattled the players so much that the team decided to simply play all their remaining games in Rio to avoid more boos. Especially after the result left the hosts in danger of being pipped by Yugoslavia for the only qualifying place in their group.

It would be unfair to single out Sao Paulo as the only place where Brazil might get booed; the Belo Horizonte crowd, for example, ironically applauded every Lionel Messi touch during a lackluster display by the Selecao in the 2010 World Cup qualifiers. But as the biggest and richest city in the country, Sao Paulo matters much more at every level. It is, after all, the place where competitive football was born in Brazil, with the formation of the first clubs and leagues.

Sao Paulo fans gather outside the Morumbi stadium.

Like everything else in Brazilian football, the relationship has strong political roots. A center of economic and political power since the 19th century, Sao Paulo had its influence bubble burst in 1930 with the military coup that put Getulio Vargas in power at the expense of elected Sao Paulo "chief," Julio Prestes. Dissatisfaction brewed, fuelled also by Vargas' decision to curtail autonomy from Brazilian states, and led to the 1932 insurrection that still is the closest Brazilians have ever been to a Civil War.

But even before that, the Selecao struggled with resentment. A political struggle for the reins of Brazilian football resulted in a Paulista boycott of the 1930 and 1934 World Cups: they refused to allow players plying their trade at clubs in the state to be available for both tournaments, which severely hampered the team's chances in both competitions by depriving them from the likes of Arthur Friedenreich. If the same had happened in 1958, there would have been no Pele at the World Cup in Sweden.

The Paulistas still see the Brazilian Football Confederation's geographical attachment to Rio de Janeiro as a sign of bias, and there is also some resentment to how the team became identified with the Maracana Stadium. But the Sao Paulo crowd takes no prisoners when voicing their lack of enjoyment of what the team is doing on the pitch.

Even the 1970 squad didn't escape their wrath and was jeered intensively during a friendly with Bulgaria before the World Cup in Mexico, and the boos didn't stop when Pele, rested during the first half, entered the pitch. In 1993, a 2-0 victory against Ecuador that started a turnaround in a troubled qualifying campaign was marred by angry exchanges -- captain Dunga celebrated a goal by "spitting venom" toward supporters. Seven years later, the disapproval was even more emblematic: Thousands of mini-Brazilian flags were thrown on the pitch during a 1-0 win over Colombia.

Dunga would again have his ears ringing in 2007, this time as manager when a 2-1 win over Uruguay, while hugely celebrated on the pitch by the players, was also obtained with boos as a soundtrack. And a good number of players in the current squad, Neymar included, experienced the Paulista treatment in 2012, when a 1-0 victory over South Africa in a rare home friendly made more headlines for the hostile reception. "It was my first game for the Selecao at home, and I must admit it was quite tough to handle at first," David Luiz says.

Scolari and Neymar will hope for a result vs. Serbia that pleases the demanding crowd.

It is no surprise that the subject became omnipresent in the Selecao media activities this week. Luiz Felipe Scolari, who coached Sao Paulo side Palmeiras for seven years over two spells, has already started the charm offensive by saying he is sure the public will understand the importance of the occasion, especially next Thursday's competitive match.

"It is time for us to change this history. Sao Paulo will have the honour of hosting a World Cup opening match, and I hope the Selecao will be welcomed by the supporters. We need them to overcome our difficulties," says Scolari, who will coach the national team in Sao Paulo for the first time in his career.