Brazil's weight of expectation
As with any sporting competition, an essential, terrible truth lies at the heart of the World Cup -- that come the evening of July 13 only one team will be left standing, while for the other 31, only aching disappointment will remain. For Brazil, being part of that forlorn group is unthinkable. Failure -- and anything other than lifting the trophy will be deemed such -- is unimaginable. After the tragic wounding of the talismanic Neymar last Friday afternoon, and with the imposing bulk of Germany looming on the horizon, however, that failure suddenly looks a lot more possible than it did a week ago.
The high expectations create immense pressure. As does playing at home in front of 200 million fans, whether they have elbowed their way into the stadium or are watching on TV. As do the glorious footballing ghosts of the past, alive or dead, watching on at this World Cup feast -- from Pelé to Garrincha to Tostão to Rivellino and on and on. The collective weight of five World Cups is a heavy burden to carry.
Brazil vs. Germany: Tuesday, 4 ET, 9 BST (ESPN and WatchESPN)
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Some saw a slight improvement against Colombia, but it is fair to say that the Seleção has so far lurched from one unconvincing performance to another -- which suggests that Brazil is not dealing with the pressure at all well. Perhaps Luiz Felipe Scolari is to blame for calling up only six players with World Cup experience to his 23-man finals squad. Maybe fingers should be pointed at captain Thiago Silva, who cried before the opening game against Croatia and asked both "God and Felipão" to spare him from penalty-taking duty in the nerve-shredding shootout victory over Chile. Perhaps it is even down to the Brazilian fans, who in a fervour of patriotism and desire, belt out an extended a capella version of the national anthem before every game that would reduce all but the stoniest-hearted of souls to tears.
Whatever the reason, the Brazilian players have looked close to their emotional limit throughout the tournament. Determination and drive (raça as it's known here) is one thing. Nerves and emotions this close to the surface, however, is something else entirely.
"It's a fine line, when you're on a knife edge like the players are," psychologist Katia Rubio told the Folha de São Paulo newspaper recently. "You need to take the field alert and ready, with your nerves under control. It doesn't seem like that is happening." And things have likely gotten worse following Neymar's injury. Despite brave proclamations from the likes of Silva saying that the team are going to win the hexa (a sixth World Cup title) for their fallen comrade, Brazil's coaches are reportedly concerned about the players' shocked response to the news that their teammate will miss the rest of the tournament.
One man who would doubtless have an opinion on the subject, were he still around, is the renowned Brazilian sportswriter and playwright Nelson Rodrigues. Nelson was the brother of Mario Rodrigues Filho, described by historian David Goldblatt in his book "Futebol Nation" as "Brazil's most influential football writer from the 1930s to the 1950s." Mario was the owner of the influential Jornal dos Sports newspaper, which played a large part in the development of the modern Brazilian game, organising tournaments and torcida organizada ("organised fan club") competitions. The paper also supported the campaign to build the giant, if costly, Maracanã in time for the 1950 World Cup. As a result the stadium -- Estádio Jornalista Mário Filho -- bears his name.
In April 1956, Nelson Rodrigues published an article in the Manchete Esportiva magazine titled "Freud in Football." The piece recalled two recent calamitous Brazilian defeats -- the "Maracanaço" loss to Uruguay in the final game of the 1950 World Cup at the Maracanã, and the 4-2 reverse against Hungary in the quarterfinals of the 1954 tournament in Switzerland.
"Brazilian football has everything except a psychoanalyst," Rodrigues wrote. "Nobody cares about our interior health, the delicate emotional balance of the footballer ... perhaps it's time to admit that each of our star players has a soul. It may be perishable and fragile, but it is incontestably present."
"There is no specialist to protect the excruciating psychological fragility of our teams," he continued. "As a result, the Brazilian footballer is always in crisis. For us, football is not explained by the technical or the tactical, but in purely emotional terms. All you have to do is remember the game against Hungary ... before the game, we had already lost ... what wins or loses games is the soul."
Things have changed, of course. Nowadays the Seleção even has its own psychologist, Regina Brandão, who, if the jitteriness the squad is currently displaying is anything to go by, certainly has her work cut out. "It's a daily task," Brandão told the official CBF (the Brazilian FA) TV channel. "I talk to the players on Whatsapp and by email, so I'm always connected to them." It is unlikely that such technological fripperies would carry much weight with Rodrigues, who once wrote that "if the videotape shows it's a penalty then all the worse for the videotape. The videotape is stupid."
Scolari has done an admirable job of bulletproofing his players from criticism, recently asking journalists if "all they were going to do was criticise Fred." He and technical director Carlos Alberto Parreira have created a kind of siege mentality around the camp, with both suggesting the existence of a mysterious conspiracy against Brazil's bid for the title in recent days. "I'm the psychologist here," said Scolari in April, but nobody can be sure if such strategies create a sense of team spirit, or simply crank up the pressure on the players even further.
Again, Rodrigues would likely have remained nonplussed by the manager's wiles. "So I ask, what does a football coach know about the soul? He's not a psychologist, or a psychoanalyst, or even a priest. Freud would have been more use in the tunnel before the Uruguay game than [football coaches] Flávio Costa, Zezé Moreira or Martim Francisco," he continued in "Freud in Football."
The "Analyze This" climate surrounding the Seleção continued last week when a pre-injury Neymar was asked about Dr. Brandão's work with the team. "I'm enjoying it ... maybe it would even be a good idea for you journalists too. It might do you good!" he joked. Not everyone was impressed. "And maybe the players could win the ball a bit more often," growled ESPN Brasil presenter Antero Greco in response. Rodrigues would have had a better answer -- "The adult does not exist. The man is a perennial boy," he once wrote.
There was more "Fun with Freud" elsewhere before the Colombia game. "Not Fred, Freud!" chuckled the Tutty Vasques column in the Estadão newspaper. "Fred shaved off his moustache after a private session with the team psychologist. Only Freud can explain it!"
Colombia may have been put to the sword, but the loss of Neymar to injury and Thiago Silva to suspension made it a pyrrhic victory. This Tuesday at the Mineirão in Belo Horizonte against Germany, the pressure will be wound tighter than ever before. Brazil is likely to need all the help it can get -- be it in the shape of Freud, psychology sessions, or the teachings of Rodrigues himself -- to make it through.
James Young writes about Brazil and its football. His collection of short stories and blog writings, "A Beer Before Lunch," is available on Amazon.