Inside Brazil's training centre
TERESOPOLIS, Brazil -- With the eyes of the world on Brazil and the country's expectant population demanding nothing less than a World Cup title, it is perhaps unsurprising that the national team have not chosen Rio's blue sky as the backdrop for their training camp.
Instead, the Seleção have been hiding from all the fuss in Teresópolis, located almost 60 miles from the sandy beaches of Rio de Janeiro. It looks and feels even more distant than that because the city is perched up in the Rio state Peak district, 870 meters above sea level. Yes, while many teams have been sweating under the sun, Neymar & Co. at times have resorted to wearing gloves and hats at the idyllic Granja Comary in Teresópolis, which has hosted the Seleção at various points over the past 27 years.
The different climate has led to questioning from both the national and international media as to why Brazil have removed themselves so much. Despite spending $7 million to turn their headquarters into a modern training centre, the Brazilian Football Confederation could surely have picked from the other cutting-edge installations made available for the 32 teams in the tournament. As a matter of fact, when building work was delayed, São Paulo FC's and Corinthians' training grounds, both near São Paulo, were lined up as replacements.
Former Brazilian football supremo Ricardo Teixeira had envisioned the construction of a state-of-the-art training camp at Barra da Tijuca, a Rio neighborhood that will host a number of events during the 2016 Summer Olympics. The plans, however, fell into some kind of vortex after Teixeira resigned two years ago amid accusations of impropriety.
Physicians and fitness experts interviewed by Brazilan outlets have criticized the decision to make the Seleção train in conditions they are unlikely to find anywhere else in this tournament and suggested the players could be more exposed to colds given the differences in temperatures.
So far, that has not happened. So far, manager Luiz Felipe Scolari feels vindicated in his decision to try to isolate his players as much as he can from World Cup fever.
That's because Teresópolis is not the easiest of places to access. The road from Rio narrows up at the beginning of the Serra dos Órgãos mountain range ascent, and few buses can turn in both directions. Indeed, it is only thanks to the massive help of four different police forces that the Seleção bus can challenge the laws of physics and get safe passage to Rio de Janeiro's international airport for their journeys around the country that have seen them play in São Paulo, Fortaleza (twice), Brasilia and Belo Horizonte.
The remote location doesn't deter some fans, but even then, supporters cannot get that close to the players, apart from the few who manage to find space near the fences. During most of their time in Teresópolis, the Seleção hide in a bunkerlike installation at the top of another hill. Mere mortals have to resort to wave at the bus or at the players from a distance, unless you get a visitor's pass to watch some training sessions.
These passes have also been drip-fed, and recipients have to spend most of their time under a marquee. There is a daily news conference but no guarantee that waiting will produce anyone from a star player like Neymar to one of the reserve goalkeepers.
"Big Phil" is taking a page out of Aimé Jacquet's book. In 1998, the then-France manager sought to remove Les Bleus from the incredible excitement generated by the country's hosting of the World Cup as a crucial part of a plan to protect Zinedine Zidane & Co.
"We were basically locked in a castle outside Paris and had very few contact with the outside world. That protected us from what could be very distracting to the players," said Bixente Lizarazu, France's starting left-back. While Scolari could not find a castle, he had his own fortress near the iconic "God's Finger Mountain," which has a view of a lake.
Unlike Jacquet, however, Scolari did not simply lock the Seleção there. The players have been allowed visits -- Neymar's son arrived one day in a helicopter. There have even been a couple of days off as a means to relieve a pressure to win for Brazil, which, along with Spain, are the only major football nations yet to win the World Cup on home soil.
The Seleção's presence is obviously big news for the town of Teresópolis, too. Thanks to the hordes of journalists following the team, hotel occupancy has increased 30 percent in comparison to last year, and local businesses report a 20 percent increase in turnover. A city of 160,000 inhabitants, Teresópolis has won over 1,500 new residents while the Seleção are around.
According to local authorities, tourists could spend over $30 million at the World Cup. That means a lot for a city that three years ago was severely hit by storms and a landslide that flattened large areas and killed 400 people. In fact, 50 people affected by the tragedy visited Granja Comary last week to meet the players.
As the Seleção bus left for Rio on Wednesday, people in Teresópolis were cheering the team not only on sporting grounds. If Brazil lose to Colombia on Friday, the players will not return.
Fernando Duarte is a U.K.-based Brazilian football expert who has reported on the Selecao for over a decade. Follow him on Twitter @Fernando_Duarte.