Brazilian soccer fans fear home team victory in World Cup is a long shot
RIO DE JANEIRO -- For Juliana Brandão, soccer is everything. A sales clerk at a shop selling sporting apparel, Brandão was raised to be a diehard supporter of Fluminense, one of Rio’s four major club teams.
Eleven tattoos, each glorifying her team, adorn her body, and she is effusive as she recounts its past feats.
But when the conversation turns to the coming 2014 World Cup tournament to be held in Brazil, her mood darkens. "Disaster," she says with certainty, referring to the prospects of the national team. "We will fail."
Like many Brazilians, Brandão is deeply ambivalent about her country hosting the world's most widely viewed sporting event two years from now.
To be sure, the World Cup will give this emerging economic giant the opportunity to showcase its booming cities and magnificent stadiums, as well as show off the flamboyant brand of soccer that has made Brazil the cradle of so many soccer superstars.
But not so deep beneath the surface are lingering memories of the great national nightmare of 1950, the last and only other time Brazil hosted the cup. A heavily favored Brazilian team was upset in the final by unheralded Uruguay, and to this day, Brazilians still speak of that game in hushed tones that suggest a national tragedy.
“There is an expectation of success here,” says Julio Moreira, who, like Brandão, has little hope that the national team will avert humiliation. "It’s better for the national team to lose early than to make it to the final and be second.”
Moreira, a graphic designer in his mid-thirties, is a typical Brazilian fan. A passionate supporter of Vasco de Gama, another of the city's four major teams, he lists the club as his religion on his personal Facebook page. Once he sets foot in Vasco’s stadium, he transforms from a mild-mannered family man into something quite different. Screaming at referees with impunity, Moreira has no second thoughts about telling an official where he can put a bad call.
There are a surprising number of fans on the streets of Rio and in its stadiums who, like Moriera, are convinced that their team is doomed.
Sergio Araujo, a taxi driver who also supports Vasco de Gama, has the club’s insignia plastered all around his vehicle. He finds it hard to contain his pride when the name of Juninho, one of Vasco’s legendary players, comes up in conversation. But when the subject of the national team is broached, he, too, delivers a damning assessment.
“No good,” he says, giving an emphatic thumbs-down. “We are no good.”
It isn’t just average Cariocas, as natives of this city are known, who expect the team to underperform.
Romario, Brazil’s second all-time leading scorer after the legendary Pelé, had this to say about the team’s prospects in a recent interview with Rio’s O Dia daily:
"If the World Cup was today, we would be eliminated in the first stage."
Since FIFA’s modern ranking system began in 1993, Brazil’s usual position has been among the top teams in the world. Today, they sit uncomfortably in sixth place, a reflection of an unconvincing string of recent results.
Brazil finished eighth at the team’s last major tournament, the 2011 Copa América. In April, Jose Maria Marin, President of Brazil’s Soccer Federation, hinted that only a gold medal in the 2012 London Olympics will suffice if the head coach, Mano Menezes, is to keep his job.
Tim Vickery, a soccer writer and commentator for the BBC and a leading authority on South American soccer, is not surprised that Brazilians feel deeply torn as preparations get under way for hosting the cup.
“When the national team loses, it feels like a death in the family,” says Vickery, a commentator on SporTV, Brazil's equivalent of ESPN. “Since 1950, the demands [on the team] have increased. Now, the population is 200 million, not 50 million. With the 24/7 media, there’s no escape.”
For Brazil’s millions of passionate fans, there are still powerful reasons for hope -- most prominently in the person of Neymar, the precocious 20-year-old crowned as Pelé’s successor by none other than the soccer great himself.
Despite a lack of international experience, Neymar is expected to lead the team in 2014, and Vickery believes that other young stars may emerge by then to help him out. After all, Pelé was only 17 when he carried Brazil to victory in the 1958 World Cup.
“Brazil has an unrivaled capacity for producing quality players in an instant,” says Vickery.
And, Vickery notes, remarks of the doomsayers like Brandão and Araujo should not be taken too seriously, as Brazilian fans are notoriously hard to please.
“They’re terrible, really awful supporters," he says. "This is a country of low self-esteem where victory is hugely important … when a team or player performs below expectations, they cut him off. ‘This person doesn’t represent me,’ they say.”
Denys, a tattoo artist who, like many Brazilian athletes and celebrities, uses one name only, works at Banzai Ipanema, a studio just blocks from Rio’s famous Ipanema beach. From personal experience, he can attest to the passionate connection Brazilians feel with their soccer teams.
Denys says that fans of Flamengo, Rio’s most popular club, always want to make sure he doesn't support a rival team before they let him work on their bodies, and he’s happy to advertise that he's had the privilege of tattooing Flamengo’s captain, Fabio Luciano.
Although he admits he doesn’t follow the game religiously, Denys says he has a bad feeling about the 2014 games. The players, he said, do not have a strong enough work ethic.
“No one works hard here,” he says with a wry smile. “It’s why soccer is so popular.”
Soccer-themed tattoos, like Brandão's, are common around Rio, but most Cariocas seem to more inclined to decorate their bodies with art that pays tribute to their favorite club rather than the national team. Antonio, another tattoo artist working near Ipanema, offers his explanation for this preference.
“The [national team] players think only of money and themselves, rather than soccer,” he says. “They aren’t going to do well – they’re too technically weak.”
Brandão says the problem is that emerging soccer talents in Brazil are getting overlooked.
“A lot of the good players aren’t getting called up to the national team,” she says. “No one wants to see Ronaldinho anymore, but the good players lack experience.”
Ronaldinho, one of Brazil’s waning soccer legends, has played 94 games for Brazil’s national team since 1999 but is now 32 years old.
“He’s getting old and lazy,” says Moreira. “The coach should give someone else a chance.”