World Cup: Pressure starts to tell on Brazil

The cracks are beginning to show for Neymar and Scolari after the pressure of the penalty shoot-out. Picture:AFP/Getty
The cracks are beginning to show for Neymar and Scolari after the pressure of the penalty shoot-out. Picture:AFP/Getty
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The headline on the front page of ­Estado de Minas yesterday morning expressed how a waking nation felt: Ufa! The word is the Brazilian-Portuguese equivalent of ‘Phew!’ But at the bottom of the page it was possible to detect the fears that continue to occupy a dark ­corner of the Brazilian psyche.

“Mas…” the paper warned, next to a photograph of Colombia’s James Rodriguez. This translates as “but…”, in the sense that something bodes ill. The emerging young star of this tournament is captured blowing a kiss to the crowd after scoring one of his two goals at the Maracana stadium on Saturday night, as though without a care in the world in this high-pressure ­environment.

Contrast this with those playing for the other team in yellow.

Things are rather less mellow in their camp. Compare the smooth ease with which Rodriguez carried out his ­mission against Uruguay on Saturday with the images splashed across newspapers around the world yesterday of Brazil players lying on the turf with tears of relief spilling from their eyes after a truly epic last-16 clash with Chile.

They looked wrung-out, emotionally wrecked. And we are still just under a fortnight away from the final.

Or, as Brazil manager Luiz Felipe 
Scolari put it on Saturday, still three steps from heaven. Brazil have merely negotiated a way into the last eight via penalties and this is how it feels already. “Dia de ­Agonia,” was another headline in the same paper: Day of Agony.

There is nothing wrong in giving an outlet to the pent-up emotion that those not performing with the hopes of a nation on their shoulders can never truly understand. But these players’ tears are evidence on which to base a suspicion that this is proving a draining experience for these men, and several are very young men, who are cast as the conductors through which so many people’s dreams are flowing.

As the dust was settling on Saturday evening in the foothills of Belo ­Horizonte, so too was composure ­beginning to return, and the ability to assess the situation with a cooler eye.

Thoughts began to arrange themselves in coherent form again as the tears on the faces of several Brazilian players, including penalty saving hero Julio Cesar, dried and the emotion of an incredible afternoon subsided.

On the lips of many was the question: what does this near-calamity say about Brazil’s ability to keep their promise to emerge from all this as champions? Many are not confident.

This feeling that Brazil are being exhausted by the relentless drama ­surrounding their progress in this ­tournament was the subject of one question aimed at Scolari on Saturday night.

The manager acknowledged that this is a different experience for the hosts than it is for all other teams. “But when we win with this level of emotion, we can turn it into a positive thing,” he said, not completely convincingly. The manager did concede that “difficulties are escalating, we need to improve”.

Scolari also mentioned this pact the team have with Brazilians.

“The people are demanding it,” he said. “But that’s because we said we will win it. When you make a promise, you have to deliver.” It was a promise that was so nearly broken here in Belo ­Horizonte, a city considered to be the current football heartland of Brazil.

It would have been particularly ­dismaying had Brazil fallen so short here, where the support reached such a fierce intensity.

The truth of the matter remains that they were the width of a bar from being eliminated as Chile substitute 
Mauricio Pinilla, someone well remembered in Edinburgh, so nearly added to his legend as a Romeo figure by 
breaking 200 million hearts with one swish of his boot. On returning to 
Estadio Mineirao yesterday, it was a ­surprise to find the crossbar still intact. It had not been removed and mounted on a plinth in one of the local museums. Not yet, anyway.

In a land where football is a religion, this is where the altar currently is.

The two major teams in the city, Cruzeiro and Atletico Mineiro, are the respective league and Copa Libertadores champions. This is a city that knows its football, although you might have ­wondered about that when Fred was given a rapturous ovation as he ­departed after just over an hour of struggling to make a mark in the game.

The ­reaction from the stands is easier to comprehend when you consider he is from the region, started his career at America Mineiro, the third team in the city, before moving on to Cruzeiro.

Even given this local goodwill, these supporters will know, in their heart of hearts, that the likes of Fred, Jo and Hulk may not be good enough to inspire the team to glory on 13 July. They may not even be the answer to getting past ­Columbia, whose quality of wins so far in the tournament suggest they are ­operating with a momentum that is building well towards Friday’s appointment with the hosts in Fortaleza.

Oscar, another potential Brazil star, was quiet on Saturday and even Neymar himself faded badly, although a thigh injury he sustained in the first-half, when English referee Howard Webb stubbornly kept his cards in his ­pocket, accounted for the striker’s reduced ­effectiveness.

His appetite for the fray cannot be questioned, however, and neither can his nerve. Scolari used a nicely chosen image when asked about Neymar’s conversion of the vital fifth penalty on Saturday, describing his state of mind as being similar to “when he is playing a kick-about game with his friends in Santos”.

If only every Brazil player could ­perform as if they were playing on the beach in Santos. It is clear the relentless scrutiny is becoming wearying. Scolari made a request for the media to take yesterday off. “Please, because we are,” he urged.

The soundtrack to, well, life in Brazil at the moment is a song by the band Revelacao. It was recorded with some members of the team and is titled Ta 
Escrito – meaning “It is written”. Perhaps it truly is after Saturday’s momentous events, when Brazil seemed to be so blessed with fortune.

When Brazil teetered on the verge of going out against Chile, some were ­referencing the classic World Cup ­second round Espana 82 encounter with Italy, when the iconic team of Zico, Socrates and Falcao fell to a 3-2 defeat. Whether the current side could be described as having been robbed by ­destiny should they fail to get their clutches on the trophy is a rather more moot point.

If they had been eliminated on ­Saturday, it would have been a stretch to describe the event as “the day football died”, which is how the defeat to Italy 32 years ago this weekend is perceived by many in Brazil, and elsewhere.

Few here are referring to this Brazil team as World Cup winners-in-waiting, although clearly they want this to be the case. “Eu Acredito!” [I believe!] they chanted, mantra-like, at times during the match on Saturday when things were particularly perilous, and Chile were relishing taking advantage of all the tension in the air.

Many in Brazil feel that their ­potential might be truly unleashed in Russia in four years time, which isn’t ideal when it is this particular World Cup they are hosting.

To an almost pathological degree, they want to win it in here, in their own backyard.

But they remain haunted by the thought that it might not happen, that baby-faced assassins such as Rodriguez are waiting to mug them on one of their own street corners.