Brazil are under more pressure than any side in World Cup history

Robert Cianflone

Pressure is one of the great unknowables of football. Some players thrive under it, using the enormity of the task before them to spur them on. Others melt into tiny insignificant puddles. It can come from anywhere: from the enormity of any given game; from the personal glories at stake; from the expectation; from the hype; from the failures that have gone before. Even from those unlit corners of the mind that persist in making little to no sense, no matter how much psychology is heaped upon them.

Not all pressures are created equal, of course, and not all have equal effects. But if we assume for the moment that some situations are naturally more pressurised than others — that a penalty shoot-out in a World Cup semi-final is, for example, generally more pressurised than one in training — then it's perhaps fair to suggest the following. Leaving aside those cold places in history where fascism, sport and war have coincided, when people have played football in the fear that the wrong result could cost them their lives, this Brazil side that will compete for the 2014 World Cup are about to embark on the most pressurised footballing campaign of all time.

After all, Brazil start with a pretty high bar: they're Brazil. This is the country, after all, where cliché insists that every child spends their day dribbling an improvised ball around the streets of the favelas, and every night dreaming of dribbling around the grass of the Maracanã, yellow shirt on their back. Where football transcends everything else; where, as Eduardo Galeano once wrote: "there are towns and villages that have no church, but not a one lacks a soccer field". Even if only half of the popular myth is true, it's plenty to be getting on with.

This Brazil team, needless to say, isn't just an ordinary Brazil team before an ordinary match; it's a Brazil team before the World Cup. Arguments about the greatest international team ever are unlikely to be resolved to anybody's great satisfaction. But it's pretty unarguable that Brazil are the greatest World Cup team of all-time. The only team to appear at every tournament; the only team to win five of the things. Ronaldo, Ronaldinho and Rivaldo. Romario and Bebeto. Socrates, Zico and Rivelino. Jairzinho, Garrincha and Carlos Alberto. Didi and Vavá. And Pelé, always Pelé: shooting from the halfway line; embracing Bobby Moore; flipping the ball over a confused Swede; lifting the trophy once, twice, three times; smiling that beautiful, beatific smile.

There is no other country with a list of names so resonant; there is no nation as fundamentally entwined with the world's largest sporting event. Nike know this, which is why they pay so much for the privilege of making their shirts. FIFA know this, which is why Pelé spends so much time smiling for the cameras and pressing flesh. And Brazil's players cannot help but know it. All great footballing nations measure themselves against those that have come before, and Brazil's World Cup shadows are longest.

But on top of all that stuff, which comes around every four years, they're Brazil in the World Cup in Brazil. As (the original, Brazilian) Ronaldo himself, no stranger to the debilitating effects that pressure can bring, has written, "This is the tournament we've all been waiting for. This is the tournament that has made us Brazilians who we are." Unfancied hosts can often ride a wave of pressure-free good feeling to a finish beyond their capacities; South Korea, unlikeliest of semi-finalists in 2002, are perhaps the best example here. Brazil, who are at worst second- or third-favourites for the tournament, have no such luxury.

There is the history to consider. Last the World Cup went to Brazil, the hosts only needed a draw in the final game against Uruguay to ensure the title. Before the game the players were handed watches engraved 'For the World Champions', a special victory samba had been commissioned, and the celebratory headlines had already been printed. But lose they did, a loss so traumatic and enduring that it has its own word, the Maracanazo. Brazilian playwright Nelson Rodrigues wrote that "Everywhere has its irremediable national catastrophe, something like a Hiroshima. Our catastrophe, our Hiroshima, was the defeat by Uruguay in 1950." With allowances for dramatic license, you take his point.

But perhaps even more pressing that the history is the present. Let's imagine what Sepp Blatter's ideal run-up to Brazil's World Cup might look like. Everything would be bathed in sunlight. Those children running around in the streets with footballs would doubtless crop up again; some teenagers would be devoting their time to spraying murals of Neymar on the wall. Some people would be dancing. Others would be sunbathing. The Nobel peace prize would glitter tantalisingly on the horizon ... a Pepsi advert, basically, except instead of selling fizzy pop they're all selling FIFA, then football, in that order. The Seppi Generation.

Whereas the reality has been more or less precisely the opposite. During the 2013 Confederations Cup, the rehearsal tournament for the World Cup itself, massed street protests broke out across Brazil. The underlying grievances were wider than football and the World Cup, arising from the frustrations and concerns of those left behind by Brazil's economic expansion. But the football was both a symbol and a catalyst — you are spending our money on this — and since then, as the protests have continued, as the costs of hosting the World Cup have become ever more stark, and as the Brazilian police have begun their incursions into the favelas of Rio de Janeiro, the link has become ever clearer.

The street art has been distinctly uncomplimentary: one wall shows a crying child, ribs poking through thin skin, unable to eat a football. Another shows a laughing Pelé, wearing a crown, waving a large bag of cash. As one of the coordinators of Brazil's Landless Workers Movement told the LA Times: "When the government told us we would host the World Cup, we hoped there would be improvements for us. But they aren't putting on a Cup for the people, they're putting on a Cup for the gringos." This being the modern world, there is a hashtag: #NãoVaiTerCopa. There Will Be No Cup.

Even Pelé, who has spent most of his post-football life carefully cultivating an image as the least controversial human being on the planet, has shifted his position. Where once he suggested blandly that protests might be appropriate after the World Cup, now he has acknowledged the people's cause:

It's clear that politically speaking, the money spent to build the stadiums was a lot, and in some cases was more than it should have been. Some of this money could have been invested in schools, in hospitals.... Brazil needs it. That's clear. On that point, I agree.

The protests, it seems likely, will continue throughout the tournament, a vibrant, dissatisfied, disruptive counterpoint to FIFA 's hopeful, hopeless slogan: All In One Rhythm. Which puts the players in a deeply peculiar position. In 2013 a number of high profile squad members, including David Luiz, Fred and Dani Alves, were quick to lend their support. "After seeing the people on the streets claiming for improvements, it makes me feel like joining them," said Zenit St Petersburg striker Hulk. "They are doing the right thing."

Since then, the protests have continued while the footballers got on with their careers and the World Cup has crept closer. And the problem is this. The players want to win because, well, that's who footballers are. They may also, some of them, want to win for the very people that are protesting, the ordinary Brazilians who, it seems safe to assume, would quite like to watch their football team lifting the World Cup. "The only way I can represent and defend the country is by playing football, and from now on I'll walk on the field inspired by this movement," said Barcelona's star forward Neymar.

Yet that is exactly what the targets of the protest — the Brazilian government and FIFA — want as well. Nothing reinforces the status quo like the sudden flowering of largely benign patriotism that follows sporting success. Mussolini knew it in 1938, and the Argentina military junta knew it in 1978; England went out of the 1970 World Cup, and days later the ruling Labour government surprisingly lost a general election. And nothing overshadows a complex story of widespread dissatisfaction, even an entirely justified one, like a huge national party. What are you all so angry about? We've won the World Cup! The gun-barrel gentrification of our cities can wait until tomorrow! Come and dance! Finding oneself at the nexus of such a peculiar contradiction would be, at the very least, a distraction.

So there are the pressures: Being Brazil, multiplied by being Brazil at the World Cup, multiplied again by being Brazil at the World Cup in Brazil, and multiplied a final time by the overbearing past and the febrile present. In March, Pele says Neymar could handle the pressure; more recently, he's decided that the Barcelona forward is bearing too much of the burden. Neymar, for his part, reckons he can ignore it, but David Luiz says it's giving him sleepless nights. Vicente del Bosque, coach of Spain, thinks that the pressure could "come come back to bite them," though he may have an ulterior motive.

The most striking thing about this Brazil squad is not its talent — which is on a par with the strongest of its rivals — but its competitive inexperience. They're not that young, but only 6 of the squad (and 3 of the likely starting line-up) have been to a World Cup before, and they've largely been playing friendlies for the last two years. They won the Confederations Cup in 2013, beating current World Cup holders Spain along they way, but they did so without ever going behind. Perhaps this will be a godsend: blithe spirits unfettered by previous failures, by the disappointing quarter-final exits of 2006 and 2010. Perhaps the guiding father figure of Luis Filipe Scolari, victorious coach in 2002, will be all the experience they need.

Perhaps. When it comes to this edition of Brazil, we know about their talent. We know they're good enough to play for Barcelona, for Chelsea, for Paris Saint-Germain and the rest. And we know they're resilient enough to cope with the pressures that come with those high-powered, high-expectancy roles. What we don't know — what we can't know — is whether they'll be able to cope under pressures that no footballer has ever faced before. Whether those pressures can be alchemised into something fortifying, or whether the players will stutter, stumble, and find themselves completely overwhelmed by an unprecedented convergence of history, expectation and turmoil.

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