RIO DE JANEIRO — Juliana Brandao was raised a die-hard soccer fan. Eleven tattoos glorifying Fluminense, a club team in Rio de Janeiro, adorn her body. But when she was asked about the prospects for Brazil’s proud national team at the 2014 World Cup to be held in Rio, her mood darkened.
“Disaster,” the salesclerk said, with certainty. “We will fail.”
Like many Brazilians, Brandao is deeply ambivalent about her country hosting the world’s most widely viewed sporting event. While the World Cup will give the emerging economic giant the opportunity to showcase its booming cities and magnificent stadiums – as well as its flamboyant brand of soccer, which has produced world superstars – memories linger of 1950, the only other time Brazil hosted the cup.
Unheralded Uruguay upset a heavily favored Brazilian team in the final. To this day, Brazilians still speak of that game in hushed tones that suggest a national tragedy.
“There is an expectation of success here,” said soccer fan Julio Moreira, who also 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.”
It isn’t just average Cariocas, as Rio natives are known, who expect the team to under-perform. Romario – Brazil’s second all-time leading scorer, after the legendary Pele – had this to say about the team’s prospects in a recent interview with Rio’s daily newspaper O Dia: “If the World Cup was today, we would be eliminated in the first stage.”
Since the modern ranking system by FIFA, the international body that governs soccer, began in 1993, Brazil had spent long stretches in first place, with an average position of 1.9. Today, it sits uncomfortably in 11th place – outside the top 10 for the very first time – a reflection of an unconvincing string of recent results. (The U.S. is 36th.)
Brazil finished eighth at its last major tournament, the 2011 Copa America, a tournament of South American teams. In April, Jose Maria Marin, the president of Brazil’s soccer federation, hinted that only a gold medal at the Olympics this summer in London will suffice if the head coach, Mano Menezes, is to keep his job.
More recently, Brazil routed the U.S. national team 4-1 in a friendly match in May but then was dominated by Mexico in a 2-0 loss a few days later.
Tim Vickery, a soccer writer and commentator for the BBC and a leading authority on South American soccer, isn’t surprised that Brazilians feel torn.
“When the national team loses, it feels like a death in the family,” Vickery said. “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 Pele’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. Vickery thinks that other young stars could emerge by then to help him out.
“Brazil has an unrivaled capacity for producing quality players in an instant,” Vickery said.
Vickery added that remarks from doomsayers such as Brandao and Moreira shouldn’t be taken too seriously, as Brazilian fans are notoriously hard to please.
“They’re terrible, really awful supporters,” he said. “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.”
Soccer-themed tattoos such as Brandao’s are common around Rio, but most Cariocas seem more inclined to decorate their bodies with art that pays tribute to their favorite clubs rather than the national team. Antonio, a tattoo artist working near Rio’s Ipanema beach, who like many Brazilians uses only one name, had an explanation for this preference.
National team players, he said, “think only of money and themselves, rather than soccer. They aren’t going to do well: They’re too technically weak.”
Brandao said the problem was that emerging soccer talents in Brazil were getting overlooked.
“A lot of the good players aren’t getting called up to the national team,” she said. “No one wants to see Ronaldinho anymore, but the good players lack experience.”
She was referring to one of Brazil’s waning soccer legends, who’s played 94 games for the national team since 1999 but is now 32 years old.
“He’s getting old and lazy,” Moreira said. “The coach should give someone else a chance.”