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SPORTS-BRAZIL: Fans Cope With Favourite Status, World Cup ‘Baggage’

Mario Osava

RIO DE JANEIRO, Jun 9 2006 (IPS) - Bad memories are putting a damper on Brazil’s enthusiasm for its national football team – enough to rattle fan confidence even though the team is the international favourite to win the FIFA World Cup tournament, which kicked off Friday in Germany.

Fear of another major failure has led to discouragement and confusion. The “Sarriá tragedy,” so named for the Spanish stadium where in 1982 the glory of an earlier generation of brilliant Brazilian footballers came crashing down at the feet of Italy’s team, has been burned into the memories of many.

Some are still traumatised by the hat-trick – three goals – pulled off by Paolo Rossi, nicknamed “The Mafioso” in reference to the fact that prior to that World Cup he had received a two-year suspension for game-fixing in his own country’s tournaments.

But the most hardcore veterans and history buffs point to other “reality checks,” such as the disaster in England, 1966, and the greatest Brazilian football tragedy ever – the 1950 World Cup loss, when Brazil, the undisputed favourite, fell to Uruguay in the final game, before the stunned gaze of 200,000 spectators in Rio de Janeiro’s Maracaná Stadium.

The favourites never win the World Cup, said Pelé, the ultimate football king in the eyes of Brazilian (and many other) fans, feeding the “pessimism that is borne of optimism,” in the recent words of an intellectual-turned-football commentator.

In fact, the best teams do often fail. Just take Hungary’s talented team in 1954 or the Netherlands in 1974, whose team fascinated the world with its “total football” strategy involving intense player mobility and no fixed positions.

Germany won in both cases, with teams that were less popular among diehard football lovers.

Brazilian fans are demanding connoisseurs who have been known to shrug off their team’s 1994 triumph in the United States because it involved “ugly football,” yet they tearfully mourn the losses of their favourite teams.

In 1950, Brazil was considered unbeatable, racking up scores like 7 to 1 against Sweden and 6 to 1 against Spain, and had behind it the powerful multitude of local fans who completely swamped the Maracaná, the largest stadium in the world at that time. But then came the “Maracanazo,” as the world refers to Uruguay’s unexpected victory.

The Brazilians were also the natural favourites in 1966, as they were heading into the tournament having won the 1958 and 1962 cups. They also had Pelé (born Edson Arante do Nascimento), who was 25 at the time and thus at the peak of his sports career.

That year 45 players made the team cut – an unusually high number justified with the rational that the country had enough talent for two or three national teams capable of taking home the Jules Rimet Cup, the trophy that FIFA (the International Football Federation) introduced at that time and that Brazil finally earned in 1970 when it scooped its third World Cup.

But back in England, Brazil was eliminated in the World Cup’s first round, defeated by the excellent Hungarian and Portuguese teams.

However, 1982 is the freshest wound. Brazil then had a brilliant crop of football players, including Zico, now coaching the Japanese team; Falcao, who earned the nickname “The King of Rome” playing in Italy; and Sócrates, called “The Doctor” as much for his football skill as for being a qualified medical doctor.

This team also delighted fans from every country, and turned its coach, Telé Santana, into a national “football-as-an-art” icon.

But 1982’s loss to an Italian team that put in a mediocre performance throughout the tournament, and the subsequent disaster in 1986 triggered a strategy overhaul. According to many football commentators, the new approach was based on uninspired defensive tactics. While it put the team back on top in the 1994 World Cup in the United States, fans were less than impressed.

Brazil generally began as somewhat of an underdog in the World Cup tournaments that it has won, and its most lauded teams – those of 1958 and 1970 – earned their place as favourites as the tournament progressed. This time they are heading into the tournament as ready-made favourites, having assembled the champion players from 2002’s World Cup in South Korea and Japan and the best players from Europe’s top teams.

It’s all a little too perfect. Tostao, one of the 1970 world champions, said he thinks this is the first time the team is leading off with a defined and controversy-free first string.

“Historically, the greatest teams gelled during the Cup itself, under adversity and by solving problems,” he wrote in one of his columns, published in the major local dailies.

Football is more at the mercy of “rain and thunderstorms” than any other team sport, as Armando Nogueira, a veteran reporter who has chronicled sports since the 1950 “Maracanazo,” likes to say.

Unknown factors and bad luck make it nigh on impossible to predict the winner. Coaches and realistic fans recognise that the status of favourite is a burden, discouraging even the most optimistic.

A sense of superiority can lead a team to let down its guard and relax just when energy, concentration and a fighting spirit are needed most, as evidenced with Uruguay in 1950 and in all World Cups won by Germany.

Thus, mixed feelings of anxiety and worry will eat away at Brazilians until their team takes the field next Tuesday, and will stay with them until the final second, whether it all ends in victory or a new “tragedy.” The defeat of a favourite weighs much heavier than the failures of those who “have nothing to lose.”

At the FIFA World Cup inauguration, the presence of Alcides Edgardo Ghiggia, responsible for scoring the second Uruguayan goal that brought the entire Brazilian nation to tears in 1950, seemed like one more bad omen – even considering that the group of 169 invited former world champions was dominated by Pelé’s countrymen.

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