World Cup, Group A: Can Brazil exorcise its demons?


Brazil's team poses before an international friendly soccer match against Serbia in Morumbi stadium in Sao Paulo on June 6. (Paulo Whitaker/Reuters)

For months, Brazilians have endured headlines documenting the debacle that was their country's preparation for the World Cup. Infrastructure collapsed and workers perished. Even now, on the day the tournament begins, some stadiums aren't fully ready. Meanwhile, tens of thousands of Brazilians are likely to use the occasion to protest. About 160,000 police officers will be deployed to thwart the demonstrations, making this World Cup one of the most militarized in memory. According to a recent poll, about 61 percent of Brazilians think it was a bad idea to host the storied tournament.

One can imagine that the superstars who make up Brazil's highly favored national team, the Seleção, will be relieved to move beyond the controversy and the gloom and let their skills on the pitch finally do the talking. But there they face other troubles.

Ahead of the World Cup, they have been reminded over and over again about what happened the last time Brazil hosted the tournament. It was 1950, and 200,000 fans in Rio de Janeiro crammed into the new Maracana, the world's biggest stadium and a statement of Brazilian prowess, to watch Brazil play Uruguay in what was effectively the final (the structure of the competition then meant that Brazil only had to draw to clinch the trophy for the first time). But Uruguay famously pulled off a 2-1 victory that haunts Brazil to this day.

It's not easy for non-Brazilians, including this reporter, to understand the trauma left by that defeat. After all, in the following two decades, the country would win the World Cup three times, led by soccer legend Pelé. But the humbling Brazil received at home in 1950 was not just a loss in sporting terms — it was a blow to the national psyche and self-esteem. "We cannot repeat the national tragedy of 1950," Brazil's sports minister, Aldo Rebelo, said in 2012. "Brazilians felt defeated as a country."

This year's Brazilian team has to cope with the burden of having to finally put 1950 to rest. It has clearly taken a toll on the players, who have spoken cautiously about the pressure they're feeling. Brazil opens the tournament on Thursday against Croatia, a perennial overachiever in World Cup competition with genuine pedigree and talent. They won't be pushovers — nor will the other two teams in Group A, Mexico or Cameroon.

The Brazilian team has no choice but to live with its history. After 1950, it abandoned its white shirt for its now-iconic yellow and went on to win over the global imagination. Brian Phillips, writing for Grantland, sketches that glorious age:

The dizzying, dance-like style of Brazil’s soccer seemed like such a natural expression of Brazilian culture, almost an art form. Samba rhythms. Yellow shirts. Little kids dribbling barefoot through the favelas. The imagery seems clichéd now, but still: In its original form, it’s still powerful... Brazil arrived as a kind of sunburst of folk-football. It was like nothing else the world had ever seen.

The Brazilian team now, though, is different. Its style is tough and disciplined; its stars are more the manicured creations of soccer's corporate overlords than some echo of the vibrant Latin street. But a slip-up in the first round, as unthinkable as it may be, will wake the demons of seven decades past.

For complete World Cup coverage, The Washington Post's Soccer Insider has you covered.

Ishaan Tharoor writes about foreign affairs for The Washington Post. He previously was a senior editor at TIME, based first in Hong Kong and later in New York.
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