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After the friendly last week against Panama, a Brazilian TV reporter had only one thing on his mind. And there was only one player he wanted to talk to about it. “The pressure, Neymar, how are you dealing with all the pressure?” he asked when his target finally appeared.
Neymar shrugged, his eyes flicking from side to side in that now familiar street urchin, Artful Dodger way. “Why should I worry about pressure?” he grinned. “Being here is a dream come true. I’m going to enjoy myself.”
It was a typically carefree answer from a player who seems to take everything in his stride, from making his Santos debut at 17 to his big money move to Barcelona just over a year ago. Sometimes it is hard to remember that Neymar is 22.
Yet as soon as tomorrow – in the Cup’s opening match against Croatia – he will need all the happy-go-lucky spirit he can muster. It is doubtful that a team has ever been under quite as much pressure to win the World Cup as Brazil will be this summer. Firstly there is the expectation that comes with being the most successful team in the history of international football. It is difficult to turn on the TV or walk down the street here without seeing the slogans “Rumo A Hexa” or “On the Way to Number Six” (a reference to the fact that victory this summer would be the country’s sixth world title).
Brazil are perhaps the only country that regularly expect, rather than hope, to win the World Cup, and it has already been 12 years since the Seleção’s last title in 2002. Other than the harrowing 24-year gap between the world titles of 1970 and 1994, it is the longest Brazil has gone without a World Cup win since the country’s first Mundial triumph in 1958.
Then there is the added pressure of playing at home. There will be 60 000 or more fans glued to Brazil’s every move at each game and close on 200 million watching on TV. But such passionate support has a negative side. Brazilian fans are notoriously impatient – the team were booed off after a goalless first half in last Friday’s friendly against Serbia in São Paulo – and if things do not go well, will turn on their team.
There is also the political climate that surrounds this World Cup. Broken infrastructure promises, the cost of stadium building and the botched preparations for the event have made the World Cup toxic for a large number of Brazilians.
With presidential elections looming in October, the chaos that surrounds the event has become a symbol for the incompetence of the country’s politicians and administrators. The prospect of an early exit by the hosts, and watching rivals such as Argentina or Spain enjoy the fruits of all the money, could see the mood in Brazil turn ugly.
Anthropologist and writer Roberto DaMatta believes that the pressure on the players will be enormous as they will carry the hopes and expectations of their countrymen and women on their backs. “Football has become a symbol for the day-to-day conflicts that Brazilians face in their lives,” he said in an interview.
There is another reason why Brazil and Neymar will be under such tremendous pressure. Due to a mixture of the country’s complex colonial history, seemingly never-ending political shadiness and perennially untapped potential, Brazil has always struggled with issues of self-esteem – the “mongrel complex” as playwright Nelson Rodrigues described it.
Not everything will be down to Neymar. The skilful Oscar remains the hub through which the majority of the team’s passes flow, while Hulk provides muscle down the right and striker Fred lurks with menace. Scolari has also said that Chelsea man Willian’s performances in training have given him a “nice headache”. Yet ultimately it is the Barcelona forward, who will be expected to supply the magic.
Neymar, who will take the No 10 shirt previously worn by the likes of Pele, Rivelino, Zico and Rivaldo, believes he is ready. “I’ve been under pressure since I was a kid. I’m prepared,” he said. The World Cup dreams of 200 million people rest on his skinny shoulders. – The Independent on Sunday