Linda Robertson: Brazil badly needs World Cup success on field – and as host

The last time Brazil was host of the World Cup, it was 1950, and the home team lost to Uruguay in the championship match. Devastation to the national psyche was so extreme that suicides were reported in the wake of the game, including two at the Maracana stadium.

That unthinkable finish haunts Brazil to this day. Whether the advantage of playing on its own rich soil outweighs the pressure of playing in front of fans who give their soul to the Selecao will be a pivotal factor in Brazil’s fate.

No host side has had more at stake than Brazil in 2014. Not only is Brazil a favorite to win a historic sixth Cup, but success in the world’s most popular sporting event could validate the billions spent to stage it. Brazil plays Croatia in the tournament opener June 12 in Sao Paulo.

Brazilians like to say they live in “the football country.” Nowhere is soccer as identity expressed with more exuberance and passion than in Brazil. The game was born in England but has become so closely associated with South America’s most populous nation that many fans around the world consider the beloved yellow jersey No. 1 in their hearts.

Maybe it’s the tradition of Brazilians plying futebol-arte, or art-football. Maybe it’s the way Brazil’s mix of races and spectrum of skin colors is reflected in the unity of the roster. Maybe it’s the hip-swinging, flamboyant, musical style that brings to mind a samba performance during Carnival.

Or maybe it’s simply the names and nicknames — Pelé, Vava, Garrincha, Socrates, Dunga, Romario, Ronaldo, Ronaldinho, Fred, Neymar — that make it seem as if superstars are friends or neighbors.

One could argue there is no better place for the World Cup than in 12 cities of the planet’s fifth-largest country, stretching from the Amazon jungle to the beaches of Ipanema.

It could also turn out to be the most chaotic with its unfinished stadiums and airports, infamous street crime and legendary traffic jams. Mass protests over what much of the populace considers misplaced priorities are expected. Residents of Rio de Janeiro — where the final will be held July 13 — see the glory of their seaside city and the brutal economic reality, and find it hard to reconcile the money spent on preparations versus deteriorating conditions in hillside favelas.

Passion and poverty are sure to be the backdrop to Copa 2014 as much as TV camera shots of Sugarloaf Mountain.

“Brazil is the country where funeral directors offer coffins with club crests, where offshore oil rigs are equipped with five-a-side pitches and where a football club can get you elected to parliament,” Alex Bellos writes in Futebol: Soccer the Brazilian Way.

Brazil’s national team, which won the Cup in 1958, 1962, 1970, 1994 and 2002, always faces the struggle of living up to expectations. In 1998, pressure was so great to repeat that Ronaldo had a mysterious fit or mental breakdown prior to the final, which Brazil lost to France, 3-0. A congressional inquiry ensued.

The 1970 team, which defeated Italy 4-1 in Mexico, played with such grace that it remains the peak of comparison 44 years later.

“In a way, Brazil ruined it for all of us,” Nick Hornby wrote. “They had revealed a kind of Platonic ideal that nobody, not even the Brazilians, would ever be able to find again.”

Coach Luiz Felipe Scolari, who led Brazil to the Cup title in 2002, believes his team will be up to the task if it concentrates on now and ignores ruminations about the past.

Brazil gained confidence and cohesion in defeating Japan, Mexico, Italy and Uruguay before dismantling Spain 3-0 in last year’s Confederations Cup — a crucial turning point for an inexperienced squad.

Brazil will face Croatia, Cameroon and Mexico in Group A, with a possible second-round matchup against Spain, Chile or the Netherlands.

Felipao, or “Big Phil’s” team, might not play the beautiful game as beautifully as Brazil has in past incarnations, but Neymar is certain to be one of the stars of the tournament and on the short list for the Golden Boot award. The 22-year-old forward improved during his first season at Barcelona after scoring four goals during last summer’s Confederations Cup. He will be joined up front by Fred and Hulk.

Scolari has lots of options at midfield, with Ramires, Oscar and Willian providing creativity, and Fernandinho adding grit. Paulinho is dangerous in his forays. Luiz Gustavo is often deployed as a sweeper.

On defense, goalkeeper Julio Cesar is showing his age, as is center back Thiago Silva, but what differentiates this team is its ability to clamp down and do the dirty work. Other anchors are David Luiz and Dante, and fullbacks Dani Alves and Marcelo are two-way players.

The host country won’t be satisfied with anything less than a sixth trophy inside Maracana. Brazil is the world’s team, too. What the players in yellow, blue and green do with such support and scrutiny, and with the ball, could make this a World Cup like no other.

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