Karl Marx could have been writing about Brazil's World Cup prospects when he noted that people make their own history, but always under circumstances inherited from the past: "The tradition of all dead generations," he wrote, "weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living."
Exorcising an inherited nightmare could be the most important challenge facing the hosts of the 2014 tournament. Forget about Neymar’s dazzling offensive runs or the security offered by defensive pillar Thiago Silva; the key figure in Brazil’s national squad may well be Regina Brandao, the team’s psychologist.
With great expectations comes extreme pressure, and Brazil’s players start every game under the weight of a the host nation’s expectation that they will raise the World Cup trophy on July 13 at Rio de Janeiro’s Maracanã Stadium.
That same arena, though, is the site of Brazil’s most traumatic football “tragedy.” In 1950, the country proudly hosted the first Cup in 12 years, as World War II had cancelled two successive tournaments. The Cup provided a great sense of communal pride and acceptance on the world stage, and Brazil was widely expected to be crowned champion.
But a late goal by Alcides Ghiggia – remembered in Brazil as an unforgivable error by goalkeeper Moacir Barbosa -- gave tiny neighbor Uruguay the title. That blow, known throughout the football world as the Maracanãzo, has haunted the Brazilian psyche ever since.
“That pressure exists,” Silva, Brazil’s 29-year-old captain, said recently. “People talk a lot about the 1950 World Cup.” Fellow national team defender David Luiz also weighed in last week: “The World Cup of 1950 left its mark in Brazil,” he said. “Brazil still talks about it today.
The Maracanãzo aside, this year’s squad faces an added psychological burden. Social unrest has plagued Brazil in the month’s leading up to today’s opening match. A large sector of Brazilian society is furious that Dilma Rouseff’s government has spent $11 billion on building World Cup infrastructure in a country with enormous income disparity and high levels of poverty – and where the education and healthcare systems need a major overhaul.
Thus, a new “tragedy” in the form of Brazil’s early elimination from the tournament would only add to the growing skepticism of investing billions on the World Cup. It would also likely escalate protests, say political scientists. National team coach Felipe Scolari could not have been more succinct when asked recently about whether Brazil’s social upheaval could weigh on his team’s psyche. “It can – a lot,” he said, adding that a significant aspect of his team’s training will focus on a psychological front.
They will also have to contend with a growing number of Brazilian football fans who are openly rooting against their team, as tensions boil over the high cost of hosting the tournament. An early exit from the World Cup, they argue, will help refocus Brazil on more pressing needs.
“I and many people I know are rooting for Brazil to lose early, though not everyone is open about it,” Edson Alves, a chemist and lifelong soccer fan, told Reuters last week. “It’s sad, but right now I’m thinking more about Brazil the country and not Brazil the soccer team.”