Just days before Brazil kicks off the World Cup against Croatia, warm-up matches and training sessions around the country reveal the two sides of Felipe Scolari and regional feelings about the team
June 3, 2014; Brazil v Panama; Goiânia, Brazil
Luiz Felipe Scolari is answering a question about Neymar. Scolari answers a lot of questions about Neymar. And about David Luiz, and Hulk, and all the other members of the Seleção. He also answers a lot of questions about pressure, and preparation, and a thousand other subjects connected with the most important, and least answerable, question: Will Brazil win its sixth World Cup this summer.
We are in the temporary press conference tent at the Serra Dourada stadium in the parched midwestern city of Goiânia. Scolari is happy. His team has just beaten Panama 4–0 in its penultimate friendly before the World Cup begins, and everyone is in a good mood. Playing in undemanding Goiânia is not like playing in other big Brazilian cities. While there are a few grumbles from the crowd during a sluggish start—a reminder, perhaps, of what might happen during the World Cup if things don’t go well for the home team—once Brazil wakes up, every goal and every shot is cheered wildly, despite the modest opposition. There will be no World Cup games here, and the 31,000 people at the stadium, together with the 20,000 who turned up just to see the team train the day before, are grateful to catch a glimpse of their heroes.
It seems as if most Brazilian soccer reporters have have elected to stay at the squad’s Granja Camary training camp in the Rio de Janeiro countryside, adding to Goiana’s sleepiness. The mood at the press conference is relaxed and chummy. This is Good Felipão—like the grouchy super of a run-down apartment building who has just gotten a larger-than-expected Christmas bonus. Which is not to say that everything goes smoothly.
Good Felipão starts to answer a question about his team’s first-half performance. A helicopter swoops back and forth over the stadium, drowning out his words. Good Felipão stops talking, rolls his eyes, and waits for the helicopter to pass.
Good Felipão starts to answer a question about what it’s like to play in Goiânia. The police dogs outside the canvas walls of the tent unleash a fearsome salvo of barking. Good Felipão stops talking, looks over at Rodrigo Paiva, communications director for the Brazilian FA , and shrugs.
Bad Felipão, who is like the same grouchy super after being told there will be no Christmas bonus at all, appeared last June during the Confederations Cup, when an English journalist, referring to the sometimes violent political demonstrations then taking place in the streets, asked how it felt to be playing football when blood was being spilled outside the stadiums. “Where are you from, England?” Bad Felipão said, visibly irritated. “What about what happened in your country before the Olympics?”—a reference to the 2012 London riots.
Bad Felipão also emerged in March of last year, when asked what the difference was between much-criticized Brazilian-born striker Diego Costa choosing to play for Spain, and Scolari himself deciding to manage Portugal in 2002. “Don’t ask ridiculous questions,” he snapped at the reporter. “There’s no comparison.” When asked why he thought the question was ridiculous, Bad Felipão produced a fine impression of a kid taking his ball home because his team is losing the neighborhood pick-up game. “Because it is, and I’ll answer what I want,” he barked.
It is perhaps surprising that Good Felipão is here today, with the World Cup just days away and the pressure on the coach and his players growing by the hour. He wasn’t so cheerful after training the previous Sunday morning. “I didn’t like that one bit,” he grumbled, referring to sloppy play of his players at practice. “Everything was wrong.”
Maybe he is feeling the Midwestern love. It is a cheerful throng that turns up for Monday’s open training session, whooping and squealing under the baking mid-afternoon sun and carrying signs that read “Kiss Me, Neymar” and “Give us your shirt, David Luiz.” And there is an even bigger, more boisterous crowd on hand for the game against Panama, even with another mid-afternoon start time.
Despite all the turmoil—the overspending and the financial skullduggery; the delays and the dead stadium workers; FIFA’s soft-power interventionism; the acid political climate in Brazil—it feels as though the neatly packaged patriotism of a large sporting occasion, pumped up by the natural steroid of the country’s obsession with soccer, is finally starting to take over.
Brazil’s biggest city has an historical sense of detachment from and superiority over the rest of the country—its people even took up arms against the central government in 1932—and it harbors a simmering resentment over the fact that eternal rival Rio de Janeiro and the Maracanã serves as the Seleção’s spiritual home.
In theory, watching great players practice sounds pretty exciting. In reality, it’s not exciting in the least. A group of players plays a kind of one-touch, five-a-side on one half of the pitch. On the other, a group of players practices free-kicks. When Fred misses, everyone boos. When Hulk misses, everyone boos even louder. When Neymar misses, everyone cheers. Neymar can do no wrong.
Later, some of the players take penalties. (Neymar chips Atletico Mineiro goalkeeper Victor and everyone laughs.) Then there are stretching exercises. Later the players drink water. I resist the urge to tweet an exclusive: the players are drinking water! In the middle of it all is Scolari, the big-bellied gym teacher, whistle round his neck, baseball cap atop his head, pointing and complaining.
When it is finished, everyone stands and smiles and claps and shouts “woo-hoo!” and “Brazil!” as the players leave the field.
June 6, 2014; Brazil v Serbia; São Paulo, Brazil
The Brazil team gets a rougher ride in some cities than others. Recife, for example, has had a reputation for being a friendly venue ever since the Seleçao beat Bolivia there in a vital World Cup qualifier in 1993. A chillier, more critical reception usually awaits in Belo Horizonte, last summer’s stirring Confederations Cup semifinal victory over Uruguay notwithstanding.
The Seleção players will have plenty of opportunities to discover their country’s regional foibles during this World Cup. A stirring welcome no doubt awaits in Fortaleza in the northeast, the country’s poorest but friendliest region, where Brazil will play its second group game against Mexico, before the team travels to the oddly anonymous post-modern landscape of capital Brasilia for its final match versus Cameroon.
And then there is São Paulo, where Felipão’s men start their campaign against Croatia tomorrow. Brazil’s biggest city has an historical sense of detachment from and superiority over the rest of the country—its people even took up arms against the central government in 1932—and it harbors a simmering resentment over the fact that eternal rival Rio de Janeiro and the Maracanã serves as the Seleção’s spiritual home. Correspondingly, the locals have a somewhat fraught relationship with the national team.
Today Brazil is playing Serbia at the city’s Morumbi stadium. It is raining, the pitch is as bumpy as a cow field, and a crowd of almost 70,000 Paulistas huddle glumly below rain jackets and umbrellas. Come on then, impress us, their faces seem to say.
Brazil does not impress, at least not in the first half. Serbia is quick and creates the better chances. The Seleção struggles to complete its passes on the boggy surface. When the halftime whistle blows, the boos tumble down from the stands, loud and jarring.
“It’s normal,” says Scolari afterward, his mood soothed by an improved second half performance and a winning goal from Fred. “It wasn’t a problem for the players. They were ready for it.”
“He’s like a father to us,” Fred recently said of his manager. “He’s very serious and he’s always trying to make us better. Everyone thinks he’s a tough guy, but he’s got a big heart.”
According to a recent survey, Scolari’s work is considered “good or excellent” by an impressive 68 percent of Brazilians. But the weight of the country’s glorious tradition of success and the intense, demanding support of nearly 200 million fans means the pressure on Brazil this summer will be immense. While a great deal has been made of a new Familia Scolari—referring to the relationship of loyalty and trust between the manager and his players that emerged during Brazil’s stirring Confederations Cup triumph last year—it is not a bond that has been tested by adversity. It remains to be seen how the coach and his players will react when the heat is really on in just a day’s time.