Brazilian fans can help or hurt World Cup hopes

Rio de Janeiro: Brazilian fans` legendary passion will play a key role as their team seeks to win the World Cup on home soil, but their notoriously high expectations will also put enormous pressure on the `selecao`.

Brazilians take huge pride in their nation`s unparalleled five World Cup wins, and their rabid support will be palpable when Brazil start the tournament against Croatia on June 12.

Hosting the Cup is tinged with the bitter memory of 1950, the last time it was held in the country, when Uruguay beat Brazil 2-1 in the deciding game in their own house to win the title.

That humiliation unleashed what Nelson Rodrigues, one of the country`s foremost playwrights and a beloved sportswriter, called the "mutt complex," a national feeling of inferiority that he said bled into the very fabric of Brazilian identity.

Brazilians will be expecting the national side -- which Rodrigues called "the motherland in football boots" -- to right that wrong this time around.

Over the past four years, the average Brazilian fan has gone from abject pessimism over the team`s chances to absolute confidence that they will win a sixth World Cup.

Brazil`s victory in the Confederations Cup, last year`s World Cup warm-up tournament, helped revive the fans` love of their team.

The `selecao` drubbed Spain 3-0 in the final, redeeming themselves in the Maracana stadium -- the scene of the 1950 humiliation -- and winning back some bragging rights over the current World Cup holders, whose recent success has damaged Brazilians` self-image as the world`s greatest football nation.

The crowd, which saturated the stadium in green and yellow and kept belting out the national anthem long after the music was over, undoubtedly played a part in Brazil`s emphatic win.

"The champion is back!" they chanted when captain Thiago Silva lifted the trophy.

The World Cup will only fire the fans up further.

"We have something that other teams don`t have in Brazil, which is the 12th player. Our team today has 200 million fans who, though they won`t be on the pitch, will be alongside us," coach Luiz Felipe Scolari said in an interview last week.

Jairzinho, who played in Brazil`s 1970 World Cup-winning team, told AFP: "The force of our fans is one of the most important elements for the group`s morale."

- `No World Cup!` -

But the flip-side of Brazilian fans` fervour is the potentially crushing weight of expectation on the national side.

Brazilians can be brutally harsh on the team when they fail to deliver the `jogo bonito` -- the beautiful game -- they demand, and they faced derision for exiting the past two World Cups in the quarter-finals.

If Brazil fail to live up to expectations in their early games, the reactions could rattle the team.

There are also fears a poor performance by Brazil could fan the flames of a protest movement that erupted last year against the more than $11 billion being spent on the World Cup in a country with pressing needs in education, health and transport.

Protests have turned violent at times, including during the Confederations Cup final, when the smell of tear gas used to disperse demonstrators wafted into the Maracana even as the Brazilian team celebrated its victory.

"There will be no World Cup!" has become the protest movement`s new rallying cry.

Whether it gathers enough momentum to disrupt the event or gets lost in the World Cup euphoria may depend partly on the team`s performance.

The outcome of the tournament could also affect the political fate of the country`s leaders in elections scheduled for October -- including President Dilma Rousseff, who remains the favourite but who has been slipping in the polls.

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