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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 19 September 2018

World Cup fever fails to grip a Brazil dealing with bigger problems and still haunted by 'the 7-1'

Gary Meenaghan soaks up the atmosphere in Brazil and finds a lack of excitement in a country famous for its love of football and parties

Neymar, centre, remains the star of Brazil but the burden of carrying the hopes of a nation no longer solely rest on his shoulders. Leonhard Foeger / Reuters
Neymar, centre, remains the star of Brazil but the burden of carrying the hopes of a nation no longer solely rest on his shoulders. Leonhard Foeger / Reuters

In the luxurious Patio Savassi shopping mall, about 30 minutes from the Estadio Mineirão where Brazil’s dream was so ruthlessly ended four years ago by a clinical, callous Germany, a special Fifa World Cup area has been set up for the exchange of Panini stickers.

Positioned between high-end fashion outlets and expensive cafes, the space is a little haven of football fun. Children chatter animatedly while thumbing through bundles of figurinhas. Omar Hawsawi? Got. Gylfi Sigurdsson? Got. Lionel Messi? Need!

The expanse doubles-up as a tribute to Brazilian football’s illustrious past. Carpeted with astroturf and boasting large cardboard cutouts of Pele and Claudio Taffarel, there is also an exhibition of 18 of Brazil’s most famous players in typically unflattering caricature form, from Nilton Santos to Neymar, Rivelino to Ronaldinho.

On the wall above a pair of football-themed beanbags, a TV plays, on loop, a countdown of the 30 best goals ever scored by Brazil at a World Cup: Eder against USSR in 1982 … Nelinho against Italy in 1978 …Carlos Alberto against Italy in 1970.

The crackling commentary of yesteryear, the famous yellow-shirted celebrations, the noise of happy children swapping stickers nearby — if you stay long enough you might even convince yourself Brazil is excited about this month’s World Cup.

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Read more on the 2018 World Cup:

Guides, predictions, podcasts, galleries and where to watch in UAE

Group E guide: Brazil less reliant on Neymar as other teams scramble for second place

My favourite World Cup moment: The Ronaldo mystery at France 98

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Still hurting

John Viana is a street artist based in the city of Belo Horizonte. In 2010 and 2014, he was commissioned to paint several World Cup-themed projects. He painted exterior walls, interior walls, car bonnets, people’s bedrooms, everything and anything. However, four years on since the event locals simply refer to as “the 7-1”, interest is minimal.

“Man, in 2014 I was commissioned to do so many World Cup projects, but this year until now there’s been nothing," he says. "I keep an eye on maybe 8-10 artists from each state and I’ve only seen one World Cup related artwork — the Gabriel Jesus thing in São Paulo.

"I think the impact of the 7-1 defeat is still hurting. It was a humiliation, you know? It doesn’t just go away.”

The hangover from the semi-final capitulation is still felt across the country, but it is particularly apparent in the city in which it happened. Traditionally here, kerbs are painted green and yellow, bunting is hung from the telephone poles, walls are covered in patriotic, football-related graffiti.

Today, with less than a week until hosts Russia open the tournament against Saudi Arabia, the city of 2.5 million appears as normal.

“Look around” says Jaiderson Santos, sweat dripping down his face from playing seven-a-side at the local Castelão football centre. “There is no excitement. Nothing.

"We’re playing football, we love football, but nobody is talking about the World Cup. Brazilians just have too many other problems to consider now. ”

Last month, a government-sanctioned hike in diesel prices prompted a 10-day truckers’ strike, bringing the country to a stand-still and forcing the majority of petrol stations to close.

Stations that did not run out of gasoline attracted kilometres-long queues with drivers electing to sleep in their cars. Supermarkets nationwide were also running out of basic goods, with local news channels reporting, for example, the price of a bag of onions had jumped 300 per cent.

“I’m sure the interest in the World Cup will change once the games start and for sure there will be parties and barbecues, but just now there is no excitement,” Santos adds.

“The irony is this year we actually have a better squad and manager than in 2014, but there is still that disappointment of what happened before.”

In 2014, Barcelona’s Neymar was the face and fulcrum of a Brazil team trying to win on home soil. The striker’s image was omnipresent, with sponsorships ranging from banks to hair products, cars to energy drinks.

Off the pitch, Brazil appeared a one-star team and when Neymar broke a vertebrae in the quarter-final, the team’s dream unravelled like a rolled-up flag.

This year the players are sharing the burden. The streets may not suggest a World Cup atmosphere, but Brazilian TV has been in tournament mode for months.

Thiago Silva and Marcelo are in a Nike advert, even coach Tite heads up an advert for Banco Itau. Neymar, while recovering from his fractured metatarsal, completed the talk show circuit and Gabriel Jesus features in the music video for funk artist MC Kevinho’s football-themed “Papum”.

Brazil manager Tite, center left, is able to assemble a squad boasting far greater quality than the side that competed in the 2014 World Cup. Matt Dunham / AP Photo
Brazil manager Tite, center left, is able to assemble a squad boasting far greater quality than the side that competed in the 2014 World Cup. Matt Dunham / AP Photo

Even the players' mums are in the spotlight. A series entitled “As Matryoskas” follows the mothers of Neymar, Gabriel Jesus and Fernandinho to Russia where they learn a little about the country and its culture.

On the field, 17 of Tite’s 23-man squad play in Europe and the quality is indisputable. Three Brazilians — Marcelo, Casemiro and Roberto Firmino — featured in the final of the Uefa Champions League, while the national team recently beat both Russia and Germany without Neymar.

Tite, such is his standing in the world game, is this week being linked with the vacant Real Madrid post.

“For me, I think we had many good players in 2014 too, but what happened at the Mineirão was just an absurdity,” says Rafael Costa, an accountant who splits his time between Belo Horizonte and São Paulo.

“It wasn’t a true reflection of the two teams and this year I think you will see a different Brazil. I think we are one of maybe three or four teams that can win it, but also it’s a little harder to feel a bond with them because so many play outside Brazil.”

Street artist Viana is also confident of success this summer, although is aware victory is a double-edged sword. “I think Brazil will win the World Cup this year because they are playing with less expectations, but all it will do is paint over all the problems in the country,” he says.

“It won’t solve any of the issues. So you’ll have some people celebrating like Brazil is the best country in the world again and you’ll have others getting angry that the bigger issues are no longer being discussed.”

Brazil fans may not yet be gripped by the World Cup but that is likely to change when the tournament starts. Andrew Boyers / Reuters
Brazil fans may not yet be gripped by the World Cup but that is likely to change when the tournament starts. Andrew Boyers / Reuters

People will get in the mood quickly

Back in Patio Savassi shopping centre, Marina Correa is watching her daughter excitedly trading stickers, hunting for the shiny silver ones and the sticker most coveted — Neymar.

As in previous years, schools will be closed on the days Brazil play their games, but Correa, a lawyer, says she does not feel like a World Cup is yet on her doorstep.

“It’s strange. I was born in 1973 and have watched a few cups. Usually there is a lot more atmosphere in the weeks building up to it,” she says. “The 7-1 was obviously a massive disappointment so that, plus the current political, economical and social climate, has made for a dull atmosphere so far.

"But it will change. Brazilians are like that. In the queue for the gas station last week, they were having a barbecue in the street while they waited. That is the Brazilian way — give us lemons and we make lemonade. I’m sure that when the games start, the people will get in the mood pretty quickly.”

Brazil will conclude their World Cup preparations with a final friendly match against Austria today, before kicking off their quest for a record sixth title against Switzerland on June 17.

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