Alberto Cunha has a dilemma.
“I need to watch the game,” he says.
“I cannot watch the game.”
The game, of course, is this afternoon’s quarterfinal World Cup match between Brazil and Colombia.
Mr. Cunha, a 44-year-old Rio de Janeiro bank teller, is desperate to see his team advance. But he fears the stress of seeing it happen – or not happen – may kill him.
“I don’t have heart problems – or I didn’t think I had heart problems, but last weekend was terrible,” he said.
Last Saturday Brazil faced elimination in a brutal game with Chile that went to extra time and was finally decided in penalty kicks. “Three people died watching that game, you know,” Mr. Cunha said. (Some media reports say as many as five people died of various medical crises attributed to anxiety watching the football, including two heart attacks in the stadium in Belo Horizonte where the game was played.) “I think Brazilians are just too passionate about football.”
This evening, the nation will be parked in front of its collective televisions, at home, in bars, in town squares and in “fan zones” on the beaches. If the previous games are anything to go by, they will alternately watch, bury their heads in their arms, lie down, hold pillows over their faces, turn their backs to the screen, and run from the the room at key moments. They will also scream. There will, it is safe to say, be profanity, in even the most refined of settings.
Brazil has not lost at home in 40 games, or 12 years. Colombia has played Brazil 25 times and won just twice, never in Brazil. But Brazilians desperately want this Cup; the only other time they hosted football’s premiere tournament, they lost in the final game, and they want the chance to make it right. (That last time, by the way, was 1950, but to hear people talk about it, it might as well have been last Tuesday.)
And they look good, those Colombians. Their hotshot midfielder James Rodriguez has demonstrated himself a worthy foe for Brazil’s star striker, Neymar da Silva Santos Jr. They have been lightening fast and fiercely strong, Colombia, and Brazilians are consumed in a communal wave of anxiety.
This, it is generally agreed, is not helping the team.
“We have decided that these 23 sportsmen are the only ones exclusively responsible for the happiness of 200 million people,” wrote Carlos Eduardo Mansur, a reporter and blogger with the national media network Globo. “As if there is no tomorrow, like the history of football ends on this World Cup. Either we win at home, or a tragedy will come upon us. Either these 23 men solve this gigantic problem society has created, or they will be eternal villains. It’s not fair.”
The villain of Brazil’s last World Cup was Julio César Soares de Espindola, the goalkeeper, who plays in his regular life for the Toronto Football Club. Mr. César, as he is known, missed what was deemed an easy shot from the Netherlands and Brazil was eliminated in the quarterfinals; he has worn the blame for that elimination ever since.
Last week he redeemed himself, blocking enough Chilean shots when the game went to penalty kicks to allow Brazil to advance, and found himself once more bathed in public adoration: the Julio César jerseys were plucked from the back of the national closet and hastily tugged on.
But today, he stands on the precipice of a return to villainy once more.
Mr. César wept in front of reporters after the Chile game. “It’s very emotional, only God and my family know what I’ve been through,” he said. “It’s complicated to talk about it, but representing our country, playing home, is a very strong pressure.”
After the game, Neymar, as he is known, said that when he kicked the penalty he scored, “it seemed to be an eternity, like I had walked three kilometres to the ball.”
Since the Chile game, the World Cup coverage in Brazil’s media has focused obsessively on the psychological state of the national team. Much has been made of the fact that the captain, Thiago Silva, wept before the penalty round began and pleaded to not have to kick. He had to be heaved up off the field after the victory by coaching staff, and has failed to inspire confidence in the country that he is in any state to lead his squad.
“The team has to forget about crying and play football,” Marcos (Cafu) de Morais, who captained the 2002 Brazil squad that won the Cup, growled to reporters on Thursday.
Coach Felipe Scolari reportedly changed his tactics after the last game, and started delivering speeches to his players on the theme of, “If we lose, no one dies. The world doesn’t end.”
Mr. Scolari summoned a sports psychologist to the team’s training centre in Teresopolis this past week, and pasted up inspirational quotes from writers such as George Bernard Shaw and F. Scott Fitzgerald, such as Mr. Fitzgerald’s, “Vitality shows in not only the ability to persist but in the ability to start over.”
No doubt it is not helping the Brazilian psyche that the Colombians, despite being a squad of young players making their country’s first World Cup appearance in nearly 20 yeras, have been preternaturally calm. (The Argentine manager Alejandro Sabella, in a marvelously understated bit of trash-talking, said on Friday morning that his players were not getting any psychological help, but rather just relaxing.)
Mr. Mansur has suggested that the Brazil team may at this point play with a somewhat calmer sense of resignation – the disgrace of being eliminated in the quarter-finals is less and from here on in they will face only the world’s toughest teams (such as France, Germany or Argentina), and they will still be able to hold up their heads if they lose to one of them.
Mr. Cunha, the bank teller worried about his heart, concurs. “It may just happen that we get eliminated – and we will survive. I suppose.”