Reporting from Sao Paulo, Brazil—
His full name is Neymar da Silva Santos Junior, an unmanageable mouthful he has thankfully shortened to Neymar.
And though he stands just 5 feet 9 on his tippy-toes and weighs 142 pounds dripping wet, for the next month the unpretentious 22-year-old will be asked to shoulder the hopes of a nation as he leads host Brazil into the World Cup.
“I don’t want to be the best player in the World Cup. I want to win the World Cup,” he said Wednesday. “I am anxious, of course, but also I’m extremely happy because many people would like to be here.”
The five-time champions, playing a World Cup at home for the first time in 64 years, kick off the tournament Thursday afternoon against Croatia at the 65,000-seat Arena Corinthians, a stadium so new finishing touches were still being applied Wednesday night.
But ready or not, the games are about to begin.
“For all Brazilians, I want to say our time has arrived,” Brazil Coach Luiz Felipe Scolari said. “I want to go together. This is our World Cup. But to start we have to think of the first step. The first step is against Croatia.”
Each subsequent step Scolari’s team takes toward next month’s final in Rio de Janeiro will get tougher. Not only is this 32-team field arguably the deepest in World Cup history but the tournament’s $11-billion price tag makes it the most expensive World Cup of all-time.
And that leaves Brazil, the tournament favorite, facing enormous pressure to unite an anxious and restive public, many of whom are both unhappy about the cost of the games yet still expecting their team to win a record sixth championship.
“Brazil is so different. They are born with football in their blood and you will feel that now,” said U.S. Coach Juergen Klinsmann, who coached the German national team to the World Cup semifinals before a hopeful — and ultimately disappointed — home crowd in 2006.
“Obviously they expect the title. At the same time the fans and the people will embrace it for the next four weeks and make it a big party throughout the country.
“It’s easier to party if your team wins and scores many goals. It’s always that way.”
Soccer has often given Brazil reason to party. The national team hasn’t lost at home since September 1975, a streak of 57 consecutive games that includes last summer’s 3-0 win over defending World Cup champion Spain, the No. 1 team in the world.
Spain will challenge for the title again as will No. 2 Germany. But no European team has ever won a World Cup played in the Americas, which could open the door for Argentina, Brazil’s neighbor to the south.
And while Neymar — who former Brazilian great Pele said may someday follow him as the best player in the world — is the brightest star in Brazil’s universe, he’s not the only one. The deep roster includes captain Thiago Silva of Paris Saint-Germain, midfielder Oscar of Chelsea and Fred, the team’s high-scoring striker.
But if Scolari and Neymar were hopeful Wednesday, outside the stadium there was a mix of emotions. It’s still not clear if the country has resolved all of the issues that could disrupt the tournament and many in this soccer-mad country of 200 million remain divided about whether having the World Cup here was a good idea in the first place.
Brazil’s Homeless Workers’ movement has had its demands met and will host a party rather than a protest Thursday while the transit strike that paralyzed São Paulo for most of the last week has been halted.
However, organizers have threatened to resume striking if their needs aren’t met by late Wednesday night.
At the same time, 9,000 supporters of the “There will be no World Cup” movement have pledged to congregate along the city’s subway line at a point between downtown and the stadium, from where they could disrupt the train service most fans will use to get the opening game.
Police say they’ll be ready to guard the subway stations, with backup from the army if needed.
Even if mass protests don’t materialize, much of the general population remains ambivalent about the tournament. Recent polls show more than half of Brazilians think the World Cup will do more harm than good for the country and said the money their government spent on the event could have been better used on needs such as healthcare, education and or transportation infrastructure.
Residents also say the streets feature less green and yellow — the colors of Brazil’s national team — than they have before any other recent World Cup.
“For the first time in my life, I’m going to cheer against Brazil,” Gilson Cunha, a 54-year-old contractor, said watching as workers paint a wall downtown Wednesday. “I’m not against the team itself, but I’m against all of the politics revolving around the tournament. If all of that money had gone to healthcare, we’d have better healthcare.”
Behind him Albenia Abla, a 19-year-old deli worker, disagreed.
“For me, it’s all good. Of course, people have complaints, legitimate complaints, about where our country has invested. But I’m excited and I’m going to cheer like crazy at home,” she said. “No one agrees right now. Some people are really upset, and others prefer to enjoy the tournament. We’re divided.”
Now it’s up to Neymar to give them all a lift.
“I really hope I can help my team in the best possible way to fulfill the dream of … Brazilians, which is to win the World Cup,” he said.
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