Brazilian fans downbeat ahead of World Cup
Neymar (Getty Images)
Rio de Janeiro - Three weeks to Soccer World Cup kick-off and the Brazilians are downbeat, under-performing, and generally hangdog - Brazilian fans, that is.
Their team may be hot, steamrolling Latin American rivals in the qualifiers and gunning for a record sixth world title in Russia. But the yellow-shirted fan base is decidedly blue.
Souvenir sellers report slow business. Newspapers obsess over the state of superstar Neymar's health. And the ghosts of the disastrous 2014 World Cup lurk.
According to an opinion poll by the Parana Institute, Brazilians are bullish about the actual football, which starts mid-June.
Two thirds think the "selecao" is favorite to lift the trophy and 35% see Neymar as likely to be player of the tournament, compared to 30% for Portugal's Cristiano Ronaldo.
The problem, pollsters say, is not many Brazilians care.
Sixty six percent have little or no interest in the upcoming championship, while 14.5% don't even know where it's taking place.
"There's not the same level of enthusiasm as before," said driver Serafim Fernandes, as he shopped in soccer-mad Rio de Janeiro's teeming Saara market.
Fernandes, 62, blamed the economy for the lack of passion. It's only now edging from a record-deep, two-year recession, made worse by a corruption scandal tearing through the political elite.
"People are really suffering," he said.
Four years ago, when Brazil hosted the World Cup, wall paintings and streets emblazoned in yellow and green sprouted around the nation well over a month before anyone touched the ball.
The enthusiasm was linked in part to the fact that the tournament was on home soil. But street painting, flag hanging and murals are an old tradition and the decorations' absence so far this year is glaring.
In Rio de Janeiro, there's even a threat to the staging of the 40-year-old World Cup street party known as Alzirao.
The biggest fan festival in the city is usually set up far in advance, attracting tens of thousands of people. This year Alzirao has yet to show any signs of life after losing its sponsor, the drinks giant Ambev.
"We are fighting to make the event possible after Ambev's disappointing attitude," organizers said in a statement.
At one of the many Rio de Janeiro stores selling Brazilian football kits, shopkeeper Paulo Santos Silva said he was being "prudent" about buying stock ahead of the tournament.
"Before, you could order 5 000 shirts, knowing they'd sell. Now you risk ending up stuck with them, so you buy 100, sell them, buy 100 and if we win a game buy 200," he said.
Silva, 60, says the economic slowdown isn't all that's spooking him. There's the "shameful" exit from the 2014 event, that 7-1 semi-final apocalypse against Germany.
"It's engraved on Brazilians' memory," he said gloomily.
Victory solves everything
For some, the lukewarm pre-cup atmosphere has even deeper meaning.
Left-wing politician Paulo Pimenta says the adoption of the yellow team shirt by huge crowds demonstrating in 2015 and 2016 to bring down then leftist president Dilma Rousseff tarnished the national colours.
"The coup plotters even took away Brazilians' happiness from football," he tweeted. "The (team) shirt became a symbol of shame."
But Ledio Carmona, a leading commentator on SporTV, says the gloom and doom is over the top.
The idea that Rio should be swathed in bunting and paint is rooted in nostalgia for the joyful unity of 1982, when Brazil sent one of its greatest ever teams to the World Cup in Spain - even if they lost to Italy in the quarter-finals.
"People in Brazil have a fantasy related to the 1982 cup," he told AFP. "It's almost a legend."
"But those who were young at that time are working now and those who are young today don't have the money to paint streets," he said.
Carmona says that once the action starts in Russia, Brazilians will be cheering as loudly as ever.
Fernandes, browsing for a good deal on one of the famous yellow shirts in Saara, agrees.
"We really need it a lot. We'll get into it," he said. "If they win, the people will forget everything else."