Brazil’s swagger may tip balance

Scolari heaps praises on Colombia but still believes hosts’ name is on the cup

 Brazilian  striker Neymar (L) and head coach Luiz Felipe Scolari.

Brazilian striker Neymar (L) and head coach Luiz Felipe Scolari.


The talk has been of Brazil’s mental health: the pressure and the tears, the psychologist summoned to the camp. “In psychological terms I think we’re well,” captain Thiago Silva insisted at yesterday’s press conference. “I’m emotional, it’s very natural for humans to feel emotional. This doesn’t affect me at all on the pitch.”

You cannot deny the significance of the matter, but sometimes when you cross the road you look the wrong way. All things being equal on the pitch, which they may well be in Fortaleza tonight, whose state of mind should we be more concerned about: Brazil’s or Colombia’s? Who is attempting, as Gene Roddenberry might have wondered, to boldly go where no one has gone before?

You could argue that of all the progress José Pékerman has made in his two and a half years in charge of Los Cafeteros, psychologically toughening up the team has been his biggest achievement. The true measure of that work will be on display in Fortaleza, against the hosts, at a stage of the World Cup that Colombia have never before experienced.

Like most teams in South America – and, indeed, around the world – Colombia’s record against Brazil makes for difficult reading. In 25 matches between the countries, Colombia have won just twice – the last time 23 years ago – scoring 11 goals to Brazil’s 55.

Are formidable

Those statistics are formidable and not easily dismissed, but Colombians prefer to focus on the last meeting – a 1-1 draw in a friendly New York at the end of 2012 that many saw as a watershed moment. It was the fourth consecutive draw between the teams.

“They had a winning mentality [in that 2012 game]. They realised they had the talent to go toe-to-toe with five-times World Cup winners,” Colombia’s El Espectador newspaper argued this week. “They had good results against Brazil before but this time it seemed different. For the first time against a great footballing nation, Colombia exuded confidence. Instead of defending and looking for opportunities to counter-attack, they took the game to Brazil.”

A November friendly in New York is no World Cup quarter-final in Brazil, but so far in the tournament the Colombians have looked carefree enough, driven by the confidence of James Rodríguez, to support claims of a transformed mentality. The impressive striker Teófilo Gutiérrez has been talking a good game, suggesting the team “don’t feel inferior to any rival”. “We are on the cusp of something historic and we believe we are on the right path.”

Pékerman’s belief in the merits of mental preparation can be assessed by his long-time work with sports psychologist Marcelo Roffé, who has been helping to clear the heads of footballers since his involvement with Pékerman’s Argentina under-20 teams, world champions three times, in 1995, 1997 and 2001.

The Steve Peters of Latin America, Roffé is the region’s go-to guy in terms of sports psychology – so long as you are not a journalist. Before arriving in Brazil, Colombian’s El Tiempo newspaper rang Roffé, who answered the phone with the words: “I am a ghost: I exist yet don’t exist. Let’s speak after the tournament, guys.”

In Roffé’s book Psicología del jugador de Fútbol (Psychology of the Football Player), he writes about the importance of the collective, a concept that many of Pékerman’s players have been speaking about in Brazil. The more cohesive and united a group, Roffé says, the better they can handle fear and pressure; the better the self-confidence. But he also warns about the added demands of representing your country on the biggest stage. Which players can handle it?

It is the question of this contest: Colombia’s untested waters versus the emotional train-wreck of Brazil. Yesterday Scolari preferred to dwell on the practicalities of the sides, suggesting that Brazil would “enjoy” much more the experience of playing the Colombians rather than the “war” that takes place with some of their other South American rivals.

‘Technical team’

“Colombia are a more technical team than Chile, ” said Scolari. “Chile have strength at the back [clenches fists] and spirit. Colombia in my view are a much better team, they play football, there’s no wars against Colombia, guys. Our wars are against Chile, Argentina. We don’t have anything against Colombia. Our matches against Colombia are friendly matches, happy matches – matches of strength and energy, but no big rivalry.

“When you don’t have that war our players feel more at ease.”

The suspension of Luiz Gustavo in Brazil’s key holding position – the region of the field where Rodríguez does his work – presents Scolari with a dilemma that he may address by fielding Ramires there. There are no special plans in place, he said, to man-mark Rodríguez. “We’re going to be marking Colombia . . . We’re not going to do that, we’re going to be playing sectors as we’ve always played.”

Flattery of their opponents was not lacking in self-confidence: “They have good tactical discipline, good technical quality. Nothing different to my team. So it’s going to be a great football match. We respect them, we admire them, but we know we have some skills that might cause great damage to Colombia.”

Brazil still had a “hand on the cup”, Scolari said, on this fifth step out of seven, insisting that such expectations were part of the game in Brazil and that his players could cope. “Our people, our supporters don’t expect anything different, they want us to say what we want and how we’re going to get it.”

The swagger might not always help, but it might make all the difference here.

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