Even in winter, Fortaleza -- the seaside capital of the Brazilian northeastern state of Ceara -- is a hot place where temperatures are often above 30 degrees Celsius (86 degrees Fahrenheit). That stifling heat was made even more uncomfortable by the squeeze of people at the gates of President Vargas Stadium last June.
Prompted by rumors that the Selecao would hold a public training session, 4,000 people descended only to find locked gates as the team practiced in private. Tempers quickly heated up and only the intervention of manager Luiz Felipe Scolari, who pretty much bullied the police into opening the gates at the end of the session, avoided something nastier.
With the Selecao playing abroad most of the time because of financial gains and FIFA's determination -- since 2003, football's governing body has asked the country to play the bulk of their games in Europe in order not to make players travel too much -- domestic fans have rarely been able to see their national team, something also exacerbated by the fact the majority of them defend European clubs anyway. That enhanced the public anxiety that traditionally marks the Selecao's home appearances.
And when Brazil are experiencing the even rarer feeling of hosting the World Cup, it is fair to think it will get more frantic. Therefore, it's easy to see why one of the biggest debates surrounding the Selecao's preparations for 2014 has concerned the team's interactions with the public. Though supporters were a trump card for Brazil at the Confederations Cup, when ad-lib renditions of the Brazilian national anthem at the stadiums pumped up the players more than any motivational talk from Big Phil, this intense attention can certainly be a problem.
The whole party atmosphere was not an issue for South Africa four years ago and a huge parade with players and fans was one of the enduring images of the tournament. However, the Bafana Bafana didn't face any expectations to lift the golden trophy. Brazil should look at what France did in 1998 and 2006 when they were hosts under substantially more pressure. Both kept their distance from the crowds and the French were actually confined to their Clairefontaine training facilities by manager Aime Jacquet -- legend has it that Jacquet even resorted to preventing players from reading papers or watching news reports.
"We actually didn't complain because we all know how important it was to keep us away from that effervescence. I cannot even start imagining how mad it will be in Brazil, who never won the title at home. Expectations will be huge," said Bixente Lizarazu, France's left-back in 1998, in a recent visit to Brazil as a commentator for the Selecao's friendly against Les Bleus.
Many people agree. But a number of voices defend the argument that the Selecao should use the World Cup as an opportunity for a huge shared celebration with the fans. Big Phil himself likes to repeat that his teams belong to the people and some of his players pressured for more contact during the Confederations Cup. "Our buses had windows that were so tinted that people couldn't see us. We asked the film to be removed," captain Thiago Silva explained.
Silva, however, also points out the disadvantages of a more populist approach with fans as vocal and opinionated as Brazilians, referring specifically to an episode that took place at the only officially public session held by the team last summer. "We had open doors for a session in Fortaleza and a guy started moaning pretty loudly about the manager," he said. "Our fitness coach ended up remonstrating with him. One guy spoiled the fun of hundreds."
Technical coordinator Carlos Alberto Parreira has been pretty vocal about the need for tranquility. "The stadium is the place where the team really need to interact with the public in such an important occasion as the World Cup," Parreira said in a recent interview. Few people seem more entitled to speak about the subject than Parreira. He was South Africa's manager in 2010 and voiced his concern then about how the whole carnival could distract his players. He was also in command in 2006, when Brazil's pre-World Cup camp descended into a farce in the Swiss town of Weggis amidst pitch invasions in training sessions and some of the stars pictured in pub crawls.
History also teaches the perils of too much fuss. With no disrespect to Uruguay's incredible fighting spirit 63 years ago, it is widely accepted that Brazil's preparation to the final match of the 1950 World Cup suffered considerably with a parade of politicians and assorted public personae in the team headquarters that actually prevented the players from even having their proper main meal before setting off to the Maracana stadium -- it didn't help, either, that a big newspaper had a headline already proclaiming the team world champions on the day of the match.
But tell that to the crowds that will certainly be expecting waves and autographs at airports, pitchside or in front of hotels next year. They won't care that FIFA rules actually prevent teams from holding open sessions during official tournament dates as a matter of security and safety. And a Selecao that has experienced the other side of the coin from the public in matches at home earlier this year, when even Neymar was targeted by his own experience, will certainly have in mind the need to keep the crowds sweet ...