Bruno, the boo boys and Brazil
A tragic, real-life soap opera unravelling in Brazilian football over recent months has been the story of Bruno, goalkeeper of Rio giants Flamengo, who is in prison accused of ordering the brutal murder of an ex-lover.
Flamengo fans have found a way to extract some black humour from such horrific developments. Last year, Bruno captained the team to the Brazilian title. This season, they have struggled. And as they have slipped dangerously close to the relegation zone, the confidence of Bruno's replacement, Marcelo Lomba, has seemed to suffer.
In a crucial match on Saturday against Guarani, Lomba slipped up again. A packed stadium responded with a chant of "Free Bruno! Arrest Lomba!" It was hardly the way to help out the young keeper. Lomba decided to play safe. Nothing was caught and every ball was punched as he sought to reduce the chances of further errors. Perhaps luckily, there was little for him to do as Flamengo won 2-1.
Bruno is taken into custody. Photo: Getty Images
The result should guarantee Flamengo's place in the first division but the fans seemed more interested in running down their keeper than celebrating as they made their way home on the train after the match.
Fans booing their own players was also evident the following day, when Botafogo took on visitors Internacional.
Badly needing a win in their bid to qualify for the Copa Libertadores, South America's equivalent of the Champions League, Botafogo were beaten 2-1. Yet when the team was most in need of a boost, the home crowd made their task harder. Individual players were singled out for vicious jeering.
Attacking midfielder Lucio Flavio has long been a target for the boo boys. On Sunday, fans also turned on defensive colleague Leandro Guerrero, a player whose identification with the club is strong and whose commitment is beyond reproach. Once both had been substituted, the crowd went in search of another target - and left-back Marcelo Cordeiro was next in line. It was a case of home advantage shooting itself in the foot.
With Soccerex, a big conference and trade fair, currently running in Rio, it was impossible not to watch the games involving Flamengo and Botafogo without thinking of the 2014 World Cup. And will any team have to put up with more pressure than Brazil when the tournament rolls round in three-and-a-half years' time?
The precedent, of course, is 1950, when, in the newly constructed Maracana, Brazil suffered a shock 2-1 defeat to Uruguay. The members of that team are no longer with us but it was very clear, when I had the honour of speaking to to them a while back, that they had never managed to shake off a sense of bitterness.
They were not upset with the Uruguayans - the intensity of that 90 minutes brought the teams close and they often met up - but with the way they were treated by their own public, who lauded them as champions before the game and turned on them afterwards.
At that time, the population of Brazil was only around 50 million. By 2014, there will be 200 million piling on the pressure. Media scrutiny has become much more intense in the subsequent decades, while the bar has been set extremely high. Back in 1950, Brazil had yet to win a World Cup. Now they have won the competition five times and the idea of being beaten on home soil is almost unthinkable.
One of the most fascinating aspects of football is that the best team does not always win. Come 2014, there will be some 10 sides in the field, which, given a slice of luck, might have a chance of knocking out Brazil. Their chances of beating the hosts will be improved if local fans turn on their team.
Indeed, a wily opponent may well decide to take the sting out of the game in the hope that the crowd will transform home advantage into the opposite. Small wonder, then, that new Brazil coach Mano Menezes is considering the inclusion of a sports psychologist in his back-up staff.
Despite last week's 1-0 defeat to Argentina, Brazil's post-World Cup rebuilding programme has gone better than could have been expected. Menezes has already made significant progress. Only four of his side from last Wednesday went to the World Cup. Along with renewal has come a change in philosophy, with the idea of a more expansive passing game, midfielders who are good on the ball and a 4-2-3-1 formation.
Indeed, a big problem on Wednesday was that, with Alexandre Pato sidelined with a hamstring injury, there was no centre forward to give the attack a focal point. A World Cup squad would contain more options.
Friendlies exist to learn lessons in preparation for the serious stuff. It is to be hoped, for example, that Neymar and Robinho absorb the lesson of Lionel Messi's stoppage-time winning goal. The little genius stayed on his feet where the Brazilian strikers would almost certainly have gone to ground in search of a free-kick on the edge of the area.
Messi celebrates after his goal gives Argentina victory over Brazil. Photo: Getty Images
These tactical and technical issues can be studied and improved. It is surely harder to deal with the psychological aspects of a Brazilian side playing a World Cup on home soil. Brazil will clearly need to play some friendlies in front of their own fans, where the odd disappointing performance may not be a problem. The boos might toughen them up for when it really matters.
Comments on the piece in the space provided. Questions on South American football to email@example.com, and I'll pick out a couple for next week.
From last week's postbag:
Q) I want to ask about the Brazilian youth system and how it differs from the English way of doing things.
A) European coaches sometimes come out to Brazil or Argentina looking for the big secret - and cannot find it in the coaching methods. The big difference, I think, is not necessarily what happens in the clubs. It is what happens before. It is in the sheer numbers of kids willing to commit themselves to a career in the game. An English kid has more options in life. Also, the average Brazilian kid is in school for a much shorter period of time than in England , so there is more time, as well as more inclination, to work on his game.