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Brazilians Pessimistic About National Team's World Cup Prospects

As the World Cup approaches, Brazilians are unusually pessimistic about the prospects for their national team, following a year of turmoil and scandal in Brazilian football. Many Brazilians feel the days when their country was a football powerhouse dominating World Cup play are over.

Scenes of past World Cup triumphs have been playing on Brazilian television lately. The sometimes grainy images show the yellow-shirted players kicking in goal after goal to the approving roar of the crowd in the stadiums.

A four-time World Cup winner, Brazil has been a dominant force in international football since its first victory in 1958.

But on Rio street corners, the discussions about the national team's prospects and the state of football in general tend to be pessimistic. Retired shopkeeper Anisio Araujo says he has lost interest.

"I used to care about football, he says, but not anymore," he says. "It is too big a mess, and football here is discredited. Besides, players only care about the money."

Mr. Araujo's disillusionment stems from the national team's poor showing in qualifying matches, and from the corruption scandals that have plagued Brazil's national sport.

Brazil barely qualified in the World Cup preliminary matches, losing to Bolivia, Chile, and other South American countries. This is in stark contrast to the past, when in 70-years of play Brazil lost only one qualifying match. This time, Brazil finished third in the South American division behind Argentina and Ecuador.

Meanwhile, Congressional investigations were under way that uncovered evidence of misappropriated funds, kickback schemes, and other illegalities in the professional leagues. One national team coach was forced out under a cloud of scandal and members of Brazil's Football Confederation were implicated in the misdeeds.

This soured many Brazilians. Author Gilberto Agostino, who has written a book about football, says normally the World Cup brings Brazilians together as a nation.

"It is one of the few moments when the Brazilian who lives in Maranhao State, in the state of Para, in Rio de Janeiro, and in the south feels united. It is a moment when all the hearts are beating for the same thing," he explains. "Football continues to be, and was historically, an element in which people feel the sensation of being Brazilian, and this leads them to display the national colors the green and yellow which is something that is not an everyday occurrence."

One sign of the sour mood is that compared to past Cup championships fewer streets in Rio are decorated with yellow and green streamers.

But one place where there is more optimism is at practice at Rio's Flamengo Club, which fields one of the best professional teams in the country. Flamengo goalie Julio Cesar speaks for many players when he downplays the current pessimism.

"This pessimism is because of the qualifying matches, and the difficulties Brazil had to qualify. This left people disillusioned, but I am sure once the championships begin people will be in front of their TV's to root for the national team," he says.

The club's lawyer, Carlos Portinho, agrees.

"The Brazilian people, the journalists, and the press we are very critical about our soccer, our football and sometimes this is not good... If you ask any fan about the national team he will probably say 'I do not like this coach, I do not like that player,' " he says. "We are very critical, but I believe Brazilian soccer is the most beautiful and the most important football in the world."

And this was certainly true in the past, when players like Pele, Garrincha, and Tostao dribbled and kicked their way to glory. They defined the elegant and ballet-like style of play that was often compared to the Brazilian samba. But many fans complain there is no one on the national team of equal stature to those famous players and that professional football in Brazil is in decline.

Flavio Monteiro, a Rio tennis coach, sums up the feelings best: I will root for Brazil, he says, because I am Brazilian. But the team has not done the work that France or Argentina have done. So even if it wins the Cup, it will not deserve it.

This mood may change as the championship progresses, but as of now few Brazilians believe the country can win the Cup a fifth time.