By Andrew Downie
SAO PAULO, April 2 (Reuters) - No-one doubts Brazil has the players to win the World Cup but with the opening match just 10 weeks away, the focus is shifting to mentally preparing the players to deal with the pressure of lifting the trophy on home soil.
Between now and the final on July 13, the subject of how Brazil will handle the pressure, debated by media and public alike, is going to be as common a theme as their inability to finish stadiums on time or provide the promised infrastructure legacy.
Brazil go into the competition as hot favourites following their triumph in last year's Confederations Cup, when they demolished world champions Spain 3-0 in the final. The triumph was one of their 13 wins in their last 14 games.
However, a number of psychological hurdles lie ahead.
Brazil are still scarred by the nightmare of losing the final game of the 1950 World Cup - the only other time when they hosted the tournament - and no team has won the most famous football trophy the year after lifting the Confederations Cup.
Their notoriously fickle fans could still turn on the team if all does not go to plan.
Coach Luiz Felipe Scolari has repeatedly stressed the importance of the home supporters and encouraged fans to get behind their team, especially if and when the going gets tough.
"Be with us during the World Cup: participate, jump up and down, get into the spirit," he told an audience of legal professionals in Brasilia last month.
"We want you to help us, particularly when we are in trouble, because that is when you can make the difference."
Scolari is a wily technician who is famous for his motivational skills. The fatherly role he assumed in guiding the squad to the 2002 World Cup became famous as 'The Scolari Family.'
One of the key members of that close-knit group was sports psychologist Regina Brandao and Scolari has asked her to work with the players again.
That assistance will be vital, especially for the younger players, said Jose Anibal Marques, a sports psychologist who works with Botafogo, two-time Brazilian champions where the great Garrincha played for 12 years of his dazzling career.
"Playing in the World Cup finals means you've reached the height of your profession and with that comes a huge responsibility to perform," Marques told Reuters.
"Players from every country will face pressure. But there is an extra responsibility for Brazilians because culturally football is the maximum expression of what it means to be Brazilian."
Few people know that better than Mauro Silva. The combative midfielder played at the highest level in Spain for 13 years and was ever present in the Brazil team that won the World Cup in 1994.
Before that competition, Brazil had gone 24 years without winning football's biggest prize and the clamour for success was overwhelming.
"We hadn't won the World Cup since 1970 and that caused a tremendous anxiety," Silva recalled in a telephone interview.
"The atmosphere was not at all relaxed, we couldn't train properly and our work was made easier when we went to the United States. It was good to be outside Brazil."
This time round Brazil will not be able to escape that pressure cooker environment.
At home, every tactical change, personality clash, and injury will be magnified by an insatiable media.
Silva said one of Scolari's main tasks is preparing his players for that psychological challenge.
Brazil's team is young - star player Neymar is just 22 - and several first choice players have not played in a World Cup before.
Marques said players can be trained to deal with the pressure. By having them focus and talk through potentially adverse situations, players will be better prepared to deal with them.
"The Confederations Cup win was important not just because it showed the players they can beat the best, but because it showed the fans," Marques said.
"Part of the preparation is discussing how the fans can be with you or against you.
"You can emphasise the positive aspects of playing at home and potentialise performance by stressing those positive aspects.
"The win over Spain helped the players' self-esteem and the fans were able to identify with the team."
Other players who know him said Scolari's insistence on picking team players who support each other was an important psychological factor.
"It's a young team but it appears strong and united," said Juninho Paulista, one of the few Brazilians to cope with the pressure of playing in England where he had three spells with Middlesbrough.
He also learnt the pressures of playing in Spain and Scotland and had a spell in Australia at the end of his career which peaked with a World Cup winners medal under Scolari in 2002.
"They encourage each other and there's no vanity or egos. Even Neymar, he's the star but he demands more of the others and they demand more of him and it's all done in the same spirit of the 2002 team," Juninho added.
"If there is a concern, it's their age. There are a lot of players, who even though they have experience at the highest level in Europe, have never played a World Cup before.
"It's different. There's much more pressure. Representing your country is more important."
Lurking in the background is the spectre of the failure of 1950, when Brazil lost 2-1 in the final match of the tournament to Uruguay when they were the overwhelming favourites to win.
Sports Minister Aldo Rebelo told Reuters: "I am not exaggerating when I tell you that that was a national tragedy.
"It took us eight years to get over it until we won the World Cup in 1958, and while it has always been in the background, it has come right back in front of our eyes again.
"We must not let that happen again."
Pressure? What pressure? (Editing by Mike Collett and Pritha Sarkar)
- Sports & Recreation
- Luiz Felipe Scolari