Grace under pressure

Martin Rogers
Yahoo! Sports

BRIDGEVIEW, Ill. – For the glamour boys of world soccer, it was just a quiet afternoon training session. For the 2,500 fans drawn to Toyota Park by the magnetic aura of Brazil's men's national team, the most beautiful exponent of the beautiful game, it was a chance to be sprinkled with stardust.

Few, if any, sporting teams are surrounded by the same level of mystique and awe that greets the Brazilians wherever they venture. Even fewer are considered worthy of a $20 cover charge simply to watch them run practice drills. However, that level of adulation comes with a price of its own.

Those select few who wear the yellow and green enjoy incredible levels of fortune and fame, but they need no reminding that ownership of the jersey always will be a privilege, not a right. That unspoken fact has been drummed into them since birth.

This is a team that defends its nation's pride every time it takes to the field, whether it's a friendly like Sunday's match against the United States or the World Cup final. Bob Bradley's USA side is unlikely to be strong enough to get a positive result against the gifted South Americans at Soldier Field, but that may not be enough to appease the Brazilian public.

On the streets of Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paolo, the country's favorite sons are expected not only to win each game comfortably but also to do so with a stylish and graceful performance befitting their divine soccer heritage.

"It is a kind of pressure, but it is also a beautiful thing and a great feeling," said Barcelona striker Ronaldinho, the 2004 and 2005 FIFA World Footballer of the Year. "We are brought up with that kind of pressure, and we are ready for it and look forward to it by the time we get to the national team."

The fans who watched training at the home of the Chicago Fire were spirited and simply satisfied by the chance to see the likes of Kaka, Ronaldinho and Gilberto Silva in the flesh. After all, this is a group of players who had more than 30,000 watch them train in Hungary and Croatia recently and more than 70,000 at a camp in northwest Brazil.

Back home, the Brazilians are seen not only as superstars and bearers of a nation's sporting dreams but also as men of the people. Virtually every national team player in recent years grew up in the favelas, or slums, of various cities.

"For them it is special," Brazilian FA spokesman Rodrigo Paiva said. "Ninety-nine percent of those players were really poor people, and now they are idolized around the world.

"This sport was their chance to have a good life. But they are still the same. They don't change their personality; they are still simple people. They have to live with the responsibility, but they do not allow it to become a burden."

In the three World Cups since the 1994 tournament in the United States, when a team including current coach Dunga lifted the trophy after a penalty shootout against Italy, Brazil have been finalists, champions again and quarterfinalists and have spent little time away from the top of the world rankings.

Yet while the tale of this remarkable sporting phenomenon is a story of triumph, it also is tinged with sadness.

For every chosen one who gets to play for his country, there are another 10,000 who didn't make it. Domestic soccer in Brazil is not highly paid, and many are forced to seek their fortune in overseas leagues, in places like the Central African Republic, Faroe Islands, Iceland, Kazakhstan, Egypt, Libya, Mozambique and India.

The wealth of talent in Brazil has not escaped the attention of big European clubs, and a worrying trend, of promising youngsters being poached in their early teens and then discarded if they do not make the grade, continues.

FIFA have agreed to assist Brazil's soccer chiefs in their efforts to clamp down on this practice, but weeding out unscrupulous agents and fixers is no small task.

"I know what life is like for boys with big dreams in the favelas," Ronaldinho said. "It feels like the game is a way out, but it is not always so. Some are fortunate, but not everyone is the same."

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