Brazil beat Chile on 3-2 penalties in a nerve-shredding shootout in Belo Horizonte on Saturday with the hopes of the nation weighing heavily on their shoulders.
Neymar and David Luiz were among those who burst into tears at the whistle, while goalkeeper Julio Cesar, who was Brazil’s hero after saving two spot-kicks, sobbed openly in front of TV cameras and reporters.
The emotional reaction prompted fears the relatively inexperienced squad might be struggling to handle the enormous pressure of winning the World Cup at home as attention turns to Friday’s quarter-final against Colombia.
“I see a team that is visibly nervous, I see a team that is tense, I see a team that is a bit desperate,” said Antero Greco, a columnist at the O Estado de S. Paulo newspaper, one of Brazil’s most important.
Brazil are the only country to win the World Cup five times but they lost out the last time the tournament was held here in 1950. Brazil were beaten 2-1 in the final by Uruguay, and goalkeeper Moacyr Barbosa carried the heavy burden of that bitter defeat until the day he died 50 years later.
The 23 players in Brazil’s squad are well aware of that match famously dubbed “our Hiroshima” and the loss is still seen as a scar on the national psyche.
Many have pinned their hopes on the 2014 World Cup as a chance to erase the lingering pain of that defeat and create a generation of new heroes who were able to achieve what that team in 1950 fell so tantalisingly short of accomplishing.
Yet the demands come with a vast amount of pressure and few players seemed ready to risk taking on the role of leader on Saturday.
“Nobody wants to be this World Cup’s Barbosa,” said Paulo Vinicius Coelho, one of ESPN Brazil’s most respected commentators. “Now we run the risk of having not one Barbosa but 23. The team is a sea of nerves and anxiety.”
Coach Luiz Felipe Scolari has said he will work on building players’ confidence this week.
One of the players who was in his squad when he led Brazil to their last World Cup win in 2002 tried to see the positive side of Saturday’s narrowest of wins.
Former Middlesbrough midfielder Juninho said the team would be strengthened by their success in overcoming adversity.
The tournament now moves into a new phase where strong nerves and cool heads were required and one mistake can be decisive, he said.
“The pressure will continue and it will be greater,” Juninho said in the Lance! sports newspaper. “It’s time to concentrate and have confidence.”
(Reporting by Andrew Downie and Guillermo Parra-Bernal; editing by Erik Kirschbaum)