Brazil national football team: Why playing at home could be crushing Neymar and co

Joe Hall
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Brazil v Iraq: Men's Football - Olympics: Day 2
No hiding place: Neymar and co appear to be struggling under the huge pressure of playing at home (Source: Getty)

If there is one event at this year's Olympics that host nation Brazil could safely boast of both packed out stadiums of supporters and the most accomplished athlete in the field, it's football.

While the majority of football loving nations shrug at the Olympic event, Brazil arguably have put together the tournament's strongest squad with elite level superstar Neymar leading a seleção team that includes Paris Saint-Germain defender Marquinhos, Manchester City's new £27m teenager Gabriel Jesus and the supposed desire of Europe's top clubs, Gabriel Barbosa, otherwise known as Gabigol.

And yet Brazil have bombed. Two dismal stalemates against the footballing powerhouses of South Africa and Iraq, the latter inducing a chorus of boos from the home crowd in Brasilia, leave Brazil facing the prospect of embarrassing elimination if they don't beat Denmark in Salvador tonight.

The 50,000 capacity Fonte Nova Arena will once again greet the team with a golden sea of noise. Unfortunately for Neymar and co, that could be more of a hindrance than a help.

In The Athletic Brain, a new book on how neuroscience can be used to push athletic performance to new heights, journalist Amit Katwala found the heightened pressure of playing at home in front of an expectant crowd can force athletes to focus on dwell on their performance to an unhealthy extent.

When faced with with moments of extreme stress, the emotional side of a player's brain can overwhelm and take control — a sensation labelled the "amygdala hijack", when the evolutionary flight, fight or freeze response is triggered by a release of adrenaline that bypasses conscious perception.

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Brazil may be freezing under the weight of the country's expectations. Not only is the team carrying gold medal hopes of an Olympic host nation, they are tasked with restoring pride to a national game humiliated in recent times by a 7-1 decimation to Germany in the 2014 World Cup on home soil and a limp group stage exit from the Copa America in June, against the backdrop of economic recession and political crisis.

Furthermore, Olympic gold is the one international title to have eluded Brazil's national team, a record all the more antagonising considering arch rivals Uruguay and Argentina have both won it twice.

"It's rare that a country like Brazil, considered the land of football, still hasn't won gold," Neymar admitted before the tournament.

“For Brazil, it really means something extra than a normal game,” Katwala told City A.M.

“In Brazil’s case, even before the 7-1, there was a whole history hanging over them. The 1950 World Cup loss to Uruguay on home soil was like a scar on the national consciousness.

“With all that on top of you, the pressure starts to tell a bit more. Athletes have trained automatic muscle memories and movements over thousands of hours of practice. If they start paying attention to the added pressure from the home crowd, those skills can start breaking down.

“Players can start thinking ‘right, I’ve got to get this right, I’ve got to make sure that I control this properly’. You’re running through that in your head and it’s actually detrimental because you need to let the automatic part of your brain handle it.”

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Katwala points to a 1980s experiment by psychologist Roy Bauminster who trained people to become expert at the Sky Jinks computer game and then asked them to play firstly in front of a neutral observer and then in front of a supporter.

“What he found was that their performance deteriorated more in the second condition, with the supportive crowd, which I guess isn’t really what you would expect,” says Katwala.

“Logically that doesn’t really make sense but actually because they had a supportive crowd they were paying too much attention to trying to get it right and therefore the automatic skills that they’d just learned deteriorated."

If all this sounds anathema to football fans used to seeing their team dominate at home but struggle to pick up a point on the road, it's important to remember that players such as Neymar have reached the pinnacle partly thanks to their ability to handle the daily pressure of life at Camp Nou.

Yet while the constant pressure of playing for Barcelona becomes familiar, the unique circumstances facing Brazil can be crushing even for athletes as accomplished as their captain.

"What we’re talking about here is the rare cases when they experience unprecedented levels of pressure," says Katwala.

"Playing a home tournament in Brazil with the weight of history on you — you can’t really prepare for that."

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