As any young Brazilian footballer knows, the honour of pulling on the country's famous yellow jersey brings with it the pressure of expectation. That fact of life was acknowledged by national coach Rogerio Lourenco at a press conference at the recent FIFA U-20 World Cup Egypt 2009.
"The people of Brazil don't just expect A Seleção to win everything, they expect them to play spectacular football too," he explained. "It's never enough just to achieve one of those things, and that's something that applies to any category, whether it's the U-20s, the U-17s, the national team or the women's teams."
Rogerio's counterpart at U-17 level, Lucho Nizzo, is only too aware of those exacting demands as he prepares his charges for the rigours of the FIFA U-17 World Cup Nigeria 2009. And unlike many other teams competing at this level, Nizzo can call on a clutch of players with plenty of top-flight league experience already under their belts, raising expectations even higher.
Two of the tyros in question are Santos's attacking midfielder Neymar, widely regarded as the new Robinho, and Philippe Coutinho, who has been impressing in a midfield role for Vasco da Gama. The teenage twosome are both recognised stars back home, and over the last couple of years they have belied their status as relative novices with a string of performances that have had the fans and a host of major European clubs rapt in admiration. So much so in fact, that Inter Milan came in with a contract for Coutinho back in July 2008, an offer the youngster could not refuse.
"There's no doubt the experience we've gained with our clubs has been important and has helped us a lot," said Neymar before boarding the plane to Nigeria. "What we have to do now, though, is put all that into practice and help A Seleção win the title back."
It is a title that has eluded Brazil since they prevailed at Finland 2003. Two years later in Peru came a painful defeat to Mexico in the final, and at Korea 2007 the three-time champions were knocked out in the Round of 16 by Ghana.
Taking up the baton
Comfortable on the ball and a peerless passer, Coutinho underlined his immense promise when he helped Brazil to their third successive South American Championship success in Iquique, Chile, in May. Though denied the services of Neymar, who was helping Santos reach the final of the Sao Paulo State Championship, Brazil still managed to claim the continental crown after beating Argentina on penalties following a 2-2 draw in normal time.
Hard-fought victories like that should stand Nizo's side in excellent stead for the challenges that lie ahead in Nigeria. And with the U-20 team just coming up short a few days ago in Egypt, where they went down to Ghana on penalties in the final, the boys from Brazil are well aware just how difficult it is to win a major tournament.
"The players watched almost all of the U-20 team's matches and I'm sure they realised that in tournaments like that it's not always the best team that wins," commented coach Nizzo. "It was a shame Brazil lost but I hope my players were able to take some positive conclusions from it, especially the way that little details can make all the difference in the group phases of competitions like this. This is a very important time for the team and it's also important for the future development of the players."
For Neymar and Coutinho, the latest talents to drop off the prolific Brazilian production line, Nigeria 2009 represents an opportunity to introduce themselves to a global audience. Stars in their own right back home, they are poised to follow in the footsteps of the likes of Ronaldinho, Adriano and Diego, who have all graced this global showpiece with their unique skills before going on to conquer the world.