A football-mad nation that has become completely synonymous with class, flair, and international prestige, Brazil has boasted some of the finest footballers ever to grace the field.
Romario, Rivaldo, Ronaldo, Ronaldinho, Robinho, Kaka, Adriano, Firmino, Gabriel Jesus, Neymar. The list of high-end Brazilian attacking talent stretches on and on, seemingly without end.
But this is not a story about class, flair, or prestige. It’s a story about mediocrity. It’s a story about disappointment. It’s a story about humiliation. It’s a story about a 7-1 World Cup semi-final hiding. This is a story about how an ordinary man named Fred came to be the face of Brazil’s doomed generation, and how it all ended in eternal embarrassment.
Understanding Fred is no easy feat. Understanding Fred and how such a player found his way into Brazil’s starting XI is a deeply complex thing to do.
To understand Fred you must be prepared to realise that he is an enigma and his career trajectory is one of the many mysteries of the universe. So, let’s try and work through this together.
First of all, something strange happens when you look at a picture of Fred. Your brain becomes muddled and confused. You forget who you’re looking at. Nope, that’s not your local barber. Nope, wrong again, that’s not the beguiling geography teacher that your mum fawns over at parents evening. And finally, nope, that’s not that B-list celebrity whose name you can never quite remember… although that does sound about right.
There was something about Fred’s very countenance that screamed mediocrity. He oozed indifference. He was an outlier. He didn’t share the same energy that Brazil’s surplus of stars had in bucket-loads. In fact, he generally shared the same energy as a rude Parisian waiter.
There was nothing really about Fred that could get the crowd off their seats. He was Berbatov without the touch. Carroll without the ponytail. Dzeko without the goals. He was practically the Brazilian edition of Carlton Cole.
Ever since Fred curiously materialised on Brazil’s international scene, it immediately felt like something was disturbingly off. It was almost as if Joe Exotic had somehow got a job at NASA.
During the 2006 World Cup, Fred was selected as back-up to the likes of Ronaldo, Adriano and Robinho. Eight years later, in 2014, at a World Cup hosted by his home country, he was leading the front line.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. When Fred first became involved with the national team, he was in his early 20s and the star-studded XI of Brazil were competing in the 2006 World Cup in Germany. Fred kept the bench warm during the qualification campaign, and then managed to find the net twice in an 8-0 friendly match against the UAE in November 2005.
Looking back, there’s a valid argument to suggest that this was probably his level.
What many don’t realise about Fred is that his playing career was a doomed tragedy from the outset – and that is enormously upsetting. His first club was America Mineiro, a team from Belo Horizonte in Minas Gerais. Coincidently, Belo Horizonte would be the stage in which 58,000 fans would watch Brazil suffer one of their biggest ever World Cup defeats.
In the same city where Fred’s promising footballing career had begun, it would eventually reach a terrible conclusion, with boos ringing around the stadium as Fred left the field never to play for his country ever again.
But despite his role in what Brazilians now refer to as, the Mineirazo, the agony of Mineirao, Fred did enjoy a fairly successful career at club level. Aside from three seasons and 42 goals at Lyon, he played the majority of his football in Brazil with America Mineiro, Cruzeiro and Fluminense.
Years after the trauma of the Mineirazo, Fred returned to Belo Horizonte with Atletico Mineiro, where he scored another total of 42 goals. Perhaps this dispelled the suffering of the past. Perhaps it only eased the pain.
Brazil’s 7-1 defeat to Germany in 2014 is the stuff of football folklore. By half-time it was a rout. By full-time it was a complete embarrassment. The game was horrible to watch [Ed: speak for yourself].
Credit to the Germans, but to beat a host-nation by six goals and with such ease and style, it was just disrespectful. The game was so disastrous, it broke the record as the worst loss by a host country in World Cup history.
It was long overdue. It was the hiding that had been coming. Brazil had been casting this illusion that they were a solid side for weeks. In reality, they reached the semi-finals through Neymar’s majesty, the support of the fans and blind luck alone.
During the opening match of the tournament against Croatia, it was alarmingly obvious that this was not a good Brazilian side, but they soldiered on regardless and still reached heady heights. But what goes up must come down, and come down they did.
At some point during the game, the despondent home fans unanimously, instinctively, decided that Fred was to blame. Fred was what was wrong with this team. It was Fred who had brought about this catastrophe.
And so, when he was substituted off – something all the Brazilian players no doubt craved – his own fans booed him. And these weren’t just his countrymen, these were the fine people of the state of Minas, his home.
So, when the dust settled and the Toni Kroos-shaped storm clouds faded away, there was one man who would not be allowed to forget his role in the Mineirazo. The fans were furious.
Maybe it was his failure to touch the ball once in the German penalty area that provoked the ire of the fans. Maybe it was his singular shot (off-target, of course). Maybe it was his pathetic 15 successful passes.
It felt like the type of anger that went deeper than that though. It was the type of anger that Tywin Lannister felt toward his son, Tyrion. It was a frustration and disappointment at the fact that Fred didn’t fit the mould of the Brazilian attacker.
If Ronaldo, Ronaldinho or Neymar had bad games, they’d be forgiven, because they were legends. They were everything Brazilian football had come to represent. Fred didn’t have the glitz and glamour that the Brazilian fans had come to expect from players at that level.
This was the denouement of Brazil’s doomed generation. It was a poor side who bit off more than they could chew and quickly found themselves in deep water. This was a generation of players who sullied the flag and left an indelible mark on the country’s sporting reputation.
There were players in the team who would be forgiven, but the events of Belo Horizonte would never be forgotten.
As for Fred, this was the end of his short-lived tenure as Brazil’s first-choice No.9. It was a shirt that never quite fitted the man, and a role he was never entirely comfortable with.
Ultimately, he’s a player who won’t be forgotten. Although scapegoated by many, he did at least prove that those who go against the grain can still ascend the ladder and find themselves leading the line of one of football’s most iconic teams.
It’s better to be a poster boy of failure than to be a poster boy of nothing at all. Is that a saying? Probably not.
By Francis Buchanan