The much-questioned striker is ready to apply himself towards fulfilling a nation’s dreams of progress on and off the pitch
When hundreds of millions of eyes focus on Brazil on Thursday for the opening game of the World Cup, the last thing Fifa wants is a protest or a political message to distract attention from the action on the pitch.
But one of the key players likely to take the field for that first match, the Brazil striker Fred, says demonstrations can serve as an inspiration for a team and a nation that is determined to improve itself.
The mood of the nation towards the World Cup has been uneasy since a million people took to the streets during the Confederations Cup last June to protest against overspending on stadiums, police violence and corruption in Fifa and the national government.
In a rare insight into the atmosphere inside the squad at the time, Fred – who was top scorer for the Brazil team that emerged as champions of that tournament – explains that the players backed the demonstrations.
“During the Confederations Cup, we talked about the protests in the locker room and we wanted to join in. Man, we supported them,” he says. “99% of the players know from experience how people in this country suffer unless they are among the minority who have money.”
Few expect such big protests this time because the violence of subsequent demonstrations has scared many of last year’s marchers off. The World Cup is also far more of a rallying point for Brazilians. Fred does not predict a repeat of the unrest.
“I don’t think it feels, at the moment, like it was before. As the World Cup approaches there is surely going to be a lot of celebration, a blaze of happiness. Everybody will be cheering, there will not be one person who is not following us.”
But as a member of the Seleção, he is conscious of the problems as well as the potential of the people he represents.
“The majority suffer with various things: inequality, education, healthcare and they have a difficult life like I also had. When I represent the Seleção I want to make myself an example to show that even with all the same difficulties that Brazilian people face, they can still dream and work hard in search of their goals – God helps those that help themselves.”
His words touch upon two of the biggest trends in the country in recent years: the drive for improved living standards and the growth of self-help evangelical Christianity. Fred is one of several evangelicals in the Seleção, which was once made up predominantly by Catholics.
Many were shocked when Fred declared himself a convert as he had a reputation as a womaniser and party animal. But the 30-year-old is now tipped by some as a future politician.
Other Brazilian strikers have made the transition with mixed results.
Pelé was sports minister from 1995 to 1998, but – as in other aspects of his career since retiring from football – made far less of an impression off the pitch than he did on it. Bebeto has been a state deputy in Rio de Janeiro since 2011, but has made little impact.
However, Romário – the hero of the 1994 World Cup winning team – has proved as incisive, controversial and eyecatching as a federal deputy as he was as a player. Fred declares himself a fan.
“Romário is great. I love what he’s doing. I wish he could become president,” he says. “Most politicians are terrible. The laws in Brazil don’t work.”
As the only player in the starting lineup from a domestic team, Fred has a devoted following. He makes time for fans, patiently responding to an interruption on our photoshoot by recording a mobile phone video message for the sick, elderly mother of a fan.
But his position in the team is often questioned by critics.
Until last year, the statistics supported the sceptics. Fred is a forward in the British mode – aerial power and physical presence. He lacks the flamboyant tricks expected of Brazilian strikers and his goalscoring haul, until recently, is modest. No Seleção striker since the ill-fated campaign of 1990 has a worse record.
But Fred has thrived since Luiz Felipe Scolari took over as manager of the national team. He was joint top scorer in the Confederations Cup last year when his five goals played a major role in Brazil’s victory.
That success does not appear to have gone to his head. In interviews he stresses that he doesn’t see himself as special or expect to be one of the gamechangers on the Brazilian team. That role, he believes, is more likely to be played by his striking partner, Neymar.
“I’m rooting for him to become one of the biggest highlights of the World Cup,” he says.
Few would argue. Fred plays the straight man to Neymar. If they click, as they did last year, then Brazil should be able to outscore most of their opponents this summer. Playing at home, the team know that is what they are expected to do all the way to the final.
“We players in Brazil know we have the conditions and an obligation to win this world title in Brazil, simply because this country breathes football,” he says.
The fiercest competition, he predicts, will come from Argentina and Germany. England are not seen in the same threat category – despite his playing against Roy Hodgson’s side twice last year without winning. Fred says: “They will surely give their opponents a hard time.”