As the World Cup approaches, we’re featuring a series of essays on this year’s tournament.
The 2014 World Cup, which begins on June 12, is all about Brazil. It is the host country, its team is the favorite, its players and manager are the focus of a huge majority of the two hundred million people who live in the nation and millions more who live outside it. Thirty-one other national teams will be arriving in the country next month, some of them with arguably as good a chance of winning the tournament as Brazil. But until the Selecao—or the Selection, as the Brazilian team is called—gets knocked out of the World Cup, every other team will be a guest in its house.
At nearly every position on the field, Brazil fields some of the best players in the world from the best teams in the world: its star, the forward Neymar, who plays for Barcelona during the club season; its playmaker, Oscar, who plays in London for Chelsea; its defenders Marcelo and Thiago Silva, who play for Real Madrid and Paris Saint-Germain, respectively. The only thing the team doesn’t have this year is a Ronaldo; as the British writer John Lanchester pointed out before the 2006 World Cup, the team then nearly included four of them—“Ronaldao, Ronaldo, Ronaldinho, and Ronaldinhozinho: big Ronald, normal-sized Ronald, small Ronald, and even smaller Ronald.”
In place of all those Ronaldos, though, Brazil has Hulk—its starting right winger, who has a build far different from most any other soccer player in the country, or the world, for that matter. On the pitch, his upper body looks like someone tried to wrap an undersize jersey over a brick house. Hulk plies his trade at Zenit St. Petersburg, in Russia, almost as close as a Brazilian can get to soccer Siberia as the United States. He’s also somewhat removed from the country’s samba school of soccer, a style of play the nation prides itself on and that is commonly referred to as Jogo Bonito, or the Beautiful Game. It’s best represented this year by the creative footwork of Neymar and Oscar, who dodge and dart every which way while maintaining control of the ball as if it were on the long end of a yo-yo attached to their toes instead of their fingers. This isn’t Hulk’s game; his is more the battering ram.
Yet Hulk himself disagrees. “I don’t think my style of playing is different from the classic Brazilian style,” he says over the phone from his apartment in St. Petersburg, with the help of a translator, while his two young boys—Ian, five, and Tiago, three—run riot in the background. “I like to dribble. I like to turn heads with the ball. Maybe only my physical state can make someone wrong about my style of playing.”
“Hulk has technique,” says Juca Kfouri, Brazil’s best-known soccer journalist and a columnist with Folha de S.Paulo, “although it’s unrefined.” Kfouri compares Hulk to the powerful striker Vava, from the World Cup teams of 1958 and 1962. The Brazililan novelist Sergio Rodrigues finds Hulk’s style more reminiscent of Gil, from the 1978 team, who, like Hulk, used to dribble in from the right and fire left-footed cannonballs from a distance. “We do have strong, powerful players in Brazil football,” Rodrigues says. “It’s just that they are usually not the best.”
Or the most popular. “Hulk might walk down the street in Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo without being recognized,” Kfouri says. For a man who is nearly six feet tall and two hundred pounds, that would seem hard to do.
Hulk, whose given name is Givanildo Vieira de Souza, grew up in Campina Grande, a city in the northeastern state of Paraiba, one of the poorer areas of the country, with a severely dry climate. Nearby beaches and the discovery of dinosaur tracks and prehistoric rock carvings draw tourists, yet the area is more known to the rest of Brazil as a place people emigrate from. Hulk did just that, at sixteen, when he moved to Portugal for a year of soccer training. Two years later he landed in Japan, where he helped the club Tokyo Verdy get promoted from the league’s second tier to its first. In 2008, he moved back to Portugal and spent four years with the club FC Porto. The team won the league championship three of those years, and Hulk led it in scoring twice. He was so important to Porto that a statue of him, shirtless, in his trademark-goal celebration pose—an imitation of Lou Ferrigno’s TV Hulk in full flex—now stands in the team’s museum. (Hulk’s father was a fan of the television program, and nicknamed his son after it.)
“That’s the first people ever heard of him in Brazil,” says Rodrigues, whose first novel to be translated in English, Elza: the Girl, will be published this fall, and who will be covering the World Cup for the Brazilian weekly Veja. “It was a bit of, ‘Oh, it’s Portugal. It’s easy to do that in Portugal.’”
When Scolari took over as manager for a second time, in late 2012, Hulk became a fixture in Brazil’s starting lineup, after he’d moved yet again, this time to Russia. Scolari placed him on the right wing, mirroring Neymar on the left, with the injury-riddled striker Fred parked in between them. Scolari seems to like that Hulk’s wrecking-ball moves and powerful left foot give the Brazilian team a second option in the rare instances that Neymar and Oscar’s skilled acrobatics aren’t working.
The fans haven’t necessarily agreed. In a friendly match in Rio de Janeiro prior to last summer’s Confederations Cup, Hulk was booed for taking the place of the more beloved, and technically proficient, homegrown player Lucas Moura, who currently plays for Paris Saint-Germain and didn’t make the final cut for this summer’s team.
“I went out of Brazil very early, so the people in Brazil didn’t know me well. So they didn’t support me so much,” Hulk says. “I was never intimidated by this because I always knew that I had to go to the field and do my job. But when we had the Confederations Cup last year everything changed, and now it’s the opposite way.”
Indeed, the booing stopped, and when Hulk left the field he was more often applauded than not. Brazil won the tournament—beating the likes of Italy and Spain—and Hulk played well throughout, but he didn’t score. “It’s one of the reasons people feel suspicious,” Rodrigues says. “The Confederations Cup was Neymar’s playground, and Hulk was just one of the sidekicks.”
Brazil hosted the World Cup once before, in 1950, before it had ever won any of its five championships. Its national team breezed its way to the final that year, where it lost in a shocking upset to Uruguay. The country still hasn’t gotten over it. “It’s one of those national traumas,” Rodrigues says. “It’s like the Kennedy assassination. It’s that bad.”
In the years that followed, Nelson Rodrigues, the country’s most respected playwright—who was also a soccer journalist—coined the phrase complexo de vira-lata, or “the mongrel complex,” to define the inferiority issues that plagued the nation following the loss. If Neymar doesn’t shine at this year’s World Cup, Brazilians will count on Hulk to do so instead. But if neither of them do, it will likely mean someone from somewhere else did, and who knows what complex could result from that.
David Gendelman is research editor at Vanity Fair. Follow him on Twitter at @gendelmand.