It’s all happening in Brazil. We’re just two months away from the start of a three-year sporting bonanza beginning with the 2013 Confederations Cup and ending with the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro. In the middle of that is the 2014 World Cup, a tournament that has belonged to Brazil more than any other country in international history. And the pressure is on for Seleção boss Luiz Felipe Scolari.So far in his five-month tenure in charge of the Seleção, Scolari has managed Brazil in four games – three in Europe and one back home in Brazil – and won just one. For Brazil, that simply isn’t good enough.
With three more games to go until the opening day of the 2013 Confederations Cup, Scolari is under increasing pressure to get it right – for when 2014 comes round, the fans will demand nothing less than a sixth World Cup victory; nothing less than total domination from start to finish; nothing less than a triumph on home soil for the very first time in their history.
It is for this reason that Scolari has been installed in the hotseat. The former Palmeiras and Chelsea boss led a star-studded Seleção to glory in the 2002 World Cup, a tournament where the likes of Ronaldo, Rivaldo, Ronaldinho, Cafu and Roberto Carlos demonstrated their talents on the world stage.
But the current incarnation of the national team is nothing like as imperious as the class of 2002. However, with a proven winner in Scolari at the helm, supporters of the Seleção are hoping that the man affectionately called Felipão can work his magic once more.
Unfortunately, things haven’t quite gone according to plan.
England 2-1 Brazil
February 06 2013, Wembley, London, United Kingdom.
Scolari’s reign started on arguably the biggest stage of them all. People will most likely recall his first game at Wembley against Roy Hodgson’s England where they crumbled to a disappointing defeat at the hands of Wayne Rooney and co.
Although Fluminense striker Fred scored a stunning effort in the second half, it was sandwiched between goals from Rooney and Frank Lampard. Seleção fans were disappointed at the nature of the defeat, as well as some lacklustre performances from the veterans on the pitch.
A particularly inept Luís Fabiano ploughed a lone furrow up front while Ronaldinho failed to recapture his Atlético Mineiro form. The midfield duo of Paulinho and Ramires were overrun by the lively England trio of Steven Gerrard, Jack Wilshere and Tom Cleverley. The defence was ruthlessly exposed time and time again by Theo Walcott’s darting runs. It wasn’t a particularly pleasing sight for Scolari.
However, there were positives. Fred’s goal showed he was beginning to translate his club form to the international stage, something he’d failed to do in previous spells with the national team. Júlio César’s return to the national setup was followed by an impressive goalkeeping display as he pulled off stop after stop to save Brazil’s blushes.
But the debate worldwide wasn’t Brazil’s shoddy performance, nor was it about England’s superb showing. It was all about Neymar. Probably the most disappointing aspect of the game was Neymar’s own subpar performance, particularly in face of an expectant home crowd who’d been repeatedly informed that they were about to see a special talent.
Neymar had a quiet performance, missed a few sitters in front of goal and looked nothing like the multi-million euro talent that Barcelona had been chasing for the past year or two. Predictably, the Brazilian was written off by scores of viewers as overhyped and overrated. While that debate is best left for another day, Brazil failed to live up to their billing, continuing their malaise from the Mano Menezes era.
Italy 2-2 Brazil
March 21 2013, Stade de Genève, Geneva, Switzerland.
The next game for Brazil came against Italy as the first of two successive friendlies in March and the Seleção played out a thrilling draw in Geneva, Switzerland. This time, Scolari oversaw another poor performance but somehow sneaked into the break with two goals thanks to Fred and Chelsea’s Oscar.
A second half collapse, though, allowed the Azzurri back into the game, with Mario Balotelli at his mercurial best as the Italian scored an absolutely sensational equaliser after Daniele de Rossi had earlier pulled a goal back.
Again, Scolari rang the changes, with the Ramires-Paulinho axis in midfield sidelined through injury and thus making way for Lazio’s Hernanes and Grêmio’s Fernando. The duo impressed pundits and fans alike with a much more balanced and mature performance. The previous midfield consisting of the Chelsea star as well as Corinthians’ Paulinho had been too fragile, too willing to bomb forward, and not defensive minded enough to support the attacking trio of Neymar, Ronaldinho and Oscar in the previous game.
But with distinct differences between Hernanes and Fernando, the duo could easily split their duties. Fernando shielded the defence ably and picked up the ball from deep. The Lazio star meanwhile played his natural game and linked the midfield and the attack superbly. It was a drastic difference to Ramires and Paulinho, both box-to-box midfielders.
With the new midfield behind them, Oscar and Neymar were much improved and posed a threat on the break culminating in a delightful second goal. Neymar picked up the ball in his own half and drove into the Italian defence before playing a sensational reverse pass into Oscar’s path and the Chelsea midfielder duly converted the chance.
While Scolari improved the balance in attack, the Seleção’s defensive woes contined as they failed to deal with the threat of Balotelli on the shoulder of the defence, and in truth, the Italians should have easily won the game in the first half alone. Fred earned a start in attack, but the striker delivered an anonymous showing, the goal aside, and contributed little in the build-up.
More questions than answers it seems for Scolari.
Brazil 1-1 Russia
March 25 2013, Stamford Bridge, London, United Kingdom.
Scolari returned to the scene of his disastrous seven-month tenure at Chelsea as Brazil took to the field at Stamford Bridge, securing a last-gasp draw against Fabio Capello’s Russia as Fred snatched an equaliser deep into injury time.
Viktor Faizulin buried Russia’s opening goal in the second half after an incredible goalmouth scramble, but the Russians were guilty of far too many wasted chances and the Seleção defence guilty of gifting far too many opportunities.
By this time, the performances had grown predictable. A fragile defence ruthlessly exploited by mobile forwards and a wasteful attack having difficulties integrating Fred despite the Fluminense striker’s superb recent record of three goals in three games.
Kaká would be recalled to the first team for the fixture but the Real Madrid playmaker turned in an anonymous performance, failing to shine alongside Oscar and Neymar.It’s becoming increasingly obvious now that Brazil are struggling to find the right balance in attack, with Scolari forced to choose between playing a traditional playmaker such as Ronaldinho or Kaká in the middle whilst shifting Oscar out on the right wing or play the Chelsea youngster in the middle and bring in Zenit Saint Petersburg’s Hulk for the right wing.
While the latter utilises Oscar in his preferred position, Hulk has been guilty of far too many lacklustre performances in a Seleção shirt. And the former relies on either Ronaldinho or Kaká to rediscover their form for Brazil. Neither is likely to do so in the near future.
As Scolari shuffles his options in midfield to find the best setup, the former Chelsea manager is left with few such choices up front.
Fred has been by far away the best striker in the Brasileirão last season with 20 goals in 28 appearances and remains the most reliable option. But the 29-year-old has been around the international scene for years and flattered to deceive at major tournaments, giving rise to concerns about his ability to compete at the highest level. But there are few options beyond him.
Leandro Damião has stalled since his superb performances at the London 2012 Olympic Games and his form declined last season for Internacional in face of a long standing saga over a move to Tottenham. Beyond that, São Paulo’s Luís Fabiano took to the field against England and performed poorly. Alexandre Pato is still recovering from his injury woes at Corinthians.
So then, Brazil are forced to trust in Fred to continue his goalscoring form. But the lack of a world class number nine remains a concern ahead of the 2014 World Cup.
Bolivia 0-4 Brazil
April 06 2013, Estadio Ramón Aguilera Costas, Santa Cruz de la Sierra, Bolivia.
Scolari finally gained his first win as Seleção boss after a side consisting of purely domestic players defeated Bolivia courtesy of a Neymar brace. Leandro Damião made a goalscoring return and Palmeiras’ Leandro marked his debut with a last-minute strike.
Neymar made a return to his best form but it’s another concern for Brazil that the Santos star seems unable to perform on the biggest stage of all, given his undoubted ability. With huge media demands and the ongoing saga over a summer move to La Liga giants Barcelona, perhaps the pressure is taking its toll.
A long line of former players and legends of the game have consistently urged the player to bite the bullet and move to Europe to take his game to another level, much like compatriot Lucas Moura did when he left São Paulo for Paris Saint-Germain.
But this was a morale boosting win for the Seleção and highlighted the talents of those players playing their trade in the Brasileirão. It’s likely that there will be a lot more unfamiliar names for neutrals at the Confederations Cup.
With the standard and quality of the national league improving, less players are demanding moves to Europe and we could see new stars emerging at the tournament with the likes of Atlético Mineiro’s Bernard and Cruzeiro’s potential new signing Dedé clamouring to be called up to the squad.
Brazil have three more games to improve their game ahead of the Confederations Cup. The first of which is a friendly clash later in April against Chile, using domestic players only, and two more friendlies in June against England and France.
The latter two games will give Scolari the opportunity to test his European-based elites before returning home to Brazil in time for the opening game of the 2013 Confederations Cup on June 15 against Japan.
The tournament, while traditionally low key, will pose the toughest test of all for Scolari as the Seleção face the likes of Italy, Spain, Uruguay, Japan, Mexico and Nigeria. All tough games. Definitely not an easy task.
I’ll not mention whipping boys Tahiti.
The Confederations Cup will be a litmus test for Brazil in many ways. Not only will the stadiums, facilities and infrastructure of the host nation be intensely scrutinised by inspectors from FIFA ahead of their showpiece event in 2014, Scolari and the Seleção will also face the same scrutiny from the most demanding group of all, the supporters.