Brazil are on a steep learning curve – and England represent a real challenge

James Young
neymar 300x225 Brazil are on a steep learning curve   and England represent a real challenge

Neymar has a touch of the old school about him

It may be drizzly summer in Brazil, but rebuilt World Cup stadiums are popping from the earth like spring crocuses. The Copa das Confederações is mere months away, and the big digital clock in the Praça da Liberdade here in Belo Horizonte counts down to the Mundial: 491 days, as of this morning. The sense of anticipation is almost palpable.

After more than two years of trial and error under Mano Menezes, the home straight also looms for Felipe Scolari and the Seleção. Time is short – less than a year and a half’s worth of friendlies and the lukewarm competitiveness of the Confederations Cup is thin gruel for building a World Cup title challenger.

At least, starting with tonight’s friendly against England, Brazil’s 2013 fixture list will be tougher than it generally was for the unfortunate Mr Menezes.  Over the coming months, Felipão’s side will take on Russia, Portugal, Italy and France, with a game against Germany also in the pipeline. It represents a considerable step-up from last year’s patsies such as China, Iraq and South Africa, games from which almost nothing was learnt. This Brazil squad remains in the middle of a steep learning curve, and will be all the better for the greater challenges ahead.

The fast track to 2014 starts tonight at Wembley. While the presence of Brazil in London is hardly a rarity (in recent years, English fans have probably had as many opportunities to watch the Seleção in the flesh as have Brazilians), England vs. Brazil, from Guadalajara in 1970 to Shizuoka in 2002, still generates a certain frisson. “Um clássico mundial,” as Felipão recently described it.

Perhaps it’s the history, perhaps it’s the real or imagined clash of styles. Although the gentrification of the Premier League has improved things, Brazilian fans still see English football as the realm of the honest toiler, organised but ungainly, the ball seemingly becoming octagonal rather than spherical when resting atop a toe from the Land of the Queen (as TV pundits invariably refer to anything England related). Spanish tiki-taka might have taken over from o jogo bonito, but for the love of God, surely we’re still better than England, runs the thinking from Porto Alegre to Pará. “England are a good team with good players,” Neymar said yesterday, “but I don’t see them as one of our main World Cup rivals.”

Meanwhile, despite the recent fall from grace, the canary yellow of Brazil’s shirts retains a kind of footballing exoticism, the ghosts of Pelé, Zico, Sócrates, Romário and the rest an ethereal presence hovering over the shoulders of the current side.

A look at the careers of a few of those greats provides an interesting parallel with some of today’s players. Other than a spell with the New York Cosmos at the end of his career, Pelé spent his entire footballing life with Santos. Zico and Sócrates too, spent most of their careers in Brazil, with Flamengo and Corinthians, respectively. And Romário is famous for leaving Barcelona and returning to Brazilian club football whilst still in his prime.

Roughly similar career trajectories pepper today’s Seleção, though that is not to compare Luís Fabiano with Romário, or (gulp), Neymar with Pelé. But the fact that these two, and others such as Ronaldinho Gaúcho, Fluminense’s Fred, and Corinthians’ Paulinho, play their football in Brazil adds a touch of mystery to the proceedings. In today’s world of internet streaming and myriad cable TV channels it is naïve to imagine that Neymar might be unknown to the average England fan at Wembley tonight, but he is certainly less visible while playing for Santos than he would be if he was at Barcelona or Real Madrid.

Neymar’s determination to stay in Brazil has perhaps lent him a touch of the old school, a hangover from the days when South American players would spend their careers at home, only venturing to Europe a couple of times a year, with the national side or on a club tour, to teach the locals a few footballing lessons. He is unlikely to do quite that tonight, but his is a prodigious talent, and with Mundial pressure mounting and more daunting foes on the horizon, it may be that 2013 is the year when he proves a few of the doubters wrong.

And then there is Ronaldinho. Now successfully reinvented as the arch-schemer of an admirable Atlético Mineiro side, English fans should not expect the surging scampers of yore. But instead, if afforded the space, there will be boundless sleight of foot and a variety of passing angles that would make Euclid blush. There is, after all, more than one way to skin a zagueiro.

Reports from yesterday’s training session suggest that Brazil will line up with Oscar and Ronaldinho as the creative hub in the middle, Luís Fabiano as the lead striker, and Neymar flitting about somewhere nearby, most frequently drifting to the left. Ramires and the excellent Paulinho will provide more than just defensive cover, while the back four will be made up of Daniel Alves, David Luiz, Bayern Munich’s Dante, and Barcelona’s Adriano. Four of that side play their club football in Brazil, although Julio César, of the not terribly Brazilian QPR, will be in goal.

It is Felipão’s first draft, rather than the finished work. But all of Brazil will be watching, looking for clues to Scolari’s thinking and seeking a few glimmers of hope for the Mundial. A new manager, a famous stadium, proper opposition, and the World Cup coming up fast on the horizon? For Brazil, 2014 starts now.

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