The feel good factor in Belo Horizonte may not extend to the Brazil national team
Rio de Janeiro? As stale as yesterday’s päo de queijo. São Paulo? As cutting edge as a mid-nineties Now That’s What I Call Music CD. These days, the footballing place to be in Brazil is Belo Horizonte.
Atlético Mineiro’s surge through the Libertadores group phase is well documented. Propelled by the Gandalfesque trickery of Ronaldinho as playmaker, strapping zagueiro Réver, and “Neymar who?” youngster Bernard, Atlético are currently the most attractive side in the country, playing to a packed, raucous throng at the Independência stadium.
Galo’s hated rivals Cruzeiro are looking none too shabby either. For most of the last two decades Cruzeiro were one of the most consistently successful sides in the country, before financial mismanagement and the temporary loss of the giant Mineirão stadium to World Cup rebuilding work brought about a decline. Now though, things are looking up. The club is back on a (relatively) even financial keel, and new signings such as Dagoberto and titanic centre back Dedé, the club’s record signing and a major coup, have renewed confidence. Unassuming Marcelo Oliveira is a world away from the traditional blowhard Brazilian coach (take a bow, Srs. Luxemburgo, Braga, and Ramalho), but as his success at Coritiba showed, he is a thoughtful, well-prepared manager. Back playing at the Mineirão, the club have been attracting average crowds of around 25,000 – impressive for the thin gruel of the local Campeonato Mineiro.
The importance of the reopened Mineirão cannot be overlooked. Although Atlético have elected to remain at the smaller Independência for now, with hard-headed president Alexandre Khalil claiming the financial terms offered by the bigger ground would be crippling, the giant stadium out at Pampulha is a symbol for the historical growth of football in the region, and holds a rare emotional sway over the heart of every Mineiro. Never was this clearer than last Sunday, when 50,000 turned up for a rare Atlético game at the stadium – a meaningless dead rubber tie against lowly Villa Nova.
The city itself is also undergoing a renaissance. The Mineirão was the second of the World Cup stadiums to open, and is being accompanied by a raft of infrastructure projects, including an underground metro system. Increased cultural variety, including the remarkable country park and open air art installation, Inhotim, has boosted civic pride. Once a slightly shabby, unenthralling city, Belo Horizonte is now a prosperous and dynamic urban centre, and some distance ahead of the rest of the World Cup pack in terms of preparation.
The perfect spot then, for Felipão’s woe begotten Seleção to recover some lost confidence in Wednesday’s friendly against Chile. It was to be the first time that Brazil would play in one of the new World Cup stadiums, and expectations were high, even if the game would only feature locally based players. Playing to the gallery, Felipão picked four local players in his squad – Dedé, Réver and Ronaldinho all started, with Atlético right back Marcos Rocha on the bench.
The stadium itself was also under the spotlight. After a disastrous reopening in February, when 60,000 fans sweated in queues of biblical proportions to park their cars, then queued again to gain entry, before being left without drinking water (the bars were closed and the taps ran dry) and confronted with unlit bathrooms, things have slowly improved – though doubts remain about the ability of construction company Minas Arena to manage a major sporting arena. On Wednesday, things went more smoothly, despite chaotic traffic and long queues to enter the stadium.
Unfortunately the same could not be said for events on the pitch. While a lack of cohesion was to be expected, Brazil once again stuttered mightily in a 2-2 draw, often looking pedestrian compared to a lively Chile, and Felipão appears to have almost as many questions as answers as his side stumbles towards 2014. Neymar merely flickered, and neither Dedé nor Réver looked particularly secure, but perhaps the greatest cause for concern was Ronaldinho. While his domestic form makes a compelling case for inclusion in the Confederations Cup squad to be announced on May 14th, the player continues to struggle when outside his Atlético comfort zone. Certainly, on current international form, his 2014 place looks in doubt.
Though to what extent Mineiro football fans even care is doubtful. Renowned for preferring club to country, Scolari’s team were harshly treated once the initial enthusiasm had worn off. Chilean passing moves were greeted with cries of “olé, olé”, the manager was called a donkey and Neymar a flake, and a chorus of boos rained down at the final whistle. There may be a feel good factor in Minas Gerais these days, but Felipão and the Seleção continue to look distinctly peaky.Tagged in: 2014 World Cup, Brazil, football
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