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End of the beginning: Confederations Cup an important World Cup yardstick for Brazil

James Young
Stephan El Shaarawy and Mar 300x225 End of the beginning: Confederations Cup an important World Cup yardstick for Brazil

Stephan El Shaarawy and Mario Balotelli (R) of Italy visit the Christ the Redeemer Statue

With apologies to Donna Summer, this time we know it’s (almost) for real. At least for Brazil. While it is a stretch to say that the country is collectively sweaty palmed at the thought of Saturday’s big Copa das Confederações kick-off against Japan at the gleaming Mané Garrincha stadium in Brasília, it is possible to detect a distinct pre-Mundial frisson in the air.

Part of that is down to a feeling that the tortuous bildungsroman of the country’s World Cup preparation may be entering its final chapter. Thankfully, for so far it has been a sorry tale of delays, overspending, and high profile gaffes (a number of journalists are reported to be still rolling on the floor and cackling uncontrollably after Minister for Sport Aldo Rebelo’s declaration earlier this week that he’d give Brazil’s preparations “nine out of ten”).

Still, the Arena Fonte Nova hasn’t entirely disappeared under a Soteropolitano rainstorm, the Maracanã hasn’t crumbled to the ground, and the roof of the Mineirão hasn’t blown off. If it is not exactly a case of “job well done” then at least there is a sense of “most things that could go wrong have gone wrong, but we’re still trundling on.” With another six stadiums still to finish, it is hoped that this is not an excuse for (more) complacency to set in.

But if the six Confederations Cup stadiums, in Recife, Fortaleza, Salvador, Belo Horizonte, Rio and Brasília are ready, many of the new transport links intended to ease fans’ journeys to games are not. Those going to the matches are advised to set out early, and many cities are giving public workers a half-day holiday to cut down on rush hour traffic. It might not be enough – Italy have already moved two morning training sessions to their hotel because of Rio’s fearsome snarl-ups.

Still, it doesn’t do to be too negative. The Copa das Confederações is a World Cup dress rehearsal, and the real task is to iron out the wrinkles (Grand Canyon sized though some of them may be) before the real event. Building (or rebuilding) twelve (fourteen if non-World Cup stadiums like the Arena Grêmio and Palmeiras’ catchily named Allianz Parque) are included) new stadiums is no small undertaking. Slowly, painfully, Brazil is getting there.

And it might just be a similar story on the pitch. For Rio’s missing safety certificates, Salvador’s waterlogged roof and the Mineirão’s locked and bolted snack bars, read Felipão’s at times muddled early squad selections, Luís Fabiano’s creaking joints and Ronaldinho’s magic wand snapping in two. Both, Brazil hopes, are sets of problems that have been left behind.

The last two friendly performances bear that out, even if England and France, as big names flattering to deceive, could hardly have been better chosen as opposition. In both games Brazil were like the curate’s egg – partly bad, but with some redeeming features. The first half against England and the second half against France were encouraging. What is missing now is the knack of putting two good halves together in the same game.

Perhaps the greatest development during Scolari’s short reign is the appearance of some much needed pace and intensity, vital when confronting the European heavyweights. Brazil are now a younger, more energetic side, at least partly justifying the exclusion of Ronaldinho, who, ever the schemer, tended to slow the team down. The manager himself is certainly feeling more bullish. “We looked confident again,” he said after the France game.

The most obvious recent positives would seem to be a settled back four, the sterling work of volante Paulinho, described by BBC journalist Tim Vickery as a younger Frank Lampard, and Oscar as the team’s metronome. Tiny Atlético Mineiro tyro Bernard, a Tottenham target, will hope to make an impact as the tournament progresses.

Worries include the centre forward position, where there is the suspicion that Fred, despite his recent run of goals, is a Brasileirão bully but a Seleção weakling. With Leandro Damião injured, Brazil may even be forced to turn to the unlikely figure of Jô (no sniggering from the Man City fans at the back, please). And then there is The Neymar Question. His development having stalled over the last year or so at Santos, he is still to learn both how to deal with the pressure of 195 million hopes and fears pressing upon his shoulders, and to successfully adapt his game to a more collective system.

Like the stadium and infrastructure work, it’s all a long way from perfect, but it’s improving. And even though the Confederations Cup is a curious cocktail of friendly and competitive fixture, Brazil will be pleased just to have something to play for again. There is no doubt being excused from the fierce South American World Cup qualifying tournament has hurt the development of the squad, with tough competitive matches being replaced by friendlies against patsies like Iraq, China and Gabon.

Brazil’s group opposition is an interesting mix. First up is the vim and vigour of Japan, with a place at the 2014 feast already booked, followed by a Mexico side that drew 0-0 at home with Costa Rica on Tuesday and have been stoically unimpressive in CONCACAF qualifying. After that will come perhaps Brazil’s toughest group test, against Italy in Salvador.

The Seleção will look not just to win, but also to impress, for the team will come under the same intense scrutiny as the stadiums. Brazilian fans can be quick to turn on their side, and the musical accompaniment at more than a few recent friendlies has been a symphony of boos, rather than samba or axé. One of the most important aims of these intriguing two weeks in June will be to get the fans onside. “We have to support the team, not boo them,” Pelé said recently.

At times it feels like the average Brazilian fan cares more about his club than the national side. Clubismo, they call it. But with the Brasileirão now on hold, the nation’s eyes, lonely or otherwise, will turn to the Copa das Confederações. The talk will be of tiny Tahiti, currently being feted like rock stars in Belo Horizonte, where they play Nigeria on Monday, of craques like Xavi, Iniesta, Cavani, and Mario Balotelli (a man surely born to shine on a big Brazilian stage, and whose interaction with the fans is sure to be a treat), of the new goal line technology that will be used during the tournament, and most of all, of the Seleção. The World Cup steeplechase is heading into the final furlong, and excitement is building.

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