There are obligations when you are head coach of Brazil’s national soccer team, chiefly: winning, entertaining, winning, spreading the gospel, winning and – did we mention winning?
In that respect, the task facing Luiz Felipe Scolari in 2014 is similar to that which faced Mike Babcock when he coached the Canadian men’s hockey team at the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics. Times three. Squared.
Scolari is charged with the responsibility of taking an immensely deep, outrageously gifted group of players and leading them to victory on their own soil this summer, when soccer’s World Cup returns to its spiritual roots.
The Selecao last won the World Cup in 2002, but the event hasn’t been held in Brazil since 1950, and while Brazil’s status as host country means its preparations for the event have been in the form of exhibition matches, that doesn’t mean the games have been meaningless. Scolari must decide how to best utilize gifted players such as Neymar, Hulk and Oscar and also get a read on players such as Robinho – who is working his way back into favour and scored the winning goal in last Tuesday’s 2-1 victory over Chile at Rogers Centre in Toronto – and 32-year-old right back Maicon.
Scolari’s final roster will be as hotly debated as Team Canada’s going into the 2014 Sochi Games; “who plays with Neymar?” is their version of “who’s on Sidney Crosby’s line?” And Scolari realizes there is a segment of the chattering classes who viewed his hiring a year ago as a sop to the country’s fans – despite the fact Brazil has scored more than two goals a game in this, his second stint, while beating Spain, Italy and Portugal. Under his predecessor, Mano Menezes, the Brazilians didn’t always play up to their opponents.
But Scolari opened his post-match news conference in Toronto with a statement not about his team but about other countries that, earlier in the day, had qualified for the World Cup. In particular, he congratulated Portugal, noting that because of their quality and history the Brazilian people wanted, “in their hearts,” to see Cristiano Ronaldo and his countrymen qualify.
As hockey is to Canada, so is soccer to Brazil. The difference, though, is Brazil has always been seen as a beacon of stylish, inventive play. Brazil isn’t a bully; Brazil dazzles you and walks away with your pocketbook while it steals your heart.
Nobody in Sweden, Russia, the Czech Republic – anywhere – would say that about Canadian hockey.
The brutish Canadian is a less-common hockey stereotype than in the past, but the thought of Team Canada coming to town doesn’t bring a tear to the eye. Canadian hockey doesn’t do style points. Grit is good.
Brazil is every country’s default favourite soccer team in whatever the competition. Brazil doesn’t need to puff out its chest and tell everybody it is the sport’s spiritual home. Others are more than willing to do its bidding – and so when the world comes to Brazil, the quality of the soccer played by the host side is of utmost importance. Damn the concerns about logistics and corruption and civil unrest; all can be salved by the Selecao.
Toronto soccer fans received a taste last Tuesday when Brazil’s A-listers scored a win in front of 38,514 fans at the Rogers Centre. And if you find yourself unable to turn away from the TV this summer – if you give in to the Brazilians and find yourself hooked – do not feel ashamed.
You’ve been wooed by and fallen for the best, like so many others before you.
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