It was a fleeting glimpse on the first of many cold Canadian nights – a taste heading into the wintry months of this summer’s World Cup in Brazil. But, my goodness, what an impression.
The Brazilian national team – the Selecao – is soccer royalty and rock stars but mostly they are global ambassadors for the sport. Chile – La Roja – is an in-form side that will become a lot of people’s favourite underdogs.
Which is the only country to have won the World Cup on four different continents? Of course. There can be only one. There can be only Brazil.
Which country is ranked one spot behind it in FIFA’s rankings? Chile.
The Selecao is a universal truth, but Tuesday, they were pushed to the limit by Chile in a 2-1 win in a buzz-saw of an exhibition match at Rogers Centre.
Robinho’s first goal since August, 2011, delivered victory and will raise the 29-year-old’s hopes of a late charge for a spot on manager Luiz Felipe Scolari’s World Cup squad.
Seldom a cauldron for its normal tenants, Rogers Centre was a riotous joy of colour as two squads that can come back here any time they want reminded a city that has suffered through a steady diet of Toronto FC that this really is the beautiful game.
With the Toronto Maple Leafs playing the New York Islanders just down the street, a crowd of 38,514 that filled much of the 500 level dressed the place in blue and gold and – to an even more pronounced effect, at least as far as the naked eye is concerned – the red, white and blue of Chile.
The game was televised internationally, so there were several signs for both international and domestic consumption. Winnipeg’s Chilean community was represented by a homemade sign; so, too, was Requinoa, a city in Chile’s Cachapoal province.
Toronto wasn’t stiffed: this match was part of the Gillette International Soccer Series and it pitted the 11th-ranked Brazilians against the 12th-ranked Chileans, a side that beat England 2-0 last weekend and can be a handful for anyone. Chile used to borrow styles from everyone else; now, La Roja have fashioned their own identity, and make book on it: they will be heard from in Brazil.
The imported natural grass surface held up well – although Brazilian defender David Luiz needed to play groundskeeper early in the proceedings – and an all-Canadian officiating crew led referee Silviu Petruscu of Waterloo, Ont., did themselves proud.
The last time the Selecao played a match in Canada was in 1994, when more than 50,000 fans saw Brazil and Canada play to a 1-1 draw at Commonwealth Stadium.
The stakes and expectations are always high for Brazil in a World Cup, but 2014 will be the first time Brazil has played host since 1950, when Uruguay stunned it 2-1 in Rio de Janeiro’s Estadio do Maracana – what has gone down in history as the “Maracana Blow,” a loss that cost Brazil a World Cup on home turf. It matters not, that Scolari said last weekend his team would win the World Cup: that is an accepted fact inside Brazil and, in the rest of the world, the typical response is: “Well, if not us, I’d like it to be Brazil.”
Cheering for Brazil – even in countries unlike Canada; countries where the national side can typically be expected to appear in the World Cup or, at least, score the odd goal – is like being able to cheer for the New York Yankees without the guilt.
As the host country, Brazil has a free pass into the World Cup, which means it has had all this time to get its mojo back and figure out where, exactly, Oscar fits into its formation – he and Neymar were Brazil’s best players Tuesday, with Oscar releasing Neymar for a good chance in the 51st minute – and how it will employ Hulk and Neymar, the latter of whom is Brazil’s resident transcendent star.
That, and 44 years to the day Pele scored his 1,000th professional goal, reinforced yet again the Brazilians are singular ambassadors for their sport and their country while slaking a city’s thirst.
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