The central narrative arc of next year’s soccer World Cup has been known long in advance: Brazil (the team) on a redemptive journey to win the tournament as host country.
Now, we know there will be a subplot: Brazil (the country) nervous about eruptions of social unrest during the international event.
The Confederations Cup, which ended last Sunday, gave notice of that and the persistent protests – justified, as countless commentators in Brazil insist – tell us Brazil might not be ready to play host to a World Cup and a Summer Olympics two years later.
A vast middle class, emboldened by a soaring economy, sees no improvement in the country’s infrastructure or institutions while billions of dollars are spent on soccer stadiums. The people object and insist on being heard. On the streets.
What might make the watching world and soccer’s governing body, FIFA, yet more jittery is the fact Brazil’s even-more vast underclass has greater reason to protest, but that flame of anger has not been lit.
Leaving that aside, what also emerged from the Confederations Cup is this: Brazil (the team) is far from ready to win the World Cup.
The team looked better than its current ranking of 22nd in the world, as FIFA statistics nail it down, but there’s something shockingly jejune about Brazil. For all the goals scored and the emphatic defeat of Spain in the final, it looks good, not great.
First thing to remember in sizing up this perverse, against-the-grain assertion, is the Confederations Cup is a canter while the World Cup is a slog.
Brazil rode on the roar of the crowd in the two-week tournament, and it will do that next summer, but it will not be breezing through an eight-team event featuring teams, players and managers who see little value in Confederations success. The event is a dry run for the World Cup in terms of assessing stadiums, security, transport and other facilities. It is not a measurement of World Cup readiness in terms of teams, players and tactics.
Tactics, there’s the rub.
Brazil looked dazzling at times but, tactically, simpleminded and naive. Each half of every game began with the front three strikers playing high up the field, crowding the opposing team’s goal area, sowing confusion and panic with blistering pace and the readiness of Neymar to shoot from every angle.
Then, in every game, the pace slowed. The traditional Brazil practice of relying on a loose combination of unity and individual brilliance returned. And that’s not a plan, it’s a hope. Nasty fouls and play-acting abounded, with Neymar as guilty of silly dramatics as he is capable of moments of genius.
The idea Brazil can win the World Cup relying on Neymar’s skill is a dangerous one. He’s been called “a YouTube player” and that’s accurate – he’s all flashes of skill and little sustained labour. He was a fine fettle for this tournament, but a long, tough 2013-14 season in Europe with Barcelona may take the shine off his dash and moxie.
He may go into next year’s World Cup as some Italian players did at the Confederations – worn out and bruised. His cohorts on the Brazil team, Hulk and Fred, looked better than they are because they picked up scraps from Neymar’s flashes of energy in the early part of each half in each game. Turn the dial down on Neymar’s energy and there are no scraps to feed on.
The true strength of this Brazil team is its defence, which relied heavily on the fabulous determination of David Luiz. His stunning clearance of the ball from the Brazil goal line, during last Sunday’s final against Spain, was possibly the play of the tournament – one more significant than any Neymar goal. Significant because it came with Brazil leading 1-0 and the game still in the balance. Luiz might be the defining player of this Brazil team. All grit, elbows and enthusiasm, he is as far from the legendary Samba style of Brazil play as it’s possible to get.
A weakness is goalkeeper Julio Cesar. Strong at 33, and a good leader, he began the Confederations Cup nervously, tending to punch the ball wildly rather than control it and he persistently required Brazil’s defenders to intervene. Every opposing team going into the World Cup will have studied his glaring weaknesses.
It’s a contrarian’s position to diminish Brazil’s success after its defeat of Spain. But you can guarantee every top competitor for the World Cup (Spain, Argentina, Germany and Italy) will have scrutinized Brazil and are preparing to undermine both the team and the narrative arc of the World Cup – one that’s a fine fantasy for Brazil but, for now, only that.