Seleção: the story so far

The group stage has come to a close and hosts Brazil have successfully qualified for the next phase. So what have we learned about the Seleção?

The most important point to remember is that group stage performances are not the be-all and end-all when going into the tournament’s later stages. Brazil qualified in first place in their group, which is all that matters. The key to winning short tournaments such as the World Cup is gaining momentum in the knockout stages.

In the World Cup of 1982, Brazil’s dream team with Zico, Sócrates and Falcão were terrific in the group stage, comfortably winning all three matches and dazzling spectators all over the globe. However, they did not address some defensive issues that cropped up against the USSR and Scotland and were shocked by Italy in the second group phase and sent home early.

Brazil’s 0-0 draw with Mexico will mean nothing if the Seleção manage to hit form in the knockout phase. What the opening stage is important for is ironing out mistakes, finding balance within the team and gaining momentum.

With an almost identical squad, Luiz Felipe Scolari’s goal at this World Cup was to reclaim the positive atmosphere created during the Confederations Cup. This was always going to be difficult — these are totally different tournaments, the Confederations Cup is only semi-competitive and the stakes are exponentially higher in the World Cup, for Brazil and their opponents.

Brazil have fallen into this trap before, back at the 2006 World Cup in Germany. One year before, they strolled to the Confederations Cup title, brushing aside a weak Argentina side in the final, winning 4-1. At the main event in 2006, they seemed over-confident and failed to impress, being eliminated in the quarter-finals.

The Seleção’s connection with their fans, a crucial part in the Confederations Cup win, has changed. Last year’s mass public protests took a dramatically nationalist turn around the time of the tournament, bringing widespread support for the Seleção. That same protest movement has since fizzled out, replaced by much smaller, isolated and often violent demonstrations that have lost public support completely. The patriotic swell that the Seleção benefitted from last year has passed, the familiar pressure and expectation on the national team has returned.

The difference is best observed during the national anthem, which since last year has had its second verse sung a cappella by the fans, with Fifa imposing a time limit on anthems played over stadium speaker systems. Last year, while belting out the final few lines along with an almost all-Brazilian crowd, the players looked inspired and motivated. This year, some of the players look visibly nervous during the anthem. Neymar burst into tears before the match against Mexico and went on to play a terrible game. Elsewhere in the squad, players such as Daniel Alves, Marcelo and Paulinho have struggled, three others that look visibly nervous under the World Cup pressure.

A defining characteristic of Brazil’s Confederations Cup victory was the way they started each match at an incredibly fast tempo, pressing high up the pitch and often scoring early goals. In their World Cup opener against Croatia, instead of taking an early lead they conceded an early own goal.

It appears that Felipão’s system is going stale. They have refused to make changes and tweaks and this insisted repetition has stifled their creativity and flair. Against Mexico, they had possession but could not break through to score an opening goal. Felipão looked to his substitutes’ bench and was unable to offer any effective attacking variations.

At half-time against Cameroon, Brazil’s tournament encountered a potential turning point. The introduction of Manchester City’s Fernandinho in the place of Paulinho transformed Brazil’s worst performance into their best.

The match was an odd one. With nothing to lose, Cameroon poured forward and flooded Brazil’s midfield, stretching their defence and impeding them from constructing moves on the ground. The Seleção’s response was to lob balls over Cameroon’s advancing midfield to Neymar, who often found himself in all sorts of space to pick apart the opposition’s disappointing defence.

Cameroon were so vulnerable at the back that Brazil got away with a 2-1 lead going into half-time. It is unlikely any future opponent will offer such space to Neymar and co, especially now we have entered the last 16 stage.

The introductions of Fernandinho and Ramires on the right side brought calm to the midfield storm and Brazil were finally able to control the match and dictate the tempo. Fernandinho’s presence was such an improvement on the absent Paulinho, the Manchester City midfielder helped to organise the play from the middle and even pitched in with a goal. Felipão would be crazy not to start him against Chile on Saturday.

Looking forward to the last 16 match with Chile, there are certainly worries for Brazil. From what we saw against Cameroon, the Seleção struggle when pressed high up the pitch, which is what Chile will do to them all day.

Brazil’s full-backs have also been unconvincing, which Chile will look to exploit. Sampaoli’s side play with two attacking wing-backs, Mauricio Isla and Eugenio Mena, who always look to get involved in the play. Their two forwards, Alexis Sanchez and Eduardo Vargas, will also give plenty of trouble to Marcelo and Daniel Alves respectively, always looking to attack the channels with direct running. The potential introduction of Maicon at right-back shows Felipão’s worries in this zone.

However, Chile’s weaknesses leave them susceptible to Brazil’s strengths. Sampaoli’s high back line could be torn apart by Brazil’s moments of explosive attacking skill, while their lack of height can potentially be exploited by Brazil’s good set-pieces. I would not be surprised if we saw a high-scoring tie.

Brazil will also have the psychological edge. The Seleção have not lost to Chile in their last 12 meetings and they have beaten them twice in the last 16 stage of the World Cup, in 1998 and 2010. The Chileans are known as Brazil’s fregués — literally meaning “customer”, a team that regularly loses to another. Of course, this retrospect will have little impact on the strength of either side on Saturday, but the step from the group stage into the knockouts is crucial and Brazil would rather play Chile than have to face their demons of 2010 in a match against Holland.

Days nine and ten: Hypothetically speaking

Once again, I wasn’t able to put up a diary yesterday, so here’s an extended thought for today to make up for it.

When Portugal eliminated Sweden in the playoff stage of World Cup qualifying, football fans around the globe realised the tournament in Brazil would be missing one of the world’s most talented stars. Cristiano Ronaldo, voted the best player in the world that season, would be there; Sweden’s Zlatan Ibrahimovic would not.

With Diego Costa’s decision to snub the Seleção still fresh in the memory, some Brazilian columnists asked sarcastically: “Can’t we get Zlatan to play up front for us?”

The sentiment, of course, is purely comical, but you feel that the only piece missing from the Brazilian national team puzzle is a technically gifted centre-forward. Fred, despite his physical presence and natural eye for goal, is an extremely limited striker. He is static, sloppy and sluggish. He does not have the skill to link up play and bring in others around him and he is only there for his positioning in the penalty area.

Fred had a great Confederations Cup, but mainly because the rest of the team was functioning well around him. He wasn’t needed to create play, drag defenders out of position, make intelligent runs or work back to defend. The rest of the team did all of that for him and successfully gave him the ball in and around the penalty area, where Fred flourishes.

In Brazil’s opening games, the rest of the side has not been functioning properly. Not enough chances are being created, not enough space is being made for forward runs of Neymar, Hulk, Oscar or Paulinho. Against Croatia and Mexico, Fred was a passenger, his presence notable only for the laughable penalty he won in the opener in São Paulo.

Imagine Zlatan Ibrahimovic was playing in that central attacking role. His tremendous technique and intelligence could make the Brazilian offensive unit unstoppable. But, of course, that’s ridiculous. International football does not work that way and neither should it. In club football we can see teams formed by players from different countries, with different backgrounds, educations, styles. Barcelona can build a marvellous side using only homegrown players, but if they lack firepower up front they can always splash out on a foreign No 9.

At international level, nations have a defined pool from which to choose. If country X have not produced any talented goalkeepers, there is no amount of money or bargaining tool that can get them one, they have to field the best goalkeeper they have, no matter how terrible he is in comparison with the rest of the team.

I was reminded of this Zlatan hypothetical on Thursday while watching another excellent day of World Cup football. England lost to Uruguay in dramatic circumstances in São Paulo, waving goodbye to their chances of progressing. Later that evening, Japan failed to score against 10-man Greece in one of the competition’s most frustrating games. If each national team were permitted to swap one player with another country, England and Japan could have been more successful.

Against Uruguay, England were narrowly beaten on the scoreboard, but comprehensively beaten in the midfield battle. This was understandable considering their shape: Hodgson went with his familiar 4-2-3-1 formation with the midfield line of three (Sterling, Rooney and Wellbeck) playing very high up the pitch. Their defensive line, worried about Uruguay’s pace in attack, were hesitant to step up, leaving a vast space between defence and attack with England’s central midfield pair, Gerrard and Henderson, the only ones to occupy it.

Uruguay changed their system (a feature of Oscar Tabárez’s Uruguay sides is their tactical versatility) and played a midfield diamond with Luis Suárez and Edinson Cavani in attack. Egídio Arévalo Rios, their stocky, ankle-biting defensive midfielder, kept Rooney quiet for most of the match while their other midfielders, Álvaro González, Cristián Rodríguez and Nicolás Lodeiro swamped the middle of the pitch with their constant energy and pressing. Cavani, always willing to work back, also played a crucial role in closing down Gerrard.

The result was England’s two central midfielders, those responsible for creating attacking moves, were watched by four tireless Uruguayans. Gerrard, the closest thing England had to a playmaker, spent most of his time passing the ball to Glen Johnson, Leighton Baines, Phil Jagielka and Gary Cahill – the England back four.

Ideally, England need someone to drop off the front four and provide a creative source in the attacking third of the pitch. They have the objective and dangerous attackers – Raheem Sterling in particular was a breath of fresh air against Italy, taking on defenders and getting shots on goal – but they have no one to feed them, no one to knit their side together.

Imagine if England had Shinji Kagawa of Japan in their team, the nimble playmaker that dazzled at Borussia Dortmund but has never really been given a chance at Manchester United. He would sit in the No 10 position, providing a link between Gerrard and Henderson and the three deadly forwards. Rooney could play closer to goal, perhaps coming in from the left as Benzema did yesterday against Switzerland, with Daniel Sturridge at centre-forward and Sterling as the deep winger on the right.

England get a lot of stick, even from their own fans, but their matches against Italy and Uruguay have been among the most entertaining in the group stage so far. They have the talent and the threat in attack, but in both games I have been left with the sensation that they are missing one player in attacking midfield.

If Japan were to cede Kagawa to England, they would be well served by bringing in any one of England’s front four to replace him. Japan have played twice, winning only one point and scoring one goal. In their opener against Ivory Coast, they started well and took the lead, but quickly lost control of the game and their goal was subjected to an Ivorian onslaught for the remainder of the match. They were perhaps taken by surprise at the manner in which Ivory Coast turned the game around, with two goals in two minutes, but in truth Japan never looked like winning.

Their match against Greece on Thursday evening was particularly frustrating: Greek midfielder Konstantinos Katsouranis was sent off after only 38 minutes, leaving Japan against ten men for over 50 minutes of play. They passed the ball around well, with around 75% of possession and 90% pass completion, but they failed to test the Greek goalkeeper more than four times, all shots from outside the penalty area.

Their creativity was not the problem, they were finding their attacking players in good positions and spreading the ball around when they needed to, probing and looking for gaps, but their forwards were hesitant upon receiving possession. Instead of being objective and going for goal, they would take an extra half second to survey the situation, seeing if there was a better pass available before they took the shot themselves. This delay allowed the Greece defence to close them down, and it is hardly a surprise so many of Japan’s shots on goal were blocked in and around the penalty area.

I was once told a Japanese proverb that would go some way to explaining this flaw in their playing style, it was translated to me as: “the stake that sticks up gets hammered down”. I do not know how poignant this is to Japanese culture, but if this idea was to prevail during the formation of young Japanese athletes then it would result in what we see from the national side today. They are a mechanical team, skilful and technically gifted, but also very creative. In Keisuke Honda, Kagawa and Yasuhito Endo, they have at least three playmakers with excellent vision and intelligence. However, when they reach the final third of the pitch, no one seems hungry enough to take responsibility and have a shot on goal without overthinking.

If Japan could add just one player to their squad, perhaps Raheem Sterling, Wayne Rooney, or Daniel Sturridge, someone to take up good positions and be objective and hungry for goals, they could have six points instead of one.

Days seven and eight: Excuses and abdications

I had planned to write something yesterday about the Seleção, but other commitments (and the excellent games of football) made that impossible. So here are days seven and eight mashed together.

A goalkeeper receiving the man of the match award is usually the sign of a disappointing game of football. Tuesday’s goalless draw between Brazil and Mexico was an exception to this rule, as although Mexico’s Guillermo Ochoa was the standout performer, there was plenty of entertainment to be had in Fortaleza.

Brazil failed to convince for the second game in a row, but the draw means that they will almost certainly finish top of their group. My initial reaction to the match was that Brazil were far from impressive, but there was no need for panic. Mexico proved to be tougher opposition than expected and international tournaments are all about hitting top form at the right time. Beating Croatia, Mexico and Cameroon would count for nothing if they were to play poorly in the last 16.

What worried me, however, was Felipão’s reaction. Knowing that the Brazilian public is among the most polemic when it comes to football, the coach correctly praised their opposition, but used Ochoa’s performance as an excuse and claimed Brazil had improved from the Croatia match. To be more precise, Felipão said the Seleção had improved by ten percent.

ESPN pounced on that statement, spitting out facts to disprove the coach. They had more possession against Croatia, more shots on goal, more corners, less fouls committed … Statistics, of course, do not tell the whole story, but their decrease in productivity was clear. Having a poor match against Mexico is excusable, refusing to recognise that is not.

Without Hulk, who had picked up a knock (although claimed he was 100% fit), Felipão started with Ramires on the right of midfield and played a 4-1-4-1 system, looking to protect against Mexico’s wide threat. Ramires struggled, picked up a yellow card and was substituted at half-time. Instead of bringing on a midfielder to reclaim possession in the middle, Felipão chose to introduce Bernard, a quick winger, and Brazil lost control of the midfield.

Mexico were once again tactically impressive. They manipulated spaces well and neutralised Brazil’s threats, all they need is to improve their end product. Of their 22 attempts on goal in their first two matches, they have still scored only once. Croatia, their main rivals for qualification, have scored five goals after 29 attempts.

Kudos to Australia for giving us one of the best matches of the tournament so far. We are now so used to seeing teams parking the bus against technically superior sides, that it has almost become the only option to limited teams to approach such matches. In their game against Holland, Australia reminded us there is another way.

Although most popular sports media were sure Australia would sit back and defend, nothing we saw in the match against Chile suggested that. They pushed high up the pitch and pressed Holland in their own half. Their fitness and energy was extremely impressive and they were first to almost every ball.

Louis van Gaal got it wrong by going with the 3-5-2 system. He had trained a 4-3-3 at the weekend, but decided to start with the same team that played against Spain. There were two possible reasons for his choice: either he agreed with the hypothesis that Australia would play defensively, or he did not want to change the team that was so successful in beating the world champions.

The positional matchup worked completely in Australia’s favour. Their attack pushed forward, forcing the Dutch wing-backs Blind and Janmaat to remain deep, while Jedinak marked Sneijder out of the first half. Robben and Van Persie still threatened in attack, but their supply lines had been cut.

Australia’s full-backs were left unopposed and were two of the most important players in the first half. Right-back Ryan McGowan provided the gorgeous slanted pass that Tim Cahill volleyed into the net. A better goal in this World Cup will be hard to come by.

The turning point in the match came just before the interval with the injury to centre-back Bruno Martins Indi. Van Gaal decided to bring on forward Memphis Depay and switched to the 4-3-3 they had trained previously. Both of their full-backs were freed, Wesley Sneijder began to get his foot on the ball and Holland controlled the remainder of the match. I wonder if van Gaal would have made the same change had Martins Indi remained unscathed.

As Felipe VI took the throne in Madrid, another Spanish reign came to an end on Wednesday. Not since Bernardo O’Higgins and José de San Martín won Chile’s independence in 1821 have Spain been defeated by their former colony. Jorge Sampaoli’s Chile defeated Vicente del Bosque’s Spain and the world champions were eliminated at the group stage.

The first half was frantic, Chile were a step quicker than their opponents all over the pitch. They were intelligent in their pressing, neither of Spain’s creative midfielders were given any time to play and Xabi Alonso was particularly poor. The 2-0 lead the Chileans took into the interval was enough to win the match and seal their place in the last 16.

Internacional’s Charles Aránguiz was particularly impressive, his defensive performance forced Alonso to be substituted at half time, while his forward bursts into attack were crucial for both Chilean goals. After setting up their first goal of the tournament against Australia, another forward run set up Vargas’ opening goal yesterday and Aránguiz scored the second himself from a similar area.

Spain dominated the second half, but they never looked like scoring. Chile dropped deeper and closed out the result.

Before yesterday, Spain had not lost two consecutive internationals since 2006, before their period of domination between 2008 and 2012. The decline was perhaps predictable as their spine: Casillas, Piqué, Busquets, Xavi and Iniesta all had underwhelming seasons at club level. Above all, what goes up must come down, extremes tend to regress to the mean. Either way, this was a grisly and undignified end for one of the greatest international teams in football history.

Day six: Don’t blame it on the sunshine …

Yesterday, minutes after I published my glowing report on the World Cup so far, we were subjected to the tournament’s first goalless draw, between Iran and Nigeria. However, anyone familiar with either side or who had bothered to do some research would have been able to tell you the match was never likely to be entertaining.

Iran coach Carlos Queiroz has often spoke about the limitations of his squad, while Nigeria is a side set up to cause problems on the counterattack and exploit spaces that Iran were never going to give them. The Super Eagles tried to change their approach by bringing on a pure centre-forward in Shola Ameobi, but it was jarring, they did not appear to be used to the different approach.

It is likely that both sides will prefer playing against Argentina and Bosnia, where they are not expected to control the match and will try to frustrate technically superior opposition while posing a counterattacking threat.

The match was played in Curitiba, the last of Brazil’s host cities to debut in this tournament. The stadium looked great, but there were problems: those present complained of a faulty speaker system while the playing surface did not look ideal. The grass was clumpy and could cause problems to possession-based teams such as Spain, who will play Australia there next week.

It may be interesting to see how results pan out in matches played in Curitiba and Porto Alegre, the two southernmost venues. The region of the country is noticably cooler, especially with a cold front set to arrive this week. It is unlikely to be uncomfortable for any teams, considering “cold” by Brazilian standards is something approaching a central European spring, but the conditions are conducive to defensive football. Players are not inhibited by the heat and can close down for the full 90 minutes, reducing the space available on the pitch.

Although some reporting of Brazil’s climate has been blown out of proportion at this World Cup, it will certainly make some sort of impact. Players were visibly exhausted in the second halves of Chile v Australia, Italy v England and Switzerland v Ecuador. In warm and/or humid conditions, players either become tired quicker or make conscious efforts to economise their energy, which leads to matches with more spaces, allowing for more opportunities to be created and the chance of more goals. Germany, playing their group matches in Salvador, Fortaleza and Recife, made an excellent choice and have been training in Bahia since their arrival in the country, helping them to become accustomed to the conditions of Brazil’s north-east.

In 1977, Pelé predicted that an African team would win the World Cup before the year 2000. Although he is rarely correct with these things (as shown by a Colombian television appeal for the King not to pick their country as his World Cup favourites), this did not seem like Pelé’s worst piece of forecasting. Some of the African sides in the 1990s showed superb individual talent and flair, seeming so close to mounting a genuine title challenge.

So, what happened? The quality would appear to have regressed, and what we have seen so far from the African countries in this year’s World Cup has been disappointing.

African football, much like in South America lives only to produce players for sale to Europe. Modern football requires athleticism, so young African players are lifting weights and running sprints before they learn to pass a ball.

Cameroon and Nigeria were particularly unimpressive, and while Ivory Coast, Ghana and Algeria showed some promising flashes, they are still some way away from the expectations placed upon them. The Ivorians have a clear attacking approach, pushing their wing-backs forward (against Japan, Serge Aurier played particularly well) and bombarding the opposition with crosses, they also have more quality that their peers with Yaya Toure, Wilfried Bony and Drogba coming off the bench. They are likely to qualify alongside Colombia. Ghana, however, look to be heading home after losing to the USA.

Algeria played an excellent first half against Belgium, happy to invite pressure from the opposition while looking efficient and dangerous on the counterattack. They were eventually outdone in the second half, but on this evidence they could still get out of their group.

Day five: the best ever?

This World Cup was one surrounded by doubts, some of them more reasonable than others. For anyone who has ever visited Brazil, there was no question the visiting fans would be treated well and would find themselves in the middle of the most joyful and festive atmosphere on earth. There were worries about the organisation, but despite some hiccups the tournament has ran smoothly. Again, anyone who has visited Brazil could tell you that it this is not a country of outlaws where any sort of order or efficiency is impossible.

There was also a significant worry about safety, whether that be connected to street protests or crime. This unfounded concern can be added to the tab of the international media, who have consistently portrayed Brazil’s big cities as war zones, places where the only thing tourists can hope for is theft, kidnapping and death. I’ve heard people say that they did not want to risk their lives by travelling to Brazil for the World Cup, likely to be the same people who would not blink at holidaying in Paris, London or New York, big cities that are just as dangerous and threatening as São Paulo or Rio de Janeiro. I imagine they are watching scenes of Argentina fans partying on Copacabana beach or Dutch and German supporters taking over Salvador and feeling pretty silly.

In my opinion, the only reasonable worries were those connected to the tournament on the pitch. The standard of football at the World Cup has been declining since 1986. It is generally accepted that Europe’s Champions League is now the top table of the sport, while international football is losing its importance. Another poor World Cup, in Brazil, the home of football, could have been the deathblow for the competition.

So far, what we have seen has the potential to be the greatest World Cup of all time. At the time of writing, there have been no draws and only one match has had less than three goals (Mexico v Cameroon, although Mexico had two goals wrongly disallowed). Even in the tamer matches (can 3-0 be called tame?) there have been wonderful moments, going down in the history of the sport. Switzerland’s last-second winner against Ecuador, Bosnia’s first ever World Cup match since independence, Ivory Coast’s two-minute turnaround to beat Japan, even the forgettable matches have been unforgettable.

While the 1990 World Cup in Italy followed the studious, defensive style of the host country, this year’s tournament is oozing with the Brazilian jogo bonito. Thomas Müller and Robin van Persie are emulating the natural goalscorers such as Romário and Ronaldo; Joel Campbell and Raheem Sterling have shown the youthful joy and daring of Garrincha; Pirlo and Daley Blind’s opening performances definitely had a bit of Gersón about them. We can only hope that this trend continues throughout the group stage and into the knockouts, and if it does we could well be experiencing the greatest moments in the history of our beloved sport.

It’s making me tear up just talking about the knockout round or, god forbid, the final, because I know that soon we will have to say goodbye to what has been a spectacular tournament of football.

Day four: keeping up appearances…

Watching four games of football back-to-back in one day is no mean feat, especially when scheduled around other commitments and deadlines, so forgive me if today’s diary is late and more abrupt than usual.

It says something about the standard of this year’s World Cup when a 3-0 win can be considered among the least entertaining matches of these three days of play. Colombia flattened Greece, showing they are not reliant on the presence of Monaco striker Radamel Falcao and putting them in with a good chance of qualifying from Group C.

Bravely, Colombia’s coach José Pékerman decided against fielding a like-for-like Falcao replacement in attack, instead going with a more mobile front two of Victor Ibarbo and Teo Gutiérrez. This is the potential benefit of Falcao’s injury: Pékerman’s sides struggled to find a good balance between defence and attack when playing the big No 9, as for him to show his incredible talents he needs plenty of support. Without Falcao, Colombia can reinforce their midfield and gain more control over games, as we saw against Greece. Pékerman would be unable to have the strength of Aguilar and Sánchez, the industry of Ibarbo and Cuadrado, the creativity of James Rodríguez and the intelligence of Gutiérrez if he was forced to play with a static (although incredibly dangerous) centre-forward.

Colombia’s opening goal was a wonderful moment. With the Mineirão stadium decked out in yellow and blue, wing-back Pablo Armero led the rest of the squad into one of his famous dancing celebrations after his scuffed shot crept past Karnezis in the Greek goal. What has been evident throughout the World Cup qualifiers is that this Colombia team are such a tight-knit group, full of joy and excitement. The team is quite varied in terms of ages, but this is the first World Cup for everyone involved (except 42-year-old substitute goalkeeper Mondragon, who played in 1998, Colombia’s last tournament appearance) and they are all enjoying this wondrous moment together.

England v Italy was perhaps my favourite match of the tournament so far (well, it would be, wouldn’t it?): two former world champions facing off in the heart of the Amazon. England were surprisingly entertaining to watch, vibrant and daring going forward. They still have some way to go however, I cannot help but think they lack creativity, the team would be improved hugely with the inclusion of an attacking midfielder with vision and technique.

Their big problem last night, however, was defending their left side. Baines does not seem to offer much in the way of defending, while Rooney gave him no cover from midfield. No wonder Italy focused so heavily on attacking that side with Candreva and Darmian.

Pirlo had a predictably excellent match, with his “assist” for Marchisio’s goal sure to go down in history. However, Raheem Sterling’s slanted, defence-splitting pass to Rooney in the buildup to England’s goal was just as impressive and bears repeating.

In the evening game, Japan took the lead against Ivory Coast but never looked in control. Zaccheroni’s side constantly invited pressure from the Ivorians, who attacked in numbers, with their full-backs overlapping constantly. The African side deservedly turned the game around, albeit in shocking circumstances, with two goals from crosses in the space of two minutes.

On to Sunday, France were impressive in their win over a poor Honduras side who spent over half the match with ten men. Despite taking longer than expected to break the deadlock, France did not panic, stuck to their gameplan and Wilson Palacios’ idiotic foul on Paul Pogba in the penalty area gave them the break they needed.

I’m about to sit down to watch Lionel Messi play at the Maracanã, and I cannot tell you how delighted that makes me feel.

Day three: Chocolate orange

The Netherlands plays an important part in the history of the north-east of Brazil. During the 17th century, the modern-day states of Pernambuco, Sergipe, Rio Grande do Norte and Alagoas were all under Dutch rule, as well as parts of Ceará, Maranhão and Piauí. The area was known as New Holland, and was an official Dutch territory for around 20 years, with its capital city in Recife, then known as Mauritsstad.

They struggled to expand their sovereignty further south into Bahia, a traditional Portuguese stronghold. They managed to invade and conquer the city of Salvador in 1624, but it was recaptured less than a year later by the Spanish empire, led by King Felipe IV and his Spanish and Portuguese forces.

Now, this is the part where I link the historic event to the game of football that happened yesterday. I’m saving my energy for today’s four-game marathon, so if you could fill in the blanks yourselves, that would be much appreciated.

Many have jumped to the conclusion that Holland have knocked off Spain’s crown, and that the era of tiki-taka domination is at an end. They may be correct: I was quick to brush off the “end of an era” discourse after Brazil battered the world champions in the final of last year’s Confederations Cup, but now the sample size has doubled.

The result was momentous, and certainly does justice to Holland’s complete dominance in the second half, but the first half was controlled by Spain. They kept possession well, grinding down their opponents before taking the lead and threatening to score more. If David Silva had scored his one-on-one chance against Cillessen, Spain would have taken a 2-0 lead into the interval, closed the game out in the second half and we would be talking about business as usual. The idea that “tiki-taka is finished” is silly. The style and ethos of both teams were not the deciding factors in yesterday’s game.

Spain did not approach the game correctly, drawing attention to their own weaknesses in defence, lacking a deep option in attack to stretch play and not studying their opposition well enough. Anyone who saw Holland’s pre-tournament friendlies could tell you that Van Gaal’s team like to play long, sweeping passes behind the defence to feed their forwards. Van Persie’s goal against Ecuador was an excellent example.

Holland, on the other hand, were incredibly well prepared for the match and from Robin Van Persie’s post-match comments, it appears Van Gaal predicted the outcome of the match with startling accuracy.

In Brazil, a comprehensive victory such as this (usually one with five goals scored by the winning team) is called a chocolate. Yesterday’s result, chocolate com laranja.

In the late game, Chile were everything we expected them to be. Vibrant going forward, vulnerable in defence. They made hard work of an Australia side who were, although better than I had expected, fairly unimpressive. My impression was that the Cuiabá heat played a part (it remained above 30C throughout the match, at 7-9pm local time), with some of Chile’s midfield not pressing and overlapping with the same intensity as they usually do.

They cannot afford to do that in their remaining group games, especially not against Van Persie and Robben. Playing such a high defensive line requires constant pressing of the ball, so as not to give time for the opponent to exploit the space behind the defence. If Chile play as they did last night, Spain and Holland should win comfortably.

To finish, Diego Costa. The debate about naturalisation has been reopened today since Costa made the Spain starting XI and was roundly booed by thousands in the Arena Fonte Nova. The question of “should he have been booed?” is a silly one. I wouldn’t jeer him myself, but it is perfectly understandable why some Brazilian fans would, as it is perfectly understandable (in my opinion) why Diego Costa preferred to represent Spain instead of his country of birth.

The serious issue, almost completely ignored, were the chants directed at him. “Diego, viado” – I hear it on the stands every week in Brazil, directed at any opposing player worthy of ire. The word viado is not, as The Guardian published in Sid Lowe’s article on Costa, “slang for gay”. Viado is a very strong homophobic slur; if I had to find an equivalent in English, my opinion is that it is closest to the word “faggot”. Imagine thousands of English fans chanting similar at Costa on his debut at Chelsea and you have a hate crime on your hands. It is part of a huge homophobia problem in Brazil, one which needs to be addressed and understood.

Day two: Roubado é mais gostoso

I’ve seen it close to a million times and I still cannot understand why it was given. The decision to award Brazil a penalty kick with the scores at 1-1 left an unpleasant aftertaste to an entertaining opening match.

The referee was poor throughout, so much so that even Brazil’s commentary teams were criticising Mr Nishimura in the second half. His performance was certainly not the worse I’ve seen from a referee, nor the worse I’ve seen from a referee at a World Cup, but he fundamentally changed the course of the match when incorrectly blowing for a foul when Fred fell over in the penalty area under no unlawful contact from Dejan Lovren.

Croatia have every right to feel hard done to. I was impressed with their approach for most of the match: disciplined at the back, quick on offensive transitions and always looking to provide their own threat, as well as trying to neutralise Brazil’s. Their game plan appeared to be working too, as with the scores level Brazil were struggling to find an opening. After the penalty and 2-1 down however, they were forced to open up and a third Brazil goal became a real possibility.

Brazil have the three points, but it was not all good news for the Seleção.

An issue I identified during this opening match was with their full-backs, Marcelo and Daniel Alves. Brazil’s full-backs have always been a weapon and a vulnerability, their offensive talents provide an added threat going forward, but the space they leave behind them is always there for swift opposing transitions to exploit. The problem yesterday however, was different. While in defensive areas, Marcelo and Daniel struggled to cope with the threat of Croatia’s wide play and deal with the drilled crosses constantly sent into their penalty area. It was one of these situations, with Daniel Alves being beaten on the right flank and Marcelo arriving at the far post and struggling to clear his lines, which resulted in Croatia’s goal.

Marcelo already knew he had an important role against Croatia with Darijo Srna and Ivan Perisic attacking his sector. After the own goal, he seemed to feel the pressure, hesitant to burst forward into attack and happy to play easy passes to his team-mates. Understandable, considering the psychological sledgehammer blow that was scoring an own goal in Brazil’s opening match of the World Cup on home soil.

Had Mario Mandzukic played, you could argue these problems would not have appeared as often. Croatia would have played higher crosses into the area, with David Luiz and Thiago Silva keeping an eye on the striker.

Another let-off for Brazil was that Neymar could count himself lucky to be on the pitch to score his two goals. His first-half elbow on Luka Modric was dishonest, and had the referee had a better look at it he could have shown a straight red card instead of yellow. A short time afterwards, Neymar also got away with a handball and some simulation. I would not go as far as saying that Neymar remaining on the pitch was an injustice of any kind, just that he needs to watch his step, as he may come across referees who are more inclined to penalise him.

As Flamengo’s goalkeeper Felipe said, after winning the Rio state championship over rivals Vasco with the help of some poor refereeing decisions: Roubado é mais gostoso. It feels even better when it’s stolen.

Of course, a 3-1 win on opening day came with plenty of positives for Felipão’s team. They came from behind, a difficult thing to do at any level, and something that is potentially useful for their chances further in the tournament. In 2010 in South Africa, the Seleção comfortably won all of their group games and their last 16 tie against Chile after a huge unbeaten run in qualifying, so that when Holland pegged them back in the quarter-finals, they did not know how to react. Now, the team have belief that they are strong enough to win, even when behind.

Neymar was excellent, taking the game by the scruff of the neck and scoring twice, including a magnificent equalising goal. He is the heart of the team, on and off the pitch. His wonderful strike to level the scores came from one of the old dribbles from deep that the always loved to do in his Santos days. It has been a while since he has been able to pull something off like that at the top level, with his space often running out, but yesterday he found the channels and showed his immense talent to the world. Of course, it may have helped that the referee was happy to award him free-kicks whenever he went over. Two key goals to help his team win under pressure in his first World Cup match – I may be mistaken, but I cannot remember Cristiano Ronaldo or Lionel Messi having done the same for their respective national teams in the World Cup.

Oscar was my man of the match, especially in the face of the criticism he has faced recently. I noticed Oscar saving himself a little when playing in friendlies and near the end of the season for Chelsea, but at the same time his role is often a quiet one, far more about keeping the midfield’s shape with all of the movement going on around him. He has such an excellent positional sense that it is easy for him to blend into matches, appearing not to be making an impact.

Against Croatia, he was more involved, looking for the ball and creating attacks, generally taking more responsibility. He channelled the spirit of Santos legend Feitiço with his third goal, the genius toe-poke that took the goalkeeper by surprise.

Off the pitch, I spent the match at the Fan Fest in São Paulo. The atmosphere was excellent and the organisation of the event was impressive, contrary to what many pessimists believed.

With the hosts out of the way, today we have three games to enjoy, with special attention placed on Spain v Holland in Salvador. Of course, these were the two sides that contested the last World Cup final, and many of the same personnel will be involved today. Spain will play their usual tiki-taka style, following the wisdom of Neném Prancha: “It is the ball who has to run. Otherwise, all you would need is a team of pickpockets.” While you try to work that one out, I’m personally looking forward to watching Chile’s opener, surely the most exciting team in the tournament.

After the perfect conditions we enjoyed in São Paulo for the opening match, today will be the first test of the Brazilian heat. Natal will be particularly punishing for Mexico v Cameroon at 1 o’clock, Salvador should be sticky and humid for Spain v Holland, while Cuiabá is one of the hottest places on the planet, even at 7 o’clock. Chile and Australia may be running on empty come the second half.

Having recently written A to Zico: an alphabet of Brazilian football, this World Cup has gained a special significance. In the book, Mauricio and I chronicled Brazil’s performances in the World Cup, among other topics, by threading together our own knowledge with any material and records available. This has made me fully respect how important every minute of this tournament is. What may seem coincidental, unimportant or just downright mundane today, in a decade or two will become part of a rich narrative. Soak it in, note it down if you have to, twenty years from now there will be a young journalist like myself scrambling around to find any scraps of information from a tournament long gone.

Day one: World Cup in Zona Leste

My World Cup began this morning at 6 o’clock sharp, with the familiar whine of a vuvuzela being blown outside of my front door. This proved not to be a one-off, with the brothers and distant cousins of the much detested South African horn following suit soon after, accompanied by fireworks, whistles, car horns and anything else the local people could think of. Vehicular alarms were even being set off on purpose, just to raise the decibels. This description is unlikely to match the ones being relayed by journalists and fans staying in São Paulo, who talked of a general feeling of apathy among the population and, above all, quiet.

The difference is that I, unlike almost all foreigners in Greater São Paulo, live on the city’s almost exclusively working-class east zone – Zona Leste in Portuguese. Ignored by the media, Zona Leste (or Zona Lost as it is often cruelly referred to) is dismissed by many paulistanos, including São Paulo FC’s president Carlos Miguel Aidar, as being “another world”, not just because of the time it takes to get there, but because of the stark differences between the chic bars and restaurants of Jardins and the simple bakeries and drinking holes of Sapopemba. Well, sorry São Paulo, but today Zona Leste is hosting the World Cup.

A recent poll says rich Brazilians are far more likely to be opposed to the World Cup than the rest of the class spectrum, with many anti-World Cup protests being orchestrated by the middle class. Where I live, there is a lot of disagreement with Brazil’s problems with education, housing and health, but there are also non-stop fireworks. Indeed, Arena Corinthians, the stage for the opening match between Brazil and Croatia, is situated in the neighbourhood of Itaquera, slap bang in the middle of Zona Leste.

Itaquera is not the most attractive part of São Paulo by any means. It is a cramped space with winding, congested streets, rubbish littered on pavements and the odd open sewer or two. They have serious housing issues, and labour in the city is so centralised that the majority of Itaquera’s inhabitants have to commute for up to two hours to arrive at their place of work, the opposite of how the quality of life-commute dynamic works in the UK. Unlike the city centre, here you will find widespread optimism about the coming tournament and plenty of national pride.

The tragedy is that despite their general excitement about the tournament, the people of Itaquera, and Zona Leste as a whole, are being actively kept out of the party. On Tuesday, I visited the Copa do Povo (People’s Cup), a 4,800-strong camp of homeless workers, situated only 3km from Arena Corinthians. Led by the Landless Workers’ Movement (MTST), the Copa do Povo is an invasion of unused land, where the squatters have built a fascinating maze of shelters built out of branches and black bin bags. For its appearance, the camp is incredibly organised. The large population is split into eight groups, each with their own kitchen and bathroom and coordination system. Every shelter is numbered, with the MTST organisers knowing exactly who is living where.

After a month of demonstrations and negotiations with the federal government, the MTST have been granted their wish and the owners of the land (a construction company who had not been paying sufficient tax on it) will now be obliged to build houses there for low-income families.

Speaking to some of the families living there, I got the impression that their biggest gripe about the World Cup was Fifa’s plans to close the roads around the stadium on match days, meaning the local people could not get near the stadium, neither could they go about their everyday business. While others have the day off today, many of the workers in Copa do Povo went to their jobs this morning and had their usual public transport routes changed dramatically, with buses cancelled and the subway unreachable. A two-hour commute turned into a three-hour commute.

Even if these workers do get the half day that most businesses are promising, they will not be able to return to the camp and watch the match. They are unable to get any electricity inside the camp, with no power companies willing to help them. From the top of the Copa do Povo camp, you can see the Arena Corinthians nestled nearby. However, for these workers, it could not be farther away. This afternoon, instead of watching Brazil play Croatia, the MTST have organised their own football tournament, to take place at the Copa do Povo, between teams of landless workers.

The problems in Itaquera did not begin when Brazil was chosen to host the World Cup. Had this tournament been in the UK or the USA, the homeless workers in Copa do Povo would still struggle to find a television to watch the opening game. These are a result of Brazilian society as a whole, the centralisation of labour in big cities and the inequality and class hatred that is seen here every day.

I was on the subway yesterday, going from Zona Leste in the direction of the city centre. I had got on at the same station as three teenage girls, all dark-skinned, all coming from a nearby poor neighbourhood. As we went on our way, the train announcements played in Portuguese and English, a novelty for the World Cup. The girls found the English voice funny (which it most certainly was), and while giggling they tried to recreate the lines in their best received pronunciation. “Nextchie staayshon … ” I found it quite funny and charming, but the woman sitting next to me did not agree. Shaking her head, clutching her Louis Vuitton bag close to her chest, she muttered: “Que povinho mal-educado”.

Portuguese uses the diminutive form, -inho and -inha, for many reasons. Sometimes it is to represent size, often it is to show affection, however, it can also be used to show disdain and disgust, as was this example. Translated literally, what this woman said was “what uneducated little people”. “Little people”, not because of their height, their age and certainly not because the woman found them cute and worthy of affection.

Povinho is a slur I hear used every day in São Paulo and it perfectly represents the class hatred evident in this city and makes me sick to my stomach. It is this “povinho” that is celebrating on the streets before a ball has even been kicked, honking their car horns and waving Brazilian flags despite the fact the middle class constantly tries to ignore them. They cannot be ignored any more, as the World Cup has not arrived in São Paulo, it has arrived in Zona Leste and the rest of the city will just have to deal with it.

A to Zico: An alphabet of Brazilian football – Available now

I can proudly say that the ebook written by Mauricio Savarese and myself, A to Zico: An alphabet of Brazilian football, is now available on the Kindle store. The book is a primer on Brazilian football and culture, coming just in time for the 2014 World Cup, choosing one of the myriad subjects and themes for each letter of the alphabet. We cover such topics as the history of the Brazilian national team and their influence on the rest of the world of football, the people who made Pelé the legend he is today, the legacy of the Maracanazo (Brazil’s World Cup defeat in 1950) and how the military dictatorship exploited football for their own gains.

It is the culmination of months of research, hard work and sleepless nights. Special thanks go to my dad, Harry Marshall, for providing us with the excellent illustrations which appear throughout the book. For now, it will only be available in English and in ebook format, but any interested publishers should get in touch with Mauricio and myself through our respective blogs.

The following excerpt comes from chapter M… is for Maracanazo, and goes into detail about the infamous World Cup final of 1950 — which Brazil lost in front of their own fans — and its deep influence on Brazil’s self image. For the rest of this chapter and much, much more, get your copy of A to Zico: An alphabet of Brazilian football from Amazon today. If you like it, leave a review!

M1 M3 M2

The Museum of Football is a mandatory stop for anyone visiting São Paulo. Housed inside the charming Pacaembu stadium, it hosts a fascinating collection of photographs, artefacts and memorabilia from Brazil’s football history, including an impressive permanent exhibition that chronicles every edition of the World Cup to date. However, before reaching the more colourful and exciting parts of the museum, there is one room through which every visitor must pass.

It is a small, dark space, empty apart from a projection screen on one wall. On a loop, it plays black-and-white footage of Brazil v Uruguay – the decisive match of the 1950 World Cup. Brazil’s opening goal. Uruguay’s equaliser. Alcides Ghiggia’s winner. Silence in the Maracanã. Brazil 1-2 Uruguay. The Maracanazo.

Brazil’s defeat in 1950 was not just a sporting upset, it was a turning point in the country’s history, provoking a period of self-hatred and the birth of an inferiority complex that has yet to dissipate. In the Museum of Football, if you want to see the rest of the collection, you must first pass through the screening room and watch Uruguay’s two goals – there is no way around it. Equally, for those wanting to understand Brazilian football and culture, you must first go back to the Maracanazo and understand what happened that day – there is no way around it.

The 1950 World Cup was Brazil’s opportunity to establish themselves on the world stage. In Europe, the traditional footballing powers were in a period of reconstruction after the end of the second world war. Although it was also involved in the war, Brazil’s economy was booming in comparison. They had sent a force of only 25,000 to mainland Europe in the 1940s, suffering less than 1,000 casualties. Furthermore, Brazil actually received significant investment from the United States in exchange for declaring war on the Axis. On the football pitch, the Brazilian national team played throughout the war, facing only South American opposition and obtaining good results. In 1938, Brazil were one of the few countries to make a bid for hosting the planned 1942 World Cup, even though the strongest proposal came from Nazi Germany, who wanted to build on the success of the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games. When Germany invaded Poland in 1939, all tournament plans were scrapped and the World Cup would not be disputed again until 1950. When Fifa got together in Luxembourg in 1946 to discuss their first postwar event, Brazil was the only applicant remaining.

With the opportunity to host football’s biggest prize for the first time, Brazil got to work on planning the tournament of tournaments. With a positive economic situation and an optimistic population (the country had just made the shift to democracy after fifteen years of dictatorship), there was a genuine feeling that Brazil would win the World Cup and consolidate itself as a leading power in the modern world. With that in mind, they began construction of a brand new football stadium in the heart of then capital city Rio de Janeiro. The Maracanã stadium would be built to hold 180,000 spectators, overtaking Glasgow’s Hampden Park as the biggest in the world.

When 1950 came around, the tournament went smoothly and Brazil were praised for their superb planning and organisation. They also gained admirers for their performances on the pitch after flattening Mexico 4-0 in their opening match. Some concerns crept in after their second game however, a draw against Switzerland in São Paulo. Despite the excellent performance against Mexico, Brazil coach Flávio Costa made several changes to his side to play the Swiss, bringing in several players from São Paulo in an attempt to appease the home crowd – a common practice at the time with the Brazilian national side. Switzerland played their characteristically deep and defensive formation, while Brazil’s novel starting lineup struggled to break them down and puffed and wheezed to a 2-2 draw. Faith was restored after their last group match, when the Seleção defeated a tough Yugoslavia side 2-0 to qualify for the final stage.

In a never-before (and never-again) used format, the 1950 World Cup was decided by a round-robin group made up of the four group stage winners. Brazil would have to overcome Sweden, Spain and Uruguay to get their hands on the trophy. The victory against the strong Yugoslavian team filled the Seleção with confidence and it showed on the pitch. They were ruthless against Sweden and Spain, beating them 7-1 and 6-1 respectively, playing some of the most dominant football ever seen at a World Cup. British football writer Brian Glanville described them as “playing the football of the future, tactically unexceptional but technically superb”. They went into their final match against Uruguay needing only to avoid defeat to become world champions …