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.

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(White Man) In The Maracanã

Speaking at the Paraty International Literary Festival (commonly known as Flip) on Sunday evening, iconic Brazilian musician Gilberto Gil made an observation regarding the ethnic composition of supporters at the recent Confederations Cup: “The place where the players ran to hug the fans didn’t have any of the ethnic Brazilian hue, it had been whitened.”

He has not been the only one to speak out on this issue. Renowned sports journalists Juca Kfouri and Antero Greco also expressed their disappointment at crowds that they felt did not accurately represent Brazilian society.

Image: O Globo

This problem is not exclusive to national team matches either. The “whitening” process has affected the domestic game as well. Although, while this may appear to be an issue concerning race, as inferred by Gilberto, it is more of a question of social class. However racial inequality is never too far away in Brazil and a study by the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics (IBGE) estimates that 69% of Brazil’s classe alta is white, while 69% of the classe baixa is black.

So what is making the working class stay away? There is a number of contributing factors, such as the scheduling of kick-off times (major midweek matches start at 10pm, after Rede Globo’s evening soap opera), fear of violence in stadiums and even the fickle nature of the average Brazilian fan. The most obvious reason, however, is the price.

Ticket prices in Brazil range from the slightly expensive to the downright offensive. The average ticket for a league match is R$ 38 (about £12) and rapidly rising, while the cheapest ticket for the Confederations Cup final came in at R$ 130. This may not seem like much for people outside of Brazil, but when compared to the average monthly salary of R$ 1,792 (around £530), it is easy to see why millions are being priced out.

The real tragedy of this exclusion is that the demographic being kept out is the one responsible for Brazilian football’s unique identity. Although the game was initially an elite sport, it was the contributions of players like Pelé, Zizinho, Tostão, Leônidas, Rivellino, Ronaldo and Romário that helped define the Brazilian footballer.

Perhaps the most symbolic example is Mané Garrincha – who gives his name to the newly renovated national stadium in Brasília, due to host seven money-spinning “home” games of the country’s most popular club, Flamengo. If Mané was growing up today, in a poor household in Magé, Rio de Janeiro, getting a ticket to one of these matches could mean a week without food or electricity.

Nevertheless, Brazilian football has reaped some benefits from the globalisation and monetisation of the game. Forty years ago, it would have been hard to see an individual like Kaká, an engineer’s son, become a professional sportsman. Football is now a feasible career path for the middle classes, opening the doors to different styles of player, namely those raised in more sheltered environments.

The Brazilian game is at a crossroads. The increased sponsorship and state-of-the-art stadiums brought by the World Cup will no doubt force a profound change on the match day experience, similar to what happened in England with the Premier League. However, putting class issues to one side, clubs are simply not getting enough bums on seats. The average attendance in last year’s national championship was just 12,983, lower than the J-League in Japan and Major League Soccer in the US.

Empty stadiums spoil the Brasileirão product, which reduces potential gains from television deals and sponsorships. The powers that be (whether that be the CBF or the clubs themselves) must act quickly in order to restore the wider audience.

Perhaps in the current climate of protest and public unrest, Brazilian football supporters can take the initiative themselves and demand fairer ticket prices, like what is being done in the UK with the Football Without Fans Is Nothing campaign.

An apology and a trophy

I’d like to begin with an apology.

Over the past few months, work, family and the hectic environment that is São Paulo have kept me away from a true passion of mine: writing. Even watching football on television has been difficult, never mind going to the stadium, therefore finding the time to sit down at my desk and produce something fit for public consumption has been near impossible.

I am aware that none of you have been crying yourselves to sleep at night since my last article, but I am also aware that a number of you enjoy my work and are always eager to read more. To those kind people, sorry for the absence.

Though my present circumstances remain the same – work is still time-consuming and no-one seems keen on paying me to write about sport (offers are always welcome, by the way…) – I have decided to get back on the horse and resurrect ILFM.

Long features and detailed tactical analyses are out, for the time being, and in their place will be briefer and more frequent blog posts. Ideally I would like these to be daily, providing I can find a little time each day in which to write. Subjects will no doubt vary, language may also vary in order to please my lusophone followers (existe isso?).

The 2013 Confederations Cup came to a close last night and Brazil is champion once more. Yesterday’s was the first trophy the Seleção have won since I came to this country.

I have heard from fellow immigrants of a particular kind of schadenfreude that most ex-pats have felt at least once when Brazil lose. It’s understandable, the Seleção is huge business in Brazil, thus the idea of them being superior to all other nations is shoved down everyone’s throats by the media on an hourly basis. So it can be quite satisfying to see them fail miserably now and again.

For me though, ever since I arrived in Brazil I’ve only seen the Seleção disappoint. So last night was special for me on a personal note, though you’d have to be made of stone not to enjoy Brazil’s demolition of world champions Spain. Or, you’d have to be Spanish.

Although with all the goal-scoring, titan-clashing (Italy-Brazil, Brazil-Uruguay, Spain-Italy and Brazil-Spain in the space of two weeks? Yes please!) and lack of other football going on, it was easy to forget that the Confederations Cup is only really semi-competitive. Brazil defeating the world champions does not make them an excellent team, nor does Spain’s loss spell the end of a golden era. There are conclusions to be drawn from the last two weeks, but not terribly many.

Last night’s match, for example, was all about Brazil. Spain looked tired, having played 120 minutes in the cruel cearense heat on Thursday, while Brazil were fresh and more motivated than ever. From the first whistle Felipão’s men pressed Spain to within an inch of their lives and continued in that vein all evening. Special praise must be reserved for the superb tight marking jobs executed by Paulinho and Luiz Gustavo on Xavi and Iniesta, respectively. Spain were forced to retreat and play aimless long balls, while Brazil were able to play neat, attacking football.

The 3-0 scoreline was kind to Spain and unfair to Brazil, who in the end deserved four or five.

What has become clear from this Confederations Cup is how Brazil will approach most of their matches: high tempo and intense pressing in the first half; compact defending and quick counterattacks in the second half. From Japan through to Spain, each of Brazil’s performances followed this pattern.

It makes perfect sense. For the past twenty years Brazil has produced quick forwards and physical midfielders, thus their most potent weapon has become the counterattack. However Brazil cannot win a World Cup on home soil solely by playing on the break. They will be facing teams who will be content to position themselves deep in their own half, not leaving any space for the Brazil to exploit. Felipão’s strategy is simple: overload the opponent early and take the lead, then as they are obliged to play for an equaliser, Brazil can pick them off on the break.

The Confederations Cup has shown us that this Brazil side are capable of winning. Felipão has a great team at his disposal, but not yet an excellent one to match the likes of Spain, Germany or Argentina. That is their objective between now and next June.

Checking in with the Seleção: part II

When we last spoke about the Seleção the London Olympics were just around the corner, and coming off the back of a promising run of friendlies, Mano Menezes’s boys looked dead certs to grab gold.

Prata com gosto de lata

However, as we know football is rarely so cut-and-dried. In the tournament’s early stages, Brazil lived up to expectations to some degree, winning all five of their matches on the way to the final, scoring three goals in each. Although, their second-half struggle against Egypt and difficulty in putting away Honduras hinted towards a deeper defensive problem.

In the final at Wembley, Brazil faced a quick and expansive Mexico side who managed to take the lead in the first minute of the match. The seleção failed to recover properly and lost the match 2-1 – forcing them to make do with the silver medal.

Of course, an Olympic medal of any substance should not be sniffed at. But for Brazil, this really was uma prata com gosto de lata – a silver that tastes like tin. Continue reading Checking in with the Seleção: part II