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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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.

Game of the Week: Santos 2×0 Vasco

Upon choosing which game to feature in this Game of the Week section, I am more often than not left with a tricky decision. Each week I intend to cover the most ‘significant’ match, but with so many exciting games going on, naturally some decent candidates get ignored. What I prefer to do with these weekly articles is to cover a particular team(s)’s system, and to do so in a match which showcases the qualities and/or flaws of said system. The best examples of that are from October 15th when I covered Atlético Goianiense in their demolition of São Paulo, and just last week when I took a close look at Grêmio in their 4×2 victory over Flamengo. Following on in that style this week, I decided to study Santos’ home win against Vasco, and to delve in to the inner tactical workings of the 2011 Copa Libertadores champions. Continue reading Game of the Week: Santos 2×0 Vasco