Brazil deliver on the pitch amid headaches

AFP, RIO DE JANEIRO

Tue, Dec 31, 2013 - Page 18

On the pitch at least, Brazil answered key questions this year with a crushing success over world champions Spain in the FIFA Confederations Cup final.

As the year dawned, Brazilian fans wanted to know the following: Could the five-time world champions mold a team worthy of their history with a home World Cup fast approaching? Could they win with style rather than functionality? Could the decision to ignore the never-go-back philosophy by rehiring the man who delivered their last world title more than a decade ago prove inspired?

Over the past 12 months, Brazil have managed to answer all three questions with an emphatic “yes.”

Whether new-old helmsman Luiz Felipe Scolari really is the man with the Midas touch — he certainly was not in between his two spells in charge with glaring club failures at Chelsea and Palmeiras — can only be determined come July 13 next year, the day of the World Cup final.

What Scolari has done is galvanize the team and the fans, not least in sending an admittedly weary Spanish side packing in Rio last June.

That 3-0 triumph, with Barcelona-bound Neymar starting to live up to the hype that he could be the new Pele, at least belatedly introduced a feel-good factor to a tournament hit by mass countrywide protests.

More than a million people took to the streets across Brazil in a mass show of discontent at government corruption, maladministration and, not least, the gargantuan cost of staging top sports events.

The World Cup is set to cost US$11 billion, with about US$15 billion more being spent on the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.

For the bill, Brazilians will get some upgraded transport and communications infrastructure, but they will also get swanky new stadiums in places lacking a top soccer team, such as Manaus, Natal and even the capital, Brasilia.

In a country where large swathes of infrastructure is crumbling, most notably in education and health provision, the money being spent on sport has prompted anger, even if most support the events and their team.

“Brazil asked to host the World Cup. We didn’t force it on them,” was how FIFA president Sepp Blatter saw the issue.

Observers from sociologists to politicians and the fan in the street predict more protests will accompany the World Cup, noting the negative publicity of four construction worker deaths this year, including two in Sao Paulo, where the stadium due to host June 12’s opening match will not be ready until April.

Another storm cloud hung over the Brazilian league with hooliganism marring a final day which saw fans of Atletico Paranaense clash with Vasco da Gama, who were relegated, along with fellow Rio side — and outgoing champions — Fluminense, as the title went to Cruzeiro.

Even so, as Brazil prepares to get itself more or less ready for next year the clouds have lifted with their Confederations Cup form — even if they have lost Atletico Madrid striker Diego Costa to Spain’s ranks.

Scolari, buoyed by the kudos of his 2002 success and that of last June, said earlier this month he is happy in the knowledge he more or less knows his team ahead of unveiling his squad on May 7.

“I am still observing players — but this is my team,” he said after his side defeated a capable Chile in a Toronto friendly.

“I think we have a great chance. We shall be competing at home and we have a great team, excellent players and have our home fans behind us,” Scolari said, dubbing glory next year an “obligation.”

Scolari first took over a year before Brazil’s 2002 win over Germany in Tokyo with the team struggling in the qualifiers.

This time, as the hosts they have had to live off a diet of friendlies — the Confederations Cup aside — but Scolari’s steady hand and authoritarian gaze are widely seen as assets.

Even Pele gave his seal of approval, having voiced doubts when Scolari replaced Mano Menezes a year ago.

“I think we have what it takes to be champions. With Felipao [Scolari], the team has improved,” Pele said.

In rising above the protests to show Spain they cannot count on being top dogs for much longer, Brazil this year created a platform for World Cup year, when they will finally seek to cast off the memory of losing the 1950 final to upstart neighbors Uruguay.