Confederations Cup 2013 Team of the Group Stages

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The Confederations Cup has brought with it the usual dose of shackle-free, festival like football.  A year before the real thing and often billed as a dress-rehearsal, the attacking verve usually on display is in stark contrast to the increasingly turgid and cautious football on show during the showcase.  The Group stages recently concluded in deserving fashion, concluding a grossly engrossing spectacle with more 90 minutes of thrilling football.  After three rounds, some players have stood out, providing consistently excellent displays and have been integral to their teams’ displays.

Goalkeeper

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Photograph courtesy of daylife

Vincent Enyeama

2010 is not too far in the past for us to forget his remarkable displays at the World Cup.  In the time since, perhaps one other goalkeeper (Javi Varas) has left Lionel Messi kicking the air in frustration, wondering how he would walk off the pitch without the match ball, not to speak of a goal.  Now the official captain of the side following Joseph Yobo’s demotion, he has led by example, turning in error-free displays (key for a goalkeeper) allied to making his usual repertoire of remarkable saves.  Against Spain, as Nigeria sought to take initiative, he was repeatedly called upon to bail his team out and did not disappoint, sweeping up behind his defence or foiling the likes of Pedro, Soldado and Xavi time and again.

In a tournament which has so far been graced by somewhat less-than-convincing goalkeeping, Enyeama remained a beacon of assuredness for his nation.  If all goes according to plan, an Enyeama-led Nigeria should be back next year for the big showcase.

Defenders

Right Back

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Photograph courtesy of aug-cdn.com

Marama Vahirua (Tahiti)

Tahiti have won lots of friends and admirers at this tournament, not only for their rather attractive status as gross underdogs but also their unwillingness to sit back defend despite the temptation to do so in hope of avoiding trouncing (which they suffered).  Chockful of unemployed individuals, tour guides and accountants, right back cum right midfielder, Marama Vahirua stood out for me.  A former France u-21 International and indeed, Oceania Footballer of the Year of 2005, he is an experienced head and the one player on the side who can boast of top-flight experience.  Against Nigeria, he led his side admirably, setting up Tahiti’s only goal from a corner kick, one which the world, like the Tahitians, celebrated with fervent jubilation. Tahiti conceded the most goals in Confederations Cup history, helped some of the world’s premier strikers pad their statistics but in the end, they showed they could play a bit – Vahirua was the best of the lot.

Left Back

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Photograph courtesy of RTE Sport

Jordi Alba (Spain)

Roadrunner, Duracell Bunny, Michael Johnson…call him what you want, Barcelona and Spain’s left back is irrepressibly electric.  Spain had to make do with the unheralded Capdevilla for years, their left side often seen as a weak link.  Nowadays, it is probably their most potent area, the right side now bequeathed to the oft-hapless Alvaro Arbeloa.  Jordi Alba, formerly a left winger/attacking midfielder, provided the vertical thrust and the very necessary width to Spain’s rather mid-centric play.  His display against Uruguay was truly excellent, repeatedly bombing forward and combining with Cesc and Pedro.  He topped that, however, with a scinitillating display against Nigeria, topped off by 2 fantastic finishes both showcasing the variety of skills in his possession.  Spain’s next game happens to be against Italy and Alba will be hoping to replicate his goalscoring form against a side he registered against very famously but a year ago.

Centre Back

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Photograph courtesy of sueddeutsche

Sergio Ramos (Spain)

There has always been more than an inkling of ‘a beautiful brute’ to Sergio Ramos.  A very comely young man, over his career, he has developed a reputation for recklessness and foul play which has seen him pick up nearly 20 red cards in his professional career.  Yet, he remains one of Spain’s Vice-captains, is vice-captain of his club side, Real Madrid, and has been integral to Spain’s tripleta in recent years.  Make no bones about it – he is fine footballer, taking the idea of a ‘ball playing centre back’ to a different level.  His passing so far has stood out, mixing incisive passes into the middle with searching long balls (his pass to Roberto Soldado against Nigeria was immaculate – the Valencia striker fluffed one of a trio of very presentable chances).  However, he has remained near faultless at the back, with the likes of Luis Suarez, Edinson Cavani and Okpala (of Nigeria) bullied into submission.

Centre Back

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Photograph courtesy of Eurosport

Thiago Silva (Brazil)

It was a tough one, with David Luiz hugely impressive as well (his decision to play on despite having broken his nose against Mexico was hugely courageous and gained the admiration of many) but his sidekick just shades it for having played all the games.  A curiously unassuming character, Thiago Silva is widely regarded as the best defender in world football and so far, he has only enhanced this reputation.  While Sergio Ramos is arguably the more talented of the two, PSG’s man possesses a calmness of mind and body which renders him much less of a liability to his teams than Ramos.  Against Italy, he and his partner combined to nullify the hitherto dominant Mario Balotelli and prior to this had led La Seleçao to two clean sheets against enterprising Mexico and Japan sides.

Midfielders

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Photograph courtesy of calgaryherald

Yasuhito Endo (Japan)

The veteran midfielder, despite his side losing all three of its games, shone in his deep-lying midfielder position.  His standout performance came in what is the match of the tournament so far, and for me, one of the best games of football I have been privileged to see live.  Despite losing so harshly to Italy, Japan dominated what was possibly the most dominant defeat in recent memory – Endo was firmly at the heart of this.  Completely transformed from their listless display against Brazil, Japan upped the tempo, finding a fluency and bravery in their passing which has since led some to dub their style tiki-takawa, aping Spain’s much aped passing football.  Endo, in addition to setting up Okazaki for a header to bring the score to 3-3, created a massive 5 chances for his teammates, joint top with Keisuke Honda who naturally shone brighter due to his advance positioning on the pitch.  Japan’s most capped player (with 133 appearances), he will be returning to Brazil next year as he hopes to improve on his side’s exciting potential.

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Photograph courtesy of Kickoff

John Mikel Obi (Nigeria)

Chelsea’s often lambasted defensive midfielder, Nigeria’s midfield colossus – it’s difficult to reconcile both antithetical figures.  At Chelsea, he is often accused of playing within himself and arguably he does, particularly in  light of his superb performances for his country.  At the African Cup of Nations, his dominance over Yaya Toure as Nigeria swept Ivory Coast might have been a one-off but for the consistency of these performances.

 So far in Brazil, he has been Nigeria’s standout performer, the one player truly capable of bringing a svelt cerebral touch to Nigeria’s dynamic and energetic play.  His goal against Uruguay, a beautiful turn past Diego Lugano before sweeping a left footed finish past Nestor Muslera was worthy of his shirt number.  He also attempted by far the most passes against the Uruguayans (80), completing 85% of them, creating 3 chances for his teammates and completing a whopping 5 dribbles, the most on the pitch.  Against Spain, he ran the show for Nigeria again, picking out some truly delightful passes (including one in the 1st half which totally bisected Spain’s backline – but for the haphazard finishing of Nigeria’s forwards…) while successfully completing 3 dribbles, 2nd most behind the wondrous Andres Iniesta.

Mikel has certainly showcased his myriad of talents, and being linked with a move away from Chelsea, this summer might provide him with the opportunity to seek pastures which will allow him to truly blossom.  As a twitter pal of mine said, “Mikel is everything I want an African player to resemble”.

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Photograph courtesy of Dailymail

Andres Iniesta (Spain)

Spain’s number 6 is probably the best midfielder on the planet, without exception, and repeatedly brings his A-game to the grandest of occasions.  As Spain expressed their other-wordly dominance in the last 3 rounds of games, Iniesta was at the heart of it all.  His recent performance, against Nigeria, was masterful, directing the flow of play as effortlessly as machine, Xavi, while repeatedly breaking Nigeria’s lines with those wondrous dribbles of his.

They say stats don’t tell it all, but a snapshot of Iniesta’s against Nigeria pretty much speaks for itself – 4 dribbles (most on the pitch), 5 Key Passes (most on the pitch), 5 Throughballs attempted with 3 successful (most on the pitch), 110 Passes attempted at 95% completion.  Amidst all this, he was dispossessed just once, despite the increasingly risky manoeuvres.  In Spain’s first game against Uruguay, he was selected as FIFA’s Man of the Match, utterly dominating with his awareness, passing (122 attempted at 94% accuracy) and dribbling (7 completed – nobody apart from Arbeloa {surprise!!} completed more than 1).  I am eagerly looking forward to more Andres magic (Jump to 1.50 of this video for a ridiculous pirouette flick pass) against Italy.

Forwards

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Photograph courtesy of Forza Italian Football

Mario Balotelli (Italy)

Super Mario is a different player in an Italy shirt from the often nonchalant player we see in his club colours.  Born in Italy, and only granted his citizenship when he turned 18, Italy’s number 9 bleeds as blue as any of his Caucasian counterparts.  Playing as the lone striker in Italy’s setup, he has showcased his very best qualities in Brazil, scoring 2 goals, setting up another with an audacious backheel and generally creating chaos for opposition backlines.

A constant menace with his accurate shooting against Mexico, he was rewarded for his persistence with a bundled goal which spoke volumes of his desire for the Azzuri cause.  Against Japan, he converted an ice-cool penalty to complete Italy’s comeback, showcasing his renown nervelessness on the spot.  Very capable of playing with his back to goal while also immensely comfortable running channels or spinning in behind opposition backlines, Balotelli has provided Italy with a variety of options due to his multiplicity of skills.  He will miss the match against Spain with a thigh strain (the temptation to always use Mario as the outball left him prone to constant heavy treatment from defenders – it has told).  He is only 22 but Italy can confidently rest assured that they have a player who can become the best striker on the planet.

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Photograph courtesy of Ripple’s Web

Pedro (Spain)

Scored via a deflection against Uruguay, was rested against Tahiti and came back into the side against Nigeria to set up Fernando Torres with an immaculate cross, Pedro is probably the most in-form Spain player of the last year (11 international goals since September) and interestingly in a year that he has struggled for his best form with his club, Barcelona, has become a key component for the national side.  What he brings to the side – energy, pace, movement and finishing.  Spain, at the Euros, was accused of being too one-paced.  At this tournament, Pedro has brought added verticality to Spain’s playing, providing a direct option for Spain as they look to spring offside traps more often or exploit space on the counter.  It would do him a disservice to merely pass him off as a roadrunner, chiefly in the side to provide the pace.  Technically, he is a very capable footballer, showcasing his ability to involve himself in Spain’s swift and precise tiki-taka across both games he has featured in.

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Photograph courtesy of Malaysian Insider

Neymar Jnr. (Brazil)

So he has won the Man of the Match award in all 3 of the games he has played in so far, punctuating each with goals befitting of the virtuosity of his genius.  Coming into the tournament, the talk was whether Neymar was merely an overhyped showpony, content to dance and jig his way through South American defences used to playing deeper than a Vidic-led Manchester United.  Less than satisfactory recent performances against Italy, Russia and England further cast aspersions as to the true nature of his talent – then Barcelona went and paid close to 50 Million quid for him.  The pressure could have been suffocating, particularly with Brazil so badly struggling for form.

So it’s the 3rd minute of the first game of the tournament and Neymar whips a 25 yard volley into the top corner, as Alan Shearer said, ‘making what is a truly difficult skill look incredibly simple’.   His goal against Mexico, a left-footed volley from the edge of the box was made to look as effortless as the first.  Against Italy, his free-kick, wrongfooting Buffon, was tagged as a moment of genius by his coach, Scolari, who had this to say – “He saw that Buffon took a step to the side and he knew that he was going to hit it in the corner.”  While I am careful to avoid jumping onto the Neymar bandwagon – while he has punctuated these contests with some moments of utterly sublime genius (his assist for Jo against Mexico was something to behold), he still drifts out of games too often, not really influencing play as much as his prodigious talent should allow him to.  As confidence builds, this will come, but it is indeed astounding to think that this is a Neymar with much improving to come.

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Asier Illarramendi – No Hyperbole

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Photograph courtesy of zimbio.com

Football folk are prone to lazy comparisons, often borne out of an eagerness to relive the glories wrought by legends gone by. It often does not take much- a similarity in shirt numbers often does the trick.  Other times, it’s a common provenance, split by the timeline of different generations but having provenance of the same neighbourhood or district.  At other times, it is just the need for a saviour, one to worship that will bring redemption.  Argentina, the home of arguably the two best footballers to ever play the game, has a penchant for such deification. The list of ‘new Diegos’ reads something like this: Ariel Ortega, Juan Roman Riquelme, Pablo Aimar, Javier Saviola, Carlos Tevez and most recently, and undoubtedly with most credence, Lionel Messi.  Survey the aforementioned list of truly exceptional footballers and their dissimilarities become so sharp as to render any thought of uniformity (in relation to Diego) ludicrous.  Riquelme, patrolling the midfield zone in his languorous manner, is as dissimilar to El Diego as any, only their number 10 and Boca Juniors providing a tenuous connection of sorts; Carlos Tevez, a ball of nippy, impetuous energy, is more fighter, less effortless dribbler; or Javier Saviola, one who prior to the 2002 World Cup was proclaimed Argentina’s saviour – in reality, he was, and still is, a slight striker more known for sticking the ball in the net than his technical abilities. Often, these players, try as much as they can, and with relative success too, are red herrings, false prophets through no fault of theirs who condemn the dewy-eyed masses to crushing disappointment.  However, occasionally as luck would have it, a comparison does ring true, not motivated by selfish idolatory, but simply because it would be ignorant not to acknowledge the déjà vu – you see one, you see the other.

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 While it was announced that Xabi Alonso would miss out on the Confederations Cup in Brazil, another Spanish midfielder was getting ready to bring his talents to a wider audience, one who in a few years could ensure that Alonso’s absence does not prove as significant as it does now.  Asier Illarramendi Andonegi (have the full name, geeks), the 23 year old Real Sociedad midfielder, is in the Spain u-21 European Championship squad and after just two games, is fast making a name for himself in Israel.  Spain, you would excuse the cliché please, is a relentless conveyor belt of talent, exquisite of touch and technique, 20/20 of vision and ability.  Illaramendi, at 23, is a relative old-boy in respect of the amount of time it has taken his talents to gain wider appreciation beyond the confines of Spanish domestic football.  Age is but a number and as you will see, his age might yet belie a maturity far beyond his years.

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 Photographs courtesy of headbandsandheartbreak & theplace2.ru

Doppelganger?’

 Spain v Russia gave me the opportunity to survey Spain’s ultra-talented bunch.  The likes of Marc Bartra, Montoya, Koke, Thiago and Isco were no strangers to me, having become regulars at Spain’s more high profile sides.  At left back, Alberto Moreno was an unfamiliar name.  Some googling reveals he plays for Sevilla, making 16 appearances in 2012/2013.  To another unfamiliar face of whom I had heard the whispers…no, the steadily rising chorus, of this new ‘Xabi Alonso’.  Excuse this tangential rant please, I do feel sorry for these players, hardly gone by 30, who endure the implication that they are an ‘old version’ of themselves, at the expense of some raw upstart.  As is often the case, I suspected this was another endemic case of the adoring public fervently searching for one to replace the chasm left by the departure of another.  If they have even left, that is.  Furthermore, in respect of the likes of Alonso, or Sergio Busquets, players of inimitable albeit less ‘spectacular’ style, it is even more difficult to happen upon ‘new versions of them’.

A tad sceptical but very excited (watching the Spanish development sides does this to me), I settled down to watch.  After 10 minutes of watching, it is impossible to miss the similarities between Real Madrid’s supreme orchestrator and Real Sociedad’s upcoming midfielder.  This was not a case of my ‘seeing confirming what I believe’, for I cannot recall settling down to watch a Real Sociedad game (except when they play Barcelona or Real Madrid – then it is the ‘Barcelona’ or ‘Real Madrid’ game).  This time, I saw and believed.

Excuse the pun, but he looks the real deal, very similar to Alonso in all but looks (google both names under ‘images’ and come to your own conclusion).  Both Basque, Real Sociedad groomed, they share a kinship which further entrenches the idea that one will eventually succeed the other, both on the pitch and in the hearts of the fans.  Indeed, the words of Phil Ball, the highly esteemed Spanish Football expert, only serve to confirm this.  Too experienced, he is not one to fall victim to hyperbole and hysteria, so when he describes Illarramendi as being “the best thing since Alonso’ for ’20 years”, one has to take note.

‘Passing Dynamo’

His propensity to drop in between the centre backs, while obviously a tactical ploy of the manager’s, is remarkably akin to Alonso’s, particularly in his clear preference to move a bit to the left of centre.  At 23 years old, he is not exactly a spring chicken but still, his poise and awareness on the ball are truly remarkable.  After two games, he has attempted over 210 passes with a whopping completion rate of 94%*.  A significantly higher percentage than his total at Sociedad (81%)*, one suspects this is to do with him playing a more direct role at club level with Sociedad lauded for their superb counterattacking (indeed, in a league now synonymous for its emphasis on possession football, Sociedad, although finishing 4th in the final Liga standings, only had the 8th highest average possession in the league at 52%, but 2nd behind Real Madrid on goals scored from counterattacks with 10*) as opposed to what operates at international level.  So far in Israel, despite the significantly higher number of passes attempted and completed (over the course of the domestic 2012-2013 season, he averaged just over 50/game), what is more remarkable is that he has created 5 chances with his passes, a high number for a player who sits just in front of his defence.  And he defers corner kick and indirect free-kick duties to Thiago.  Head up, he continually makes the right decisions on the ball, whether maintaining the short pam-pam-pam of the tiki-taka, or electing to launch a casual 50-yard pass out to the right wing where an eager teammate gratefully awaits – he mixes precision with incision expertly.

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Photograph courtesy of 2.bp.blogspot

Combative, Tenacious’

 Unlike Xabi Alonso, for whom his defensive and spoiling capabilities have only truly come to the fore at Real Madrid, particularly as Los Blancos struggled to get to grips with Barcelona, Illarramendi, at 23, is already far ahead of Alonso’s curve at a similar age in respect of his defensive capabilities.  Completing an average of 3.8 tackles and 2.3 interceptions per La Liga game*, the young Basque illustrates a very sound defensive awareness of the game.  His tally of 11 yellow cards in 33 La Liga games, while appearing high, comes with the nature of the position and its demands.  Check Alonso: in 28 La Liga games, he picked up an identical 11 yellow cards – synchrony?  The Sociedad man is a stockier, slightly more muscled player who possesses a combative streak which enables him to patrol the area in front of his defence without having to rely on a more energetic colleague to ‘do the running’ beside him.  Nevertheless, in Israel, Spain’s dominance in possession (averaging 73% across both games played so far) has seen his defensive contributions drop (he has only made 2 tackles and 4 interceptions in 2 games), concurrently allowing him to use his brilliant technical skills to exert a more offensive influence on the games, showing an energetic mobility which Alonso has arguably never possessed.

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Photograph courtesy of orgullotxuriurdin.blogspot.co.uk

“Poacher Alert – ‘expires 2018”’

Naturally, these similarities have not gone unnoticed by the high brow of Spanish football.  On the back of a sterling season with his club, which ended in truly dramatic fashion as they secured qualification for the Champions League for the first time in 10 years, the Basque has been linked with a move to Real Madrid.  Xabi Alonso’s age and contract situation (his expires next summer and he has been linked with a return to English football with Chelsea – there was never any public falling out with Mourinho so it might not be altogether implausible), in addition to the unmistakable similarities between the two players, lend a certain objective sense to the media links.  Barcelona, not one to miss a Spanish trick, have reportedly scouted the player, and regard him as a player capable of fitting seamlessly into their unique and highly demanding style of play.

Of course, the key question is whether he leaves.  Sociedad, having qualified for the Champions League, have lost their inspirational, although some would contest ‘lucky’, coach, Phillippe Montanier, to French outfit, Rennes.  Surrounded by the most exciting collection of young players in Spain in Carlos Vela, Inigo Martinez and Antoine Griezmann, and in a World Cup year, he might be better placed making a move, if he is even interested, after the World Cup.  While obviously keen to play for his country, he is in no hurry to depart San Sebastian just yet.  When recently questioned about rumours linking him with the big 2 in Spain, he provided honest reasons for not seeking a move just yet.  Apart from the presence of friends and family around him ensuring that he is surrounded by love while doing what he knows best, the insufferable hounding of media, the pressure the likes of AS and Marca heaps on players at the El Clasico rivals is something he does not find remotely enticing.  His contract, after a 3-year extension was signed in October 2012, runs till 2018, a sign of his commitment to the cause, and as he continues to put on sterling displays in Israel, his value will only continue to skyrocket.  If bought now, he will certainly not come cheap.  Or easy.

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He is in the company of more illustrious teammates like Barcelona’s Thiago and Malaga’s (not for much longer) Isco, but has shone as both.  At 23, he is a relative unknown but club success has given him the opportunity to showcase his talents to a wider audience.  Next year, if successfully able to navigate the Champions League 3rd of Qualifiers, Real Sociedad will play on the grandest of stages with their number 8 at the heart of it all.  For the moment, he is Spain’s number 3 and is doing his very best to  ensure Spain as they defend their u-21 title.  Like the Ozils, Buffons, Pirlos and Thiagos before, this tournament might be the launch-pad to truly developing and fulfilling his special potential.

Catch Spain tommorrow (12/06/2013) at 18.00 GMT as they take on the Netherlands (who have been equally magnificent) to decide who tops Group B

By Raymond Utuk

*all stats courtesy of whoscored.com

Brazil – Running Out of Time

Brazil’s tardiness is completing infrastructural projects is painfully reflected in the stark lack of preparedness its celebrated Seleçao finds itself in

The Estadio Do Maracana, or the Estadio Jornalista Mario Filho, for the anorak-types, was, and is, not ready.   Steeped in history, a perennial monument to the fervent splendour that is Brazilian football, the globally famous concrete edifice welcomes the World Cup back to its deep bowel for the first time since 1950.  For Brazilians, that tournament 63 years ago still stirs up sensations of frustration and anguish.  It was July 16th and Brazil needed a draw to win the World Cup on home soil.  Having disposed of Sweden and Spain(7-1 and 6-1 respectively) the odds were ever in their favour.  As such, expectation was sky high, worshipping fans (all of the reported nearly 200,000) whipping themselves into a collective frenzy. And they failed, letting a lead slip as complacency gave way to disabling terror and the harshest of realities – defeat.  Uruguay celebrated to a backing music of ‘morbid silence’, so eerie it was described by Jules Rimet as ‘too difficult to bear’.  Indeed, it was – to date, the episode pockmarks Brazilian football history, infamous for the suicides which followed, two of which reportedly occurred at the stadium itself.  Die hard fans indeed. Such was the hysteric disappointment, epitomising the almost crushing levels of pressure those who dare to don the celebrated yellow and blue have to handle.

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Photograph courtesy of Brazil Portal

‘BEWARE – STADIUM UNDER CONSTRUCTION’

Brazil won the bid to host the 2014 World Cup in 2007, 6 years ago.  In October 2011, addressing questions about the construction work, Pele admitted ‘Brazil is not ready…not yet, it is not ready’.  FIFA’s deadline for completion was December 2012, in anticipation of the highly anticipated dress rehearsal that is the Confederations Cup.  That the Sao Paulo Itaquerao, the venue of the Opening ceremony, remains in a poor state (hardly 70% complete) has caused great consternation.  Indeed, Andres Sanchez, the former President of Corinthians football club, recently said that ‘there is a risk of work stopping or the stadium not being ready on time’.  In this case, a pending guarantee for a bank loan is what threatens the prompt completion of the stadium.  Without the promised $200m, Sanchez suggested that alternatively, a less impressive stadium’ may be built, one that will almost certainly not be up to FIFA’s standards.  This is a prospect which none of the organisers embraces but bureaucratic politicking remains crippling.

The construction of the Itaquerao is hardly alone in its tardiness.  In states such as Porto Alegre, Cuaiba and Manaus, stadiums are still inching towards 70% completion.  However, with the ‘strong deadline’ now for December, 2013, it is expected that construction will be completed by then.  Even if this is the case, full technical audits may yet be compromised, particularly with the short space of time between completion and event.  Indeed, Sunday’s friendly against England nearly did not happen.  While the injunction which, theoretically, would have prevented the game from going ahead was lifted after the required technical report was submitted, the initial farce was enough to reinforce the view that Brazil’s preparations have been plagued by incompetence, red-tapism and ballooning costs, far beyond initial estimates.

Oh, and the corruption.  A ‘BRIC’ nation, Brazil’s administrators are flush with more and more cash as its economy continues to grow.  “Mo’ money, mo’ problems”, raps American hip-hop legend, Biggie Smalls.  In 2012, Ricardo Teixeira stepped down from his post as Brazilian FA President amidst accusations of corruption.  His successor, Jose Maria Marin, hardly a saint himself, is accused of both corruption and more sinisterly, torturing opposition during the Brazilian military junta’s rule from 1964-1985.  Ridiculed by former legend-turned-congressman, Romario, as a ‘thief’, Marin’s is hardly the public visage one would want in times of such testing times

By drawing 2-2 with England, Brazil came up short against yet another top side (England… Top side??? *spits out chicken drumstick*), continuing a worryingly debilitating trend that has now lasted 4 years.  Since 2010, Brazil have failed to beat Italy, Holland, Argentina, France and Germany, to name the best of the lot – to be the best, you have to beat the best.  This hoodoo has mushroomed from incidental coincidence to a genuinely problematic situation – when faced with football’s powerhouses, they disappoint.  The Three Lions, experiencing personnel and tactical struggles of their own, presented the best opportunity for Brazil to break this duck but La Seleçao was left grasping at air as they surrendered meekly.  In many ways, both teams are but pale imitations of greater sides from eras bygone, although Brazil is cast in the gloom of a much larger and imposing shadow.

The revamped Maracana, the centrepiece of Brazil’s preparation for next year’s showcase, is emblematic of the current Brazil side.  Legendary, it is in a state of refashioning which has so far failed to provide any assurance that it will be ready for next year’s big event.  While Sunday’s draw took place without incident, uncovered gutters and loose panelling remain, providing patent evidence of unpreparedness, a state of affairs that has only continued to generate more rancour in the domestic and international football community.

All is not doom and gloom, however.  6 venues, of the 12, are fully operational and ready to run.  FIFA’s Secretary General, Jerome Valcke, promises, like he has done before, that the rest, including the Itaquerao, will be in full working condition come June next year.  While they almost certainly will be, the constant delays of construction work will leave all involved tense, on the edge of their seats, as Brazil plays a dangerous, and now unavoidable, game of brinksmanship.

Amidst the depressive air of underachievement and unpreparedness, football regularly serves as an opium to the worst fears of many, providing respite, even if ephemeral.  Kuper and Szymanski, writers of the wonderful Soccernomics (I will recommend this again – fascinatingly insightful), note the role successful hosting of a tournament (that is success on the pitch as well as the general organisation of the broader event) has to play in making the people happier.  Apparently, fewer suicides are recorded on average, and more children are conceived (Iniesta’s winner in Johannesburg led to a 50% surge in births in Catalunya alone, a phenomenon famously dubbed the ‘Iniesta Baby Boom’).  With administrative failings holding up infrastructural progress, it falls to the men on the pitch to alleviate the gloomy pall.  Disappointingly, La Seleçao are failing at the moment.

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Photograph courtesy of SportsKeeda

‘BE WARNED – TEAM UNDER CONSTRUCTION’

Dark clouds hang over Brazil’s celebrated football team – like half its country’s world Cup venues, it is still not ready.  As the Confederations Cup 2013 looms ever larger, the Champions of its last two editions lag far behind their fellow high profile global counterparts.  That is, of course, if they are still counterparts.  The FIFA rankings have Brazil lying in 19th place (**correction – they are now 22nd, one place ahead of Mali**), its lowest ranking since official publication of rankings began.  Some would point to Brazil’s lowly placing as an anomaly, a consequence of the hosts not having to play any competitive games in the lead up to the showcase.  Despite this excusable consequence of hosting the Copa Mundial, their constantly underwhelming friendly performances have only exacerbated the situation, providing validation to an unusual scenario.  Does anybody seriously think Brazil is the 22nd best nation in the world, lagging behind the likes of Switzerland (14th) and Greece (16th)?  Probably not, but it does reflect the substandard nature of their recent results and performances.

Since Iniesta smacked Spain into World Cup history in Johannesburg, Brazil has played in the 2011 Copa America and the Olympics (admittedly, a largely u-23 side but many of those players will feature in 2014).  The Copa was blighted by stilted football and even more shocking results, with Brazil registering a solitary win in 4.  Watching Brazil labour the ball towards an even more laboured Ganso (who was patently unfit) hurt the eyes – seduced by the mythical joie de vivre of Brazilian football, I expected to be entertained and watching Brazil was a crushing letdown.  Brazilian daily, O Globo, had the words ‘a historic incompetence’ splashed across its front pages.  Perhaps an overreaction, but then again, I am not Brazilian.

There is nowhere else in the world that can lay claim to such a styptic relationship with the beautiful game.  Indeed, in the lead up to the recent friendly, England’s Theo Walcott expressed his amazement at the ubiquity of football in Brazil‘As soon as you come here, you realise just what a football place it is’, he cooed, particularly after seeing ‘6 or 7 year olds kids using their shoulders to play beach volley’.

It is this relationship that translates to such expectation, voracious demand even.  In Brazil, the world Cup is regarded as a collective piece of property, expected to come home to roost every 4 years.  Indeed, following their 3rd triumph in 1970, it did; permanently.  The Jules Rimet trophy, then the prize played for, was given to Brazil for all time.  In 1983, while Brazil was in the middle of its driest spell of Copa Mundial success since the World Cup began, it was stolen and has never been recovered – in some way, Brazil’s hunger to recover the Cup has only continued to grow ever since.

Mario Menezes survived Brazil’s horror showing at the 2011 Copa America, before leading the u-23’s on an exciting but ultimately futile London Olympic expedition.  There, with the pressure of all of Brazil on the favourites, Neymar and Co quailed, sputtered and wilted as a mentally stronger Mexico sealed Olympic Gold with a comfortable 2-0 win.  Brazil had never won the tournament before and the wait continues (**Nigeria, in particular, takes delight in contributing to this, truncating the dreams of an uber-talented 1996 Brazil side.  The melodic sound of ‘When Nigeria beat Brazil’, trumpeted during games since the epic 4-3 victory, remains an indelible part of our past and present**).  However, Brazil did not wait for Menezes, who was summarily dismissed a short while after.  In his place, Luis Felipe ‘Big Phil’ Scolari, the architect of 2002’s success, was brought in.  His Messianic mission is as it was in Korea/Japan – to salvage a sinking ship, restoring confidence and team spirit on the way to a successful world Cup.  Oh, only if football were that open and shut.  After 7 games in charge, he still has won only one game, a 4-0 victory against a Bolivia side that hardly tried to make a match of it.  Other games, particularly at home, have been increasingly checkered by relentless booing as Brazil struggled to draws against ‘less esteemed’ opposition.  Against England recently, cries of ‘Donkey’ were directed at Scolari, accompanying incessant booing as Brazil fell behind.  A Brazilian world cup winner vilified?  It’s just another day in the fickle world of football.

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 Photograph Courtesy of The Sun

In 2002, Scolari could call on Rivaldo, a returning Ronaldo and a burgeoning Ronaldinho, in a tournament greatly remembered for Brazil’s flowing football amidst bungling opposition.  This time, Scolari is lucky in neither department.  He cannot call on players of the ilk of O Fenomeno, and neither can he count on the opposition to bring their worst to Brazil; Germany is on the rise, Spain are the current holders and the most dominant national team in history and other powers such as Holland and Argentina (led by the delectable talent that is Lionel Messi) are steadily getting their acts together for what could be the most competitive World Cup in recent memory.

However, despite this, Brazil continues to export players at a prodigious rate – for 4 years in a row, Brazil has provided the over 500 players to Europe’s 478 top division sides, by far the most of any nation.  In the Champions League, now regarded as the premier football competition in the world, Brazil remains the most represented nationality. At first glance, a shortage of talent does not appear to be the problem.  So what is then?

With a Brazil side in the middle of an evolution (of the 2010 World Cup Squad, only 3 players have been selected for the Confederations Cup – can you name them without cheating?), this surplus of talent would otherwise be regarded as a blessing, the kind of depth that every manager craves for.  Admittedly, La Seleçao’s crop of defenders is probably the best in the world, a cultural quirk in light of past history. Rob Smyth of the Guardian notes that Brazil is conventionally regarded as synonymous, whether rightly or wrongly, with a lack of true defensive talent.  On their exit glorious exit in 1982, here is what he had to say –

‘The problem (of the 1982 side), please, surely lay with the defence and goalkeeper, yet their eccentricities and inadequacies were largely indulged because, well, this is Brazil and they never have good defenders. What insulting poppycock.’

It might not have been poppycock then but it certainly is now.  Thiago Silva, David Luiz and Dante come off the back of brilliant seasons for their respective clubs and a conundrum for the manager is how to take advantage of these talented centre backs, all blessed with the silky ball skills of Brazilian footballers complemented by true athleticism.  It is ironic, for the issue of shoehorning players into a side is almost always in relation to the forward players, the traditional difference makers.  Down the sides, Dani Alves, Marcelo and Filipe Luis provide ample forward thrust, in keeping with a lengthy tradition of flying wing/full backs.

It is further ahead, problems persist.  While a sound defence provides a solid foundation, excuse the cliché, but ‘goals win you games’.  Or shall I echo Jim Fleeting, the SFA’s Director of Football Development, who noted that David Moyes stressed how ‘everything these days goes through the middle’?  It is in these two areas that Brazil struggles.  Right now, Brazil is spearheaded by Fred, a striker who failed in Europe (he did serve up some flashes of typical Brazilian brilliance), flanked by Neymar, a boundless talent seemingly caught in inertia.  Of Neymar, the Brazilian public expects the world but for the skinny young lad, the pressure has appeared to be more inhibiting than inspiring.  Recent performances against Italy, Russia and England (in February – even Joey Barton had a dig) have only fueled the conflagration of furious criticism that has come his way.  His recent move to Barcelona, rather than confirm his quality, has apparently left the player with much more to prove, with doubters, of whom there are many, expecting failure.

Hulk, who started against England, has flattered to deceive, and following his mega-money escape to Russia, has struggled to replicate his imperious form of FC Porto.  The likes of Oscar and Lucas, while evidently talented, are hardly of the age, maturity or top level experience to be expected to lead the way either.

‘The Centre Cannot Hold – Things Fall Apart’

In midfield, therein lies the biggest problem.  A surfeit of midfielders means that Scolari appears inundated with options, continually chopping and changing in an attempt to find the perfect blend.  The names roll off the tongue – Fernando, Fernandinho, Paulinho, Luis Gustavo, Sandro, Hernanes, Ramires and a host of others. The resultant lack of continuity and consistency has contributed to the Brazil’s persistent struggles to find a consistent style and identity.  Sometimes, more is indeed less.  While all very good players, none stand out from the bunch, except possibly Hernanes.  And even he has been rotated as Scolari struggles to find the right combination that will allow Brazil to control and dictate the rhythm and flow of the attack.  Of the names listed above, none apart from Hernanes is renown for their technical prowess – energy and verve are their prime attiributes.  Also, it does not escape watchers of Serie A that Hernanes, extremely ambipedal and versatile, has proven to be of greater utility in a more attacking role behind the strikers for his club, Lazio.  How Big Phil addresses the midfield dilemma could be the making, or breaking, of this current side.

While he should be lauded for picking 11 domestic players, something bound to be hugely popular with the fans, one wonders whether their presence and lack of knowledge of European styles and pace of the game may be hindering the side.  Yes, the Brazilian league is one of the fastest growing in the world, increasingly attracting the top brow of talent from the rest of South America, as well as providing a welcome roost for returning stars from Europe.  However, it should never be suggested that it is near par with Europe’s top leagues.

Going deeper still, one suspects that its issues might be more psychological.  While the Brazilian public expects, perhaps more than any other, there is a more palpable feeling of self-doubt in the air, aggravated by the team’s poor performances.  Brazilian English teacher, Marcos Grillo, in an interview with the Independent, sums up the overriding mood in Brazil –

‘Thiago Silva, Marcelo, Daniel Alves, Neymar… we’ve got the players,’ he says. ‘But the side lacks confidence. We’re scared of the big teams now. It didn’t use to be like that. Brazil needs to be Brazil again.’  When asked about what he expects at the Mundial, Grillo quips, ‘It’ll be the hexa (meaning ‘number 6’), for sure’, before admitting that this ‘boast’ is more, way more, romantic hope than realistic prediction’.

Brazil’s public has been given no reason to expect.  As such, they boo, they moan and lament, but in the end, Brazil remains the legendary yellow and blue and the hosts, hence as fans in the heat of 90 minutes, logic will often give way to fierce demand.  How the Seleçao handle this will be key, and the pressure will continue to grow exponentially as the World Cup opener approaches.

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Photograph Courtesy of Radio Netherlands Worldwide

‘Style or Substance – A Faustian Pact?’

Ideally, any fan yearns for both but currently, the Seleçao possess none; in football, this is criminal – for Brazilians, cardinally so.  South America’s most populous nation has built a veritable global brand on the idea of joga bonito – ‘to play beautiful’ – which is why even when success comes, it has to be accompanied by that aesthetic flourish that crystallises fleeting moments of genius forever.  We have heard of the goals of such cheek and breathtaking audacity, they are said to be ‘Made in Brazil’.  Brazil is the home of samba football, characterised by the off-the-cuff wonders that delights and regales in abundance.  Football is a commoner’s delicacy, a public good to be shared and enjoyed by all, but premium service is demanded – every performance should be a 5-star meal.  Otherwise, it might be a tolerable dish for a time, provided it continues to sate the innate hunger for success; just #askDunga.

The defensive midfielder captain of the least exciting, most functional of Brazil’s World Cup winners, the 1994 side, Dunga’s (I cannot help but point out the aural similarity between ‘Dunga’ and ‘Donkey’, a term long used by Brazilians to criticise stolid, disappointing play) side reflected his inherent conservatism.  For him, romanticism was success’ Kryptonite, dulling logic; instead, he favoured a pragmatic style designed to achieve success in the most efficient manner.  Reclaiming the World Cup in 1994 after a 30 year hiatus, Dunga appreciated the validatory role success, above all else, increasingly plays in football.  And for a while, Brazil succeeded and with it brought grudging acquiescence of a style at odds with tradition.

After leading Brazil to dominant victories at the 2007 Copa America and 2009 Confederations Cup playing a highly regimented, solid counter-attacking style, Dunga’s Brazil looked set to go far at the 2010 World Cup.  It was no surprise that this side, particularly the 2009 side, was led by the most European of Brazil’s marquee players, Kaka.  Against Holland in the quarters, despite taking the lead and playing the much better football, two freak Wesley Sneijder goals dumped out a hitherto well – performing Brazil side.  Its weakness was that in ceding control of the ball and playing on the counter, chasing games it was losing was extremely tough.  Recognising that he had been unable to keep his side of the faustian bargain, he resigned in the immediate aftermath of Brazil’s loss.  When the trade off involves substance for style, your options are limited, and with the Brazilian public, failure is not one of those.  Having traded its soul for success, Brazil sought to reclaim it and Menezes was drafted in with this remit – to bring back the beautiful game.  It was this ‘Great Commission’ that Menezes struggled with, his Brazil occasionally finding some fluency in possession, precision and incision (check Neymar’s dazzling senior debut, Menezes’ as Brazil coach too: a 2-0 victory over the USA – it was beautiful destruction). However, without the required level of consistency in either style or success, the Menezes project was given short shrift and eventually discarded.

Contrast this with the supreme but failed 1982 World Cup side, one which succumbed to eventual winners, Italy.  Favourites and riding on the crest of a wave, it all came crashing against an Italian cliff.  They are fondly remembered, in some quarters regarded as the finest Brazilian world cup side, even finer than Pele’s showmen of 1970.  Back then, failure was tempered by titillatingly flamboyant play, a paradox of palatable sorts which helped defuse disappointment; in ultimate defeat, both goals scored by Socrates and Falcao were paradigms of collective beauty and sublime technique, further embellishing their legend.  Unlike Maracanazo, it was not at home.  And it could simply be put down to having poor defenders, not something they were ever famed for; after all, in scoring 15 goals on the way to exiting, the attackers did their job while the defence was cast off as an unfortunate and uncontrollable incident which undermined their fantasy.  Brazil never produced defenders’, they comforted themselves.  At least, they lived up to the Brazilian ethos despite not even making the semi-finals.  In a results-driven business, it is this admirably principled, yet illogical level of expectation, and some, that 2014’s Seleçao will have to live with.

Currently, Brazil has neither success nor flamboyance, Neymar, its crack (a player capable of significantly altering the fate of games with unguardable moments of genius) struggling to consistently bring his dazzling skills to the very top level so far.  Scolari’s task is doubly complicated by the heightened expectation that Brazil, as hosts, will have to handle.  This time, defensive weakness cannot be an excuse – the rear is their strongest department.  The public, having tolerated bitter success under Dunga quickly succeeded by harsh failure under Menezes, pines for a jamboree, a party on the pitch worthy of the masters of ’70 and ’82.  Beautiful victory is the absolute minimum and Big Phil is aware of that, ruefully observing, in the aftermath of the 2-2 draw on Sunday,  ‘Of course, the crowd expected the team to win…they wanted goals and a victory, but we understood that England are a difficult team to play against.’ 

The enormity of the task ahead is not lost on Big Phil.

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A year to the 20th World Cup, Brazil, the host, is evidently not ready. In the eyes of many, the Confederations Cup, a dress rehearsal, but for Brazilians so much more, presents yet another opportunity for Brazil’s failings to be amplified and vilified.  The Maracana injunction episode was embarrassing enough to cast the spotlight, yet again, on prevalent infrastructural shortcomings.  The match which reopened the legendary stadium illuminated shortcomings of another sort, to the public, the ones that matter most. They are promising bunch of players of whom much is expected. Nevertheless, some remain acutely cognisant of the fact that 2014 may be too soon.  Carlos Alberto Torres, the captain of the feted 1970 World Cup side, acknowledges as much, stating that – ‘We Brazilians have to become aware that Brazil will have a nice team for 2018.’  He continued, ‘they say we are the favourite for 2014, but for me we are not. Those who have played a World Cup know that you need experience.’

Romario, brash and harsh, ever outspoken, recently criticised the current team. ‘If the World Cup was played today, Brazil would not win.  I don’t think we can win the Confederations Cup either, Brazil are currently playing too far from the level needed to be world champions.’

Strong words, backed with reason, from men steeped in the knowledge of what it takes to be champions.   As the clock counts down, this reason will give way to suffocating expectation.  Will Brazil be able to handle the pressure and deliver?  At the moment, pessimism is at an all-time high but paradoxically, expectation remains and has possibly never been higher.  Fans have spoken about how playing at home, Brazil has the obligation of winning’.  It is behind schedule on its infrastructural obligations already but at least, they are inanimate and can be completed on time, albeit in a rush.  With football, no such guarantees are available and as such, pessimism is the unwelcome accompaniment of expectation on this occasion.

The Confederations Cup will provide a demo of what we might expect to see next year.  It kicks off at 20.00 GMT on the 15th of June with Brazil hosting Japan.  If past Confederations Cups are anything to go by, settle down for a cracking fix of summer football.

 

Raymond Utuk