So, then. This is it. No more talking. No more posturing. No more friendlies (oh, so many friendlies since South Africa). No more planning. Just actual, competitive football matches. Hopefully seven of them.
For Brazil, the road from World Cup 2010 to here has been a long one – both off the pitch and on it. For while the state of the country’s roads and stadiums has been subject to growing scrutiny ever since that last tournament ended, it is easy to forget that the Seleção were in a similar state of disrepair not so long ago.
The class of 2010 had their moments, sure – a physics-defying goal by Maicon in their opening game, a commanding victory over Chile in the second round – but it was, by and large, a dud vintage. The feisty, truculent Dunga created a side in his own image, favouring safety and midfield snap over the more traditional Brazilian arts.
It came as no great surprise when the Seleção were eliminated at the quarter-final stage, but the manner of the defeat to the Netherlands left a bitter taste. Brazil seemed to be in control after Robinho’s opener, only for Júlio César to lose his bearings and Felipe Melo to lose his head. The campaign dissolved into ignominy in the Port Elizabeth sun, prompting no little soul-searching back home. Dunga, of course, was sacked on the spot.
His replacement, Mano Menezes, laid the foundations for the current side, clearing out the dead wood in the squad and handing opportunities to young players like Neymar. It was as close to a clean break as anyone could hope for, but poor showings at the Copa América and the Olympic Games eventually put paid to Menezes’ tenure.
Enter Luiz Felipe Scolari. Fresh from getting Palmeiras relegated from the Brazilian top flight, his appointment struck many (myself included) as a move born of pure populism – a cheap attempt to get the public onside by reinstating the last man to guide Brazil to World Cup glory. But no matter what the reasons were, the results have been astonishing.
Scolari has turned Brazil into a force once more, galvanising team spirit while coaxing performances from players previously taken to be run of the mill. Luiz Gustavo, Fred and Hulk are among those to have emerged from their shells in the last 18 months, proving their critics wrong with a series of fine displays.
The ascent of Neymar has also helped, of course. A precocious teenager at the time of the last World Cup, he has matured into a player capable of winning a game single-handedly – and willing to take the responsibility that that entails. True, his debut season at Barcelona didn't go quite as smoothly as he may have hoped, but everything is set up perfectly for him to shine this summer.
There remain minor worries for Scolari. Oscar's form has dipped markedly in recent months, meaning some are calling for him to be dropped from the starting XI. Fred, meanwhile, had not scored a Brazil goal for almost a year before his effort against Serbia, while the propensity of Brazilian fans to boo the side when things aren't going their way – in evidence against Serbia on Friday night – is a point of frustration.
But really, these are small quibbles. Scolari has found a formula that works and has no injury concerns. The Confederations Cup win of 2013 showed that, on their day, the Seleção can beat the best sides in the world. Chance will play its part, but Brazil believe the World Cup is there for the taking.
Seven games. 32 days. The adventure begins here.
Jack Lang - @snap_kaka_pop
- Sports & Recreation
- World Cup 2010
- Luiz Felipe Scolari