Host nation or not, and no matter the era, Brazil‘s national team has made a habit of both getting burdened by expectations in the time leading up to the World Cup, and advancing out of the group stage handily. The routine will surely not break in the summer of 2014. But with the tourney in fact taking place in the hallowed soccer “Mecca”, the birthplace of the noblest of soccer movements known as Joga Bonito, and the unequivocal origin of beautiful futbol, there will be an added allure when the Selecao first take the pitch on June 12th.
First off, beyond any outsider pressure related to actual on-field performance, Brazil as a country is currently in a state of turmoil, its citizens torn over whether the nation is fit to host the World Cup, as well as the Summer Olympics two years later. Pointing to weak and unstable infrastructure, educational systems, and hospitals as more deserving of monetary help than stadium refurbishments–and rightly so for that matter–protesters, and the message they convey, have pierced through the souls of all Brazilians, forcing them to reconsider the unprecedented: the suitability of having a celebration of their most beloved sport in their own backyard.
Frankly, as nice as it sounds for the tournament to return to Brazil for the first time since 1950, it shouldn’t. Brazil has a multitude of bigger concerns to address at the present, and notably bigger than the magnitude any sport. Considering the horrendous quality of life for the far majority of Brazilians–ironically many of which dwell in favelas, from where some eventually become the soccer stars that attract the WC back to Brazil–and the additional resources and attention needed to execute a world-class sporting event, there’s no doubt that it’s both wrong and sad that Brazil will host the tourney. Thus, this makes the 2014 World Cup the most bittersweet sporting event that I, for one, will probably have ever experienced–and that’s before it’s even started.
And before venturing too far into a societal and economical discussion about the plight of a nation, there’s one more disclaimer of sorts that detracts from the glamor of the Brazilian national team: the current squad does not exactly adhere to the aforementioned concept of Joga Bonito–though a notion not necessarily destructive to their success. Long gone are the days of dazzling, beautiful, organic, and genuine play, best exhibited by the teams from the 1970s, and from the ones that made three consecutive World Cup Finals appearances between 1994 and 2002, winning two in that span. Some finesse may still lurk in the modern day’s Selecao, but the heralded Brazilians forwards and midfielders are youthful, and may appear disjointed at times: a lack of chemistry and experience with each other haunted the team during the last two WC’s and the periods between and after them, sending the country into despair before the team gradually revitalized itself leading up to the imminent World Cup.
Regardless of their shortcomings, it’s a potent bunch as always, with several new, young faces. The attack revolves around superstar Neymar, fresh off an underwhelming season in La Liga. His position as the offensive centerpiece was not set in stone until coach Luiz Felipe Scolari (the last manager to guide Brazil to a title, in ’02) showed how to successfully utilize Neymar in this role, as evidenced by his spectacular Confederations Cup performance a year ago. In this precursor of a tournament to the World Cup, Neymar was tied for second in goals, leading all players in touches, and should only preserve this dominating trend into mid-June and feast on inferior group opponents. In addition to a host of other developing stars, playmaker and Chelsea starter Oscar figures to be a key component in his team’s attack as well. Having trademarked smart runs, craftiness, and excellent vision with the ball at his feet, Oscar–along with fellow mid-fielding mates Paulinho, Willian, and Ramires–will help distribute the responsibility of creating chances and netting goals.
The attackers of course may be as talented as ever, but in 2014, the Brazilian defense seems set to uncharacteristically lead the charge as they start tourney play on their home turf. Led by 29-year old captain Thiago Silva, the defense has suffocated opponents lately, yielding three goals in five Confederations Cup matches last year, and shutting out Panama in the first of two WC tune-up games. Furthermore, performances on the club level also speak to the back line’s efficiency. Silva, for example, also served as the linchpin on his club Paris Saint-Germain’s defense; he led the team to a second-best shots conceded per game total (9.7) in Ligue 1. Dani Alves, another prominent player on Brazil’s defense, helped his club Barcelona to a La Liga-best 8.9 shots conceded per game in the role of right back, and is one of the best in the world at that position. Throw David Luiz and Marcelo into the mix–both of whom experienced competition from around the globe playing for their respective, high-profile clubs–and the back line becomes that much sturdier.
The defense’s importance stretches to generating offensive efforts as well, as the team’s powerful counter attacks originate in the back line. Moreover, as seen in the friendly against Panama on June 3rd, the defenders often advance up the field enough to contribute strikes on target, with Dani Alves scoring the second of four Brazil goals in the game.
Overall, not only will Brazil have the clear advantage in terms of skill and talent, but also in stamina: having not needed to fight their way through qualification as the host country, the Selecao will take the pitch healthier and physically stronger than any opponent, in addition to a developed cohesiveness as a result of more training together at times when otherwise qualifiers would take place.
After Brazil assuredly will top the group in points, the trio of Cameroon, Croatia, and Mexico appear fairly evenly matched, each possessing the capability of besting one another for the second spot. The prospects for all three teams really come down to only the matches they play against each other (so two key contests for each), as it seems unfathomable that any of them can snatch even a point from their games against Group A-giant Brazil.
In seeking out the usual one African team to advance from the group stages, Cameroon seems like more of a darkhorse contender for this role. Yet the Indomitable Lions have a key ingredient often seen in underdog squads: one–or a few in their case–standout leaders from European clubs that the rest of the team can rally around. Samuel Eto’o, having just participated in a Premier League campaign, and Alex Song, a proven but underused cog in the Barcelona system, lie at the heart of this unified and physically sizable group. But although tenacious and fairly experienced, Cameroon has a suspect defensive line, and their age will eventually get the best of them as this WC will end similar to their dismal one four years back.
That leaves Mexico and Croatia, two teams that qualified for Brazil through intercontinental playoffs–a process that naturally affixes doubt to its participants. Croatia looks very formidable on paper, and with a shocking amount of balance on the team the Croats initially have the edge over their Mexican counterparts. A tested goalkeeper, a back line anchored by captain Darijo Srna (who has 112 caps and 21 goals to his name), a dangerous midfielder corps that contains three La Liga members (the most distinguished of which, Madridista Luka Modric), and Bayern Munich striker Mario Mandzukic (with team-topping numbers in goals and shots during qualifiers) compose this complete squad. But for all their offensive firepower, Croatia scored a paltry high of two goals in their qualifying rounds–and that’s against the likes of Iceland, Scotland, Serbia, and Wales. Perhaps the team is not as congruous as many would think, and against a Mexican team that has become increasingly united, that fault could be Croatia’s downfall.
On that note, the key for Mexico entering World Cup play is momentum: maintaining a resurrected exuberant spirit to the way the team plays soccer under the tutelage of coach Miguel Herrera, who led El Tri to a 9-3 aggregate victory over New Zealand in a playoff to qualify for the World Cup. Mexico has also won both of their first two tune-up games–3-0 against Israel and 3-1 over another WC team in Ecuador–in emphatic fashion. While the country traditionally harbors disdain for its players that leave overseas, El Tri will have to rely on two experience-laden “traitors” to help settle the team and provide a competitive edge over Croatia and Cameroon: proven but a tad enigmatic forward Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez (club: Manchester United) and journeyman playmaker Giovani dos Santos (club: Villareal).
Yet it seems emerging star Oribe Peralta will best uphold the prolific goal-scoring identity–and a relatively newfound one–of the Mexican national team. The 30-year old, who made his name in Mexico’s own Liga MX, netted 10 goals in qualifiers, and with his five in the intercontinental playoff against New Zealand, thrust himself onto the national scene. Additionally, on the other side of the pitch, El Tri boasts a steady back line that will alleviate concerns surrounding the goalie situation.
Within Mexico’s progression through its three opening games, it will be imperative to their second-round hopes to not break their stride–stemming from a powerful end to their qualification process–when they face Brazil in their second match. If they put up a good fight and keep their composure, the Mexicans should have no difficulty in retaining their spirited play going into an all-important showdown against Croatia to decide the last slot in the 2nd round.
Key match: Croatia vs. Mexico, June 23rd
1. Brazil (9 points)
2. Mexico (6 points)
3. Croatia (3 points)
4. Cameroon (0 points)