Brazil finding their zeal

Brazil finding their zeal

Under Big Phil, the five-time world champs are slowly establishing themselves as title-contenders

Brazil finding their zeal

And the games play on. No matter what is happening outside the stadiums, Brazil Coach Luiz Felipe Scolari is doing things his way inside them.

Four games played, four victories, and Brazil’s 2013 Confederations Cup appears to be taking shape pretty much the same as when Scolari built the team that won the 2002 World Cup.

The victories in the first week against Japan, Mexico and Italy have been rugged, workmanlike, sometimes niggling and occasionally blessed with the grace that makes Neymar such a sight for sore eyes on the world stage.

The 21-year-old did to European giants Italy last Saturday what he has done in every game since this tournament began: He scored brilliantly, he created for others, and he fought like a wild thing when the Italians tried to kick the lightweight winger off his game.
That for sure, is the influence of Felipão — or Big Phil, as he is known outside Brazil.
The coach calls what Neymar has genius. But since he returned as the national team head coach last November, Scolari has worked to change Neymar’s approach, making him more assertive, more aware of the team, more spiteful.

Scolari, and for that matter his No 2, the 1994 World Cup-winning trainer Carlos Alberto Parreira, are pragmatists. They know what Jogo Bonito -— beautiful play — means, but they believe it will win nothing without order, discipline and fighting spirit.

And, after sifting through 45 players in his 10 games in charge this time around, Felipão has begun to settle on the players he trusts for next year’s World Cup. In every game in this rehearsal tournament, he has started the Fluminense striker Fred. Fred, now 29, is a toiler; he is a forward who stays central in the attack, and he is often the man who takes the buffeting from defenders and allows others, like Neymar, Hulk and Oscar, to steal into scoring positions.

Fred had not scored in a while, but he persevered. He made the first goal against Italy, and then again in the 4-2 victory. His goal on 66 minutes was full of physical might and single-minded determination. Fred took down a long pass on his left thigh, then was barged by Giorgio Chiellini from the other side. Had the Brazilian fallen to the ground, it should have been a penalty, but Fred would not go down. He stumbled but stayed on his feet and hunted down his goal with venomous intent.

Neymar, of course, had by then struck a goal that perhaps only he on this current Brazil side would think was possible. He induced a free kick on the edge of the penalty box and struck it precisely, deliberately, inside Gigi Buffon’s left-hand post, knowing that the wall set up to protect the keeper would obstruct his view of such a direct hit.

Brazil’s other scorer — less likely than the others — was Dante. The big-haired defender is from the state of Bahia, where the game was played, in Salvador on the northeast coast.

He is 29 and has taken the long route — via French, Belgian and German league soccer — to get noticed. And Scolari has told him in no uncertain terms that he is a backup on this squad. Fair enough, the man knows where he stands. But on the off chance that he might get some minutes on the field, Dante purchased 60 tickets so that many of his relatives could be in the stadium.

They came and saw Dante replace the injured David Luiz after 34 minutes, then watched him struggle to cope with Italy’s best striker, Mario Balotelli. The family also saw Dante score his first goal for Brazil, a poacher’s side foot after Buffon saved, but could not hold, a header from Fred.

“It seems like a joke,” Dante said afterward. “But it isn’t. I was dreaming about this. I wanted my family and everyone who came here to see us.”

Scolari does not dream. He plots. He looks for decisive players who conform to the team ethos, and who grow rather than shrink with the weight of expectation that will come a year from now when almost 200 million Brazilians will be either on their side or, if it goes wrong, on their backs.

Italy, after arriving in Salvador weary and depleted after a sapping 4-3 comeback victory against Japan just a few days earlier, was feisty and obdurate. But Italy, without the injured Andrea Pirlo and Daniele De Rossi, wilted in the humidity. Defenders Emanuele Giaccherini and Chiellini scored for the Azzurri, which was always chasing the game, chasing the ball.

Italy went through to the semifinals as the runner-up in the group and was halted by Spain who went through to play the hosts in Sunday’s final. Brazil did the job efficiently against Uruguay in the earlier semifinals, taking Scolari closer to another triumph.
The Spanish pace their tournaments like few others. Their keep-ball style is tailored for the sapping humidity. They rested the first team and let their B-side thrash Tahiti’s amateurs, 10-0, last week, and nobody has resources like Spain, which has youth bursting through at all levels.

Maybe it is the ultimate compliment that Scolari and Parreira seem to be remodeling Brazil in the Spanish mode. “I’ve seen Brazil grow,” Italy’s thoughtful coach, Cesare Prandelli, said.

"Brazil plays precise football. It has four players that attack and that is always decisive.
“Along with Spain,” Prandelli added, “Brazil is also good at recovering the ball. They are the two strongest teams.”

His resolute Italians give up nothing lightly. But from starting with the goalkeeper Buffon, the best of them might have seen better days.