Wednesday, 28 May 2014

Brazil's perfect couple: Why Thiago Silva and David Luiz gel so well for the Seleção

During last summer’s Confederations Cup, one image provided some light relief from the scenes of police brutality and looting that marked the more troublesome side of the protests throughout Brazil. It showed two children – one with an enigmatic pout, the other with extravagant curly hair – sitting on the bonnet of a car. The former was a dead ringer for Thiago Silva; the latter looked just enough like David Luiz for the picture to go viral.

The pair (of footballers, not their look-alikes) will once again be in the spotlight this summer. In many ways, they make for an odd couple. Thiago Silva is quiet and reserved, preferring to do his talking on the pitch, while David Luiz adores the spotlight, rarely forgoing the chance to speak his mind or share his personal life online. You get the sense that, if they met one another in street in a world without football, they would probably not have a great deal to talk about.

On the field, however, they dovetail wonderfully. Theirs is a gloriously instinctive division of labour: Thiago intercepts, David makes the last-ditch interventions; Thiago leads by example, David shouts himself hoarse; Thiago spreads calm, David energises. The whole is greater than its two contrasting parts.

Read the rest of this piece on the Yahoo! Eurosport site. 

Tuesday, 27 May 2014

Brazil looking to feed off protests as Scolari and players begin World Cup preparations

Around two hours away from Rio de Janeiro at the end of a road that winds its way intricately through a forest-clad mountain range is the city of Teresópolis. It is one of a cluster of settlements that sprung up around the region’s shimmering gem, Petrópolis, which once upon a time provided Brazil’s imperial elite with respite from the heat and chaos of Rio, 70 miles below.

This has been the Seleção’s home in Brazil since 1987. It was here that the squad trained in the lead-up to every World Cup between 1990 and 2002, and it is here that Luiz Felipe Scolari’s charges gathered on Monday ahead of this summer’s tournament.

They would have expected a warm welcome. The city, after all, takes no little pride in its status as Brazil’s footballing headquarters. This year, the main road into the centre is adorned with cartoon images of Neymar, Pelé and Cafu. But when the team bus rolled into town, it was met with angry protests rather than cheers.

Read the rest of this piece over at ESPNFC. 

(Photo: Marcio Iannacca)

Thursday, 22 May 2014

Pelé and Zico voice concerns as Brazil's World Cup preparations limp onto home straight

You know things are grave when Pelé, that most malleable of sporting icons, feels the need to break from the party line. The former Brazil star, whose stance on the protests that swept the country during last summer's Confederations Cup (rough outline: pipe down and enjoy the football) drew such ire from many of his countrymen, became the latest to voice his concern over the stuttering preparations for the World Cup this week.

"We knew six years ago that we were going to host the tournament," O Rei said with a sigh at a PR event in Mexico. "Now here we are, one month before it starts and there are unfinished stadiums and other problems. It's shameful and frustrating."

For once, it is hard to argue with him. The FIFA deadline for the World Cup arenas – December 31 – came and went like a feather on the breeze. Sao Paulo's stadium, the Arena Corinthians, staged its first match at the weekend. The Arena da Baixada in Curitiba – one of a number of grounds to be renovated rather than built afresh – was almost cut from the schedule in October after repeated hold-ups, only for FIFA secretary general Jerome Valcke to grant a stay of execution. At every turn come new delays.

Read the rest of this piece on the ESPN website.

Wednesday, 21 May 2014

Money can't buy you love: Brazil's stranglehold on the Copa Libertadores loosens after spell of dominance

When Atlético Mineiro won the Copa Libertadores – South America’s Champions League – in 2013, they gained a whole raft of new followers. With recognisable stars like Ronaldinho and Gilberto Silva, a thrilling emerging talent in Bernard and a cosy stadium that throbbed with sound on match night, they were certainly an attractive proposition.

At the Independência (they turned down the chance to play at the renovated Mineirão), the Roosters would overwhelm opponents with their high-intensity game plan, pressing all over the pitch and attacking with ruthless diagonal thrusts. It wasn’t the most nuanced tactical set-up, but by golly it worked.

Their success appeared to confirm a trend: Brazil was simply getting too good at this Libertadores lark. Atlético were the fourth Brazilian winners in four years, following in the footsteps of Internacional, Neymar’s Santos side and Corinthians, who went through the competition unbeaten in 2012, conceding just four goals. You had to go back to 2004 for the last final with no Brazilian representation.

This dominance was largely grounded in money. In recent years, Brazilian football has taken something of a Great Leap Forward when it comes to the commercial side of the game, exploring new revenue streams and profiting from growing global interest.

Read the rest of this blog on the Yahoo! Eurosport website.

Friday, 16 May 2014

Emerald City shining bright: Goiás continue to confound expectations in the Brasileirão

Like most big conglomerations in Brazil, Goiânia, a city of 1.4 million souls nestled in the country's midwestern belt, goes by a couple of nicknames. It is both the Capital of the Cerrado (a tropical savannah that runs through the state of Goiás and neighbouring Minas Gerais), as well as the rather more poetic City of Eternal Springtime.

A glance at recent trends in local football suggests another moniker that would be equally apt. With Goiás Esporte Club – known by fans as the Esmeraldino – continuing to confound expectations in the Campeonato Brasileiro, Goiânia has turned into something of an Emerald City, sparkling cheerfully in Brazil's football landscape.

Read the rest of this post on the WhoScored website.

Wednesday, 14 May 2014

Olympic generation left behind as Brazil embrace alternative bright future

With squads for the 2014 World Cup being unveiled on an almost-hourly basis this week, excitement for the tournament is understandably building to fever pitch. By now, all of the favourites – plus England – have shown their hands, even if most have opted to name 30 players at this stage, delaying the announcement of the final 23.

While it is a time of excitement for many players, others are being forced to deal with the disappointment of missing out. Those who went off the boil this season (Roberto Soldado), were unable to maintain their form for longer than a couple of months (Andros Townsend, also injured) or found their progress hampered by injury (Sandro – there seems to be a pattern emerging here...) will have to make do with a summer holiday and a few hundred hours glued to their televisions.

Luiz Felipe Scolari broke his fair share of hearts upon announcing his squad last week. For every veteran like Ronaldinho who was never genuinely in the running, there were two or three whose frustration was entirely justified.

Yet as Brazilians pored over and dissected Scolari's 23 (Tom Jobim once remarked that Brazil has 150 million national team coaches), one group of players was notable by its absence from the debate.

Read this blog, on the fading hopes of Brazil's Olympic generation, here.

Tuesday, 13 May 2014

Amid the chaos, calm: How Brazil's preparations for the World Cup were forged in the streets

As backdrops go, it wasn’t ideal. People were in the streets. Shops and car dealerships were being looted. Tear gas drifted mournfully on the breeze. The advice on the news was fairly unequivocal: Unless you really have to, don’t go into the centre of Brazil’s cities.

The country’s politicians took note. They couldn’t afford not to. What had begun as a dispute over an incremental rise in the cost of public transport ended up at the door of the legislature, in the sparse, Niemeyer-designed public spaces of Brasília.

No, the circumstances did not seem perfect for Luiz Felipe Scolari and his Brazil players. If the Confederations Cup was designed to be a dry run for the host nation on a logistical level, the Seleção were also keen to get into good habits. After the disappointment of the 2010 World Cup, the 2011 Copa América and the 2012 Olympic Games, 2013 was always likely to be important. The political situation initially seemed like an unwelcome distraction.

Read the rest of this article, my opening contribution to ESPN FC's network of World Cup blogs, here.

Monday, 12 May 2014

Behind the World Cup glamour: Tournament preview and Brazil profile in Australian tournament guide

Thursday, 8 May 2014

Brazil World Cup squad: No alarms and no surprises as Luiz Felipe Scolari names his 23

In the end, despite Luiz Felipe Scolari's coy suggestion the night before, there were no real surprises. No Lucas Leiva, no Kaká, no Robinho, certainly no Ronaldinho.

The announcement of Brazil's World Cup squad drew over 800 journalists to the Vivo Rio conference hall on Wednesday afternoon. There, for once, proceedings got underway on time, the sinister José Maria Marin keeping his introductory speech short before handing over to Brazil's "commander".

Felipão did not waste much time either. After briefly calling on Brazil to "get behind the squad despite their preference for footballer A, B or C", he named the 23 players who will attempt to win the World Cup on home soil this summer. 21 or 22 of which anyone could have guessed beforehand, as the Seleção coach readily admitted.

Read the rest of this piece on the Yahoo! Eurosport website.

Tuesday, 6 May 2014

Zebras, lettuce and flip-flops: Learn the essentials of Brazilian football speak before the World Cup

Thursday, 1 May 2014

Happy family: Why trust is Luiz Felipe Scolari's secret weapon this summer as Brazil prepare for World Cup

Luiz Felipe Scolari isn't one for smoke and mirrors. Asked about possible Brazil captains last week, the Seleção coach did not beat about the bush.

"I've already chosen them," he replied, with a glint in his eye. "David Luiz is one... so he must be in the squad, right? Until I reveal my final selection, my captains are Thiago Silva, David Luiz, Júlio César and Fred. Those are the guys who spoke up most in the games we've played."

To the uninitiated, such public declarations may appear misguided. Brazen, even. After all, obfuscation is usually the default setting in modern football, with managers seeking to eke every advantage possible by keeping their cards close to their chests. Besides, revealing a chunk of your squad could easily serve to demotivate those not named; in this case, one might wonder how Fernandinho felt about the announcement, just a couple of months after seemingly gatecrashing the party with a fine display against South Africa.

But such worries miss the point where Felipão is concerned. This, after all, is a man who has always prioritised trust and unity over palatable PR. If those in his group feel happy and motivated, Scolari has done his job. The rest is just distraction.

Read the rest of this piece here.