Why Neymar, Scolari and Brazil All Face Unprecedented Challenges

When the 2016 summer Olympics was awarded to Rio de Janeiro in 2009 it was over two years after FIFA had confirmed Brazil as the host nation for the 2014 World Cup Finals. At the time anyone questioning the wisdom of having the two largest sporting events in the world hosted in the same country in just two years were pointed towards Mexico (summer Olympics 1968, World Cup Finals 1970) and West Germany (summer Olympics 1972, World Cup Finals 1974) as successful examples.

(How successful these events were is open to debate given that an undetermined number of student demonstrators were shot and killed by Mexican authorities just 10 days before the ’68 Olympics started and four years later in Munich there was the terrorist attack that resulted in 17 deaths – 11 Israelis, one German policeman and 5 members of Black September.)  

Nonetheless, such a simplistic comparison fails to consider the vast difference in scale and scope of these two events over the last four decades and the complexity in not only presenting the events to a world-wide audience numbered in the billions but also the logistical challenge of moving hundreds of thousands of people often over vast distances and also ensuring their care and comfort along the way and upon their arrival.  

The hosting of these events will test Brazil to an unparalleled degree and it will involve the mobilization of thousands of workers and volunteers. But while the massive workforce and bureaucracy sets about building airports, stadiums, roads, rail connections and hotels they will also have one overriding concern – will Brazil win next summer’s FIFA World Cup?

The performance of the Brazil national team is so central to the psyche of the nation that many feel that the scars of losing when the country first hosted the World Cup in 1950 still remain raw and close to the surface. Most countries would consider that one loss, no matter how painful, to be more than offset by their five World Cup wins – the most by any country. But not apparently Brazil.

To compound the concern of Brazilians the hosting opportunity comes at a time when the international standing of the Brazil team has plummeted to levels not seen since before the Second World War. Other great soccer playing nations have experienced the same lack of synchronicity. Spain, Italy and Germany have all lifted the World Cup but they also failed when they hosted in 1982, 1990 and 2006.

When Brazil plays the well-worn clichés are pulled out and dusted off – “Jog0 bonito”, “Samba football or “the Beautiful Game” are the most common – and are often used extravagantly to describe Brazil’s style and panache. The problem is that unless you have been living under a rock for the last thirty years it should be pretty obvious that Brazil has traveled a long way off-road since the great sides of 58, 62 and 70.

Or may be the continued existence of such stereotypes is testament to how great these sides actually were.  

The last Brazil team to “fit the brand” was in 1982 and that team is remembered for potential-unfulfilled rather than for any success they achieved. 

The teams since then have been built on functionality and pragmatism. There have been stars – Romario in 1994, Ronaldo in 1998 and in 2002 he was joined by Rivaldo and Ronaldinho – but they have also been the embellishments to an army of well drilled and technically competent players who knew their respective jobs and carried them out. 

In fairness, many have made a convincing case (Jonathan Wilson for example) that after the defeat by Italy in 1982 Brazil was forced to accept that “system” soccer had triumphed and the stark choice was between irrelevance and adaptation.   

Adaption it was and on Saturday, Brazil took a small step towards the goal of hosting a successful World Cup (and that much includes winning it) when they faced Japan in the opening game of the 2013 Confederations Cup.

The Confederations Cup started in 1997 and for the longest time it was unloved and largely an unwanted biennial competition. Actually, it was more than unloved it was pretty much despised as a superfluous international tournament in an already overcrowded schedule.

In 2001 the tournament took a first tentative step towards legitimacy when it became the test event for the 2002 World Cup Finals jointly hosted by Japan and South Korea. The eight team tournament offered the host nations an opportunity to test some of their operations under less stressful circumstances. It was something that well-managed hosts had endeavored to do anyway and so hosting the Confederations Cup killed two birds with one stone.

The fact that it also offered broadcasters more television inventory when FIFA came calling was also a positive.
A tournament was already in the works for France in 2003 but since then the competition has been limited to once every four years and it has been hosted by the upcoming World Cup Finals host – Germany 2005, South Africa 2009 and now Brazil 2013.   

Brazil’s performance on Saturday was one that encouraged cautious optimism although Japan offered such docile opposition that a more informed assessment will have to wait for another day and for more strident opposition.  

Brazil Coach Luiz Felipe Scolari was also the man that led Brazil to the World Cup win of 2002 has consistently characterized this Brazil team as a “work-in-progress” and the performance against Japan allowed him to echo this sentiment.

Brazil was set on the way to the 3-0 win with an early goal from the player that will be the face of Brazil ’14 during the lead up to next summer’s tournament.

Twenty-one year old Neymar completed a move to Barcelona of Spain just a couple of weeks ago for a fee of around $75M. His goal was beautifully struck and it also marked the high-point of his performance.

His contribution to the win was enough to earn him the “man-of-the-match” award which served to reinforce the heavy weight of expectation that is being thrust on some very young shoulders.
Just go back through previous World Cup winners and try to find someone so young who has led his country to a World Cup win.

Pelé in 1958 you say – not a fair comparison. The world was a far more insular place in 1958 and although Pelé had already set scoring records in Brazil as a 17-year-old he arrived at the World Cup Finals in Sweden as an unknown to most of the soccer world. In addition, he arrived injured and did not play until the third group game against Russia. An incredible achievement but one marked by support from an excellent team that would have in all likelihood won the tournament without Pelé.
Four years later in Chile (he was then ages with Neymar) the tournament was robbed of Pelé’s presence when he was injured in the second game. Garrincha became the dominant player of the tournament and Amarildo’s goals also proved vital.

The 1966 tournament was an abject failure for Brazil as they failed to qualify from group play. Pelé was approaching what should have been his best years as a player but he was unceremoniously kicked by Bulgaria and Portugal to the point where he said he would never appear at another World Cup again.
However he did and Brazil won again in 1970 but by that time he was approaching 30.

Maradona was left off of Argentina’s World Cup winning squad of 1978 when he was 17. At the 1982 World Cup Finals Maradona was expected to leave his mark on the tournament. Instead he left his mark on the groin of Brazil defender Batista. Maradona was sent off and Argentina went home.   Maradona’s accent to the level of a soccer-god had to wait until he was 25 and Mexico 1986.

Lionel Messi’s debut at the World Cup Finals came in 2006 in Germany when he was 18. He was only used sporadically by Argentine coach José Peckerman and never saw the pitch when Argentina lost in the quarter-finals against Germany on penalty kicks.

Four years later in South Africa 22-year-old Messi carried the substantial hopes of Argentina. This time he started all five matches but again Argentina’s hopes were dashed by Germany at the quarter-final stage.  

There can be little doubt that if Brazil is to mount a real challenge in 2014 Neymar will have to play well and contribute goals. But his success or failure is going to have a lot more to do with the supporting cast than his emergence as the savior of Brazilian soccer.

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