WE’RE at home, the conditions are in our favour and we’re going to win.” When Luiz Felipe Scolari was asked to give his assessment of Brazil’s World Cup chances a couple of months ago, the man shouldering the hopes of an expectant host nation was not about to downplay his hand.
It is 64 years since Brazil, the nation most synonymous with the beautiful game, last staged the World Cup finals, and with every year that has passed, the yearning for a home success has grown even stronger.
If channelled positively, as it was during last summer’s Confederations Cup, the weight of popular support driving Brazil forward could easily carry Scolari’s players to a first World Cup trophy since 2002.
If, however, a predominantly young squad buckles under the weight of expectation, or if the anticipated social protests that could accompany the staging of World Cup matches becomes too much of a distraction, Brazil could experience a repeat of Maracanazo, the 1950 defeat to Uruguay in the Maracana that has become seared on the national consciousness as an enduring source of embarrassment.
It is something of a cliché to suggest that, in Brazil, football dictates the mood of national life, but this summer, it will undoubtedly ring true.
So just how likely is a Brazilian success? This is far from a vintage Brazil line-up, but while the current squad might lack the flair of a Pele or the finishing prowess of a Ronaldo, Scolari has cultivated a strong team ethic that has not always been apparent in the past.
Last year’s Confederations Cup victory, which featured a resounding win over Spain in the final, enabled Brazil’s players to forge a powerful common identity, and despite the off-field protests, the wider population has bought in to their pursuit of World Cup glory.
In Neymar and Oscar, they boast bright young talents who can hold their own against any of the attacking luminaries from Brazil’s illustrious past, even if central striker Fred is a much more functional front man.
Paulinho might have suffered a mixed campaign with Tottenham, but he remains a reliable presence at the heart of the Brazilian midfield, while Luiz Gustavo’s emergence as Scolari’s preferred holding midfielder in the last 12 months has given the side a much more balanced look.
Ever the pragmatist, Scolari has transformed Brazil’s fortunes since replacing the unpopular Mano Menezes in early 2013, seemingly taking his lead from 2002, when he guided a defensively-reliable line-up to glory in Japan and South Korea.
It might seem like apostasy to talk of the importance of Brazil’s defensive strength, but in Dani Alves, Thiago Silva, David Luiz and Marcelo, the ‘Selecao’ boast a back four as good as any in the tournament. Julio Cesar’s position as first choice goalkeeper is rather more of a concern given the 34- year-old spent six months on the sidelines before joining Toronto on loan from QPR in January, but his previous exploits mean he is assured of a place in the starting line-up regardless.
A likely second-round game against either Spain, Holland or Chile could cause problems, but it would be a major surprise if Brazil were not featuring in the business end of the competition. And by then, the wave of popular support propelling them to the final in the Maracana on July 13 could be unstoppable.
HAVING been handed the honour of opening the World Cup finals against Brazil, it will be interesting to see whether Croatia tackle the task of being underdogs with their usual relish. After making the semi-finals at France 98, this is a nation that likes nothing better than to punch above its weight.
Wretched for most of a qualifying campaign that nevertheless featured the high of a home win over fierce local rivals Serbia, Croatia finally awoke from their slumbers when former head coach Igor Stimac was dismissed.
The inexperienced Niko Kovac was appointed to replace him, and immediately oversaw a comprehensive play-off win over Iceland that boosted morale.
Since then, Croatia have shown gradual signs of improvement, and while Brazil will start as strong favourites for Thursday’s opener in Sao Paulo, they cannot afford to take their opponents lightly.
In Real Madrid’s Luka Modric, pictured above, Sevilla’s Ivan Rakitic and Bayern Munich’s Mario Mandzukic, Croatia boast three genuinely world-class attacking talents. Throw in 20-year-old Inter Milan midfielder Mateo Kovacic, who is not guaranteed to start, and you have the basis of an offensive unit that could cause even Brazil problems.
The defence, which could feature Southampton’s Dejan Lovren and Vedran Corluka, once of Tottenham, at centre-half is rather less reliable, but provided they avoid a heavy defeat in their opening outing, Croatia should have a decent chance of making the second round.
They take on Cameroon in their second game, but the African nation has regressed since a Roger Milla-inspired side burst on to the world scene at Italia 90.
Cameroon would almost certainly not have made it to the finals had Togo not fielded an ineligible player in a crucial qualifying tie, and head coach Volker Finke presides over an ageing side reliant on a group of players whose best days might well be behind them.
Chelsea striker Samuel Eto’o is the most obvious name to fall into that camp, and for all that he shone sporadically in the Premier League last season, it would be a major surprise if the 33- year-old enjoyed a glorious swansong to his international career.
The same could be said of 31-year-old playmaker Jean Makoun, briefly of Aston Villa, and goalkeeper Charles Itandje, who was unable to make the grade at Liverpool.
Centre-half Nicolas N’Koulou is one of the most highly-rated defenders in France’s Ligue 1, but he is likely to have his work cut out as Cameroon attempt to improve on their recent record in major tournaments, which is exceedingly poor. Cameroon’s opening game pits them against Mexico, who are the most unpredictable of the sides competing in Group A.
An abject qualifying campaign would have ended in disaster had the United States not scored two injurytime goals against Panama, and a comfortable play-off win over New Zealand did little to quell mounting dissent among Mexico’s fervent football fans.
Head coach Miguel Herrera has tended to prefer players from Mexico’s unheralded domestic league, so while the likes of Javier Hernandez, Giovani Dos Santos and Guillermo Ochoa have been included in the squad, none are guaranteed to make the starting line-up.
Their defence, which continues to rely on 35-yearold Rafael Marquez, lacks pace and mobility, while the midfield has a dearth of creativity and star quality.
Neverthless, Mexico have qualified for the last 16 in the previous five World Cups, and will call on a number of the players who won the Olympic gold medal in London two years ago, a result that few predicted at the start of the competition.
A recent 3-1 friendly win over fellow finalists Ecuador was surprisingly emphatic, and if Group A goes as expected, Mexico’s final game against Croatia could be a shoot-out for second position behind Brazil.