Win or bust for Brazil
Brazilians expect Scolari and the Selecao to deliver the World Cup and erase 64 years of hurt
BRAZIL v CROATIA
(Tomorrow, 4am, SingTel mio TV Ch 141 & StarHub TV Ch 223)
One player. One moment of pain. One collective, nationwide panic.
On Monday, when Brazilian star Neymar went down clutching his foot in training, the Brazilian people held their breath.
Pictures of the 22-year-old forward, his face contorted with anguish, ripped through cyberspace.
Was this the end of Neymar? Was this the end of the Selecao?
It was not. After some anxious moments, the Barcelona star took to his feet and gently ran off the knock.
A false alarm, but enough to remind us of what exactly is at stake.
Tomorrow morning (Singapore time), Brazil will open the tournament against Croatia and nothing less than a sixth World Cup, lifted in the Maracana on July 13, will do.
The Maracana, of course, was the scene of Brazil's greatest humiliation, the critical game in the 1950 World Cup when the hosts were so convinced of victory that the local newspaper ran with the pre-emptive headline "Brasil Campeao 1950!" (Brazil champions 1950) and the mayor of Rio de Janeiro dubbed them victors before kick-off.
And then Uruguay beat them in front of 200,000 shell-shocked supporters and the match is still spoken of in hushed, shameful tones.
This is not just a World Cup for Brazil, this is not even simply Brazil's World Cup.
This is the chance to finally remove a 64-year stain from their hearts.
A gallant semi-final exit will not do. There will be no sympathy for the silver medallists. It's win or bust for coach Luiz Felipe Scolari.
Neymar's injury scare was all the more terrifying because of Scolari's squad and their workmanlike composition.
There are other stars, of course. There is Oscar, there is Hulk, but there is no one like Neymar.
No one else has so much ability to change the course of a game with one ludicrous flash of genius.
Ronaldinho, Kaka and Robinho have all been discarded.
Scolari made his decision for the right reasons, tired of watching one-dimensional, soloist displays from players who lacked focus.
He prefers a team that he can trust to carry out the less flamboyant tasks and, in the modern game, he's right.
This side have every chance to go and fulfil their destiny.
Croatia will make intriguing opponents. While they only just qualified for the World Cup, narrowly beating Iceland in a play-off, they have three exceptional midfielders with the ability to cause Brazil's defenders some issues.
Luka Modric remains the heartbeat of the team and he'll be alongside Barca-bound Ivan Rakitic and possibly, Mateo Kovacic, the 20-year-old Inter Milan rising star.
However, they will miss Bayern Munich forward Mario Mandzukic, who is suspended for the opener.
Croatia had an early taste of drama this week when armed police and sniffer dogs were called into their training ground.
Early media reports suggested an anonymous bomb threat, though Croatian officials later insisted that it was merely a routine security check.
A more legitimate scare came in last weekend's match with Australia where first-choice left back Danijel Pranjic picked up an ankle injury. He is likely to be replaced by Sime Vrsaljko.
That means more pressure on a defence that few considered entirely safe anyway.
Vedran Corluka is said to be even slower now than he was at Manchester City and Tottenham, and will require a lot of cover from Southampton's Dejan Lovren.
This will be no cakewalk for the hosts, they face a team with the ability to hurt them.
Tomorrow morning's opener is the first of what they hope will be seven successful games and then, finally, the end of 64 years of hurt.
We need to win the first match to allow us to possibly slip up in the second or third and still progress (to the knock-out phase). What worries me is Croatia. It’s important that we start the match well and pressure the opposition from the outset. If we score early, it seems that everything falls into place. It makes the opponents change their strategy and often lose their way.
- Brazil coach Luiz Felipe Scolari
There have been two matches between the teams. The first was a 1-1 draw in a 2005 friendly in Split, the other a 1-0 win for Brazil in the group stage of the 2006 World Cup.
Pele: Too much pressure on Neymar
He has scored seven goals in Brazil's nine successive friendly wins leading into the World Cup which starts tomorrow morning (Singapore time).
But Brazil star Neymar is too young to shoulder the pressure to deliver the hosts a sixth World Cup trophy, says football legend Pele, ahead of their opening game with Croatia in Sao Paulo.
Pele's comments came despite Neymar's impressive performances for Brazil at last year's Confederations Cup - the mini-dress rehearsal for the World Cup - which saw them overwhelm World Cup holders Spain 3-0 in the final with Neymar scoring a spectacular goal.
"Neymar is young," three-time World Cup winner Pele (above) told the BBC.
"It is a heavy pressure for him to get all the responsibility."
Pele, 73 and Brazil's record goalscorer with 77 goals, said coach Luiz Felipe Scolari - who coached Brazil to the last of their five World Cup trophies in 2002 - had succeeded in turning the team into an outstanding defensive unit, which has often been the weakness in the national side.
They have scored 30 goals and conceded just two in their nine straight wins since losing to fellow World Cup finalists Switzerland last August.
"For the first time in history, Brazil have a defence better than their attack," said Pele.
"The midfield back is fantastic. Very organised. I hope we can adjust from the midfield forward."
Indeed, Scolari has some thinking to do in midfield, where questions are being asked about the players who have formed his first-choice trio in that area since last year's triumphant Confederations Cup run.
In the 3-0 victory against Spain in the final, Luiz Gustavo and Paulinho provided the protection to the defence while Oscar was charged with offering the creative spark.
Those three played together in last Friday's 1-0 win against Serbia in Brazil's final warm-up game.
Most indications from their training camp in Teresopolis, 100km north of Rio de Janeiro, this week have been that Scolari will again field the trio in tomorrow morning's Group A opener against Croatia.
However, Paulinho, of English Premier League side Tottenham Hotspur, was criticised for his performance against Serbia and Oscar has not rediscovered his best form since a poor second half of the club season with Chelsea.
Concern over the form of those alongside him means there will be greater emphasis on Gustavo, as Brazil try to deal with the considerable threat posed by a Croatian midfield containing Luka Modric of Real Madrid and Ivan Rakitic of Sevilla.
Wolfsburg star Gustavo, 26, started out as an attacker but has had to drop back to enjoy success at the highest level and will now fulfil a role carried out by the likes of Dunga and Gilberto Silva in great Brazil teams of the recent past.
"I'm not bothered about being recognised. What motivates me is the challenge and trying to reach our objectives," he said on Tuesday.
"The coach is always clear about what he wants from me, to focus on defending.
"We have to be prepared for every team, every opponent." - AFP.