While the Confederations Cup was a test of Brazil’s World Cup preparations off the pitch, it was also an important examination of Luiz Felipe Scolari’s squad’s ability to live with the pressure from the country’s demanding public on the field. It is in that context that Wednesday’s semifinal with Uruguay has particular significance.
Next year will be the first time that the country that gave birth to “O Jogo Bonito” will host the World Cup since 1950. But thoughts of that tournament still linger prominently in the hearts of minds of people across Brazil. And, sadly, not for the right reasons. That tournament, which culminated with a group stage, was decided by a meeting between the hosts and Uruguay in the newly built Maracana. With Brazil just needing a draw to finish top of the standings, the Selecao were overwhelming favorites to lift the Jules Rimet Trophy for the first time. But the match dramatically failed to follow the script as Uruguay came from a goal down to get a 2-1 win and stun Brazil on home soil.
There are many incidents that reflect just how badly the Brazilian people reacted to what became known as the “Maracanazo”: two people committed suicide following the final whistle by jumping off a stand; the players involved were vilified for their own fans for years afterward; and the famous yellow shirts that Brazil play in today were also borne out of the defeat following the doing away with the white jerseys that had been worn on that ominous day.
The pressure from Brazil’s fans to ensure something similar doesn’t happen in 12 months’ time means that home support could well be a hindrance, rather than a boost, if things are not going well on the pitch. And certainly there were plenty of doubts about the side’s progress heading into the Confederations Cup. Yet, so far Brazil have arguably exceeded expectations in winning all three games in a tricky group and showing signs of a forming a cohesive unit under Scolari.
Their opponents, though, do not have to go back more than 60 years for experience of crashing home favorite’s parties. Indeed la Celeste have become quite the ungrateful guests in recent times, disposing of Venezuela and Argentina in the last two Copa Americas as well as beating South Africa at the last World Cup before ousting the last African nation standing, Ghana, in the quarterfinals for good measure.
However, Oscar Tabarez’s side have struggled to recapture the form from that World Cup and that which carried them becoming South American champions a year later. Indeed, there is still plenty of doubt whether they will be in Brazil next year. Currently Uruguay occupy a playoff spot, and that only after a vital 1-0 win in Venezuela earlier this month. Their form has not set the world alight at the Confederations Cup, either.
Little resistance was offered to Spain in their opening match, while a rare brilliant piece of interplay between the country’s three star forwards of Luis Suarez, Edinson Cavani and Diego Forlan was enough to scrape a somewhat fortunate win over Nigeria before the expected outing of Tahiti. History aside, there is little to suggest that Uruguay can get the better of their South American neighbors.
Cavani and Suarez would get into any national side in the world, while Forlan, although on the decline, can still be an inspirational performer on his day. But Tabarez has struggled to find a way to fit them into a cohesive team. Cavani, in particular, has struggled to reproduce his prolific form for Napoli as he often has to sacrifice his talents out wide.
If Cavani, or either of his forward colleagues, are asked to do a similar job in Belo Horizonte then they could find themselves struggling as they get repeatedly pushed back by Brazil’s marauding full-backs. Dani Alves and Marcelo have been integral to Scolari’s philosophy in this tournament. Demanding that his two central midfielders stay deep, it is the men from Barcelona and Real Madrid that provide the attacking outlet. That will leave gaps to exploit and Uruguay must do that successfully if they are to have a chance of reaching the final.
But Tabarez has largely kept faith with an aging and creaking midfield and defense and the likes of Neymar, Oscar and Hulk should relish running at them with their exuberant pace. While still not the finished article by any means, Neymar has provided decisive moments of magic in each of Brazil’s games so far. He could well do the same on Wednesday to help Brazil get the victory and heal some of the trauma from the Maracanazo ahead of the chance for ultimate redemption back on home soil next year.
Prediction: Brazil 3-1 Uruguay
Coverage details: The Confederations Cup semifinal will kick-off at 3 p.m. ET. Coverage will be provided by ESPN.