How They Made it: Hosts
Brazil were able to avoid the grueling South American qualifying campaign, but the lack of competitive action for the hosts means that the situation is not wholly positive. The last strictly competitive matches for Brazil came in a disastrous Copa America campaign three years ago. After head coach Mano Menezes then failed to win Olympic Gold in London the following year he was dispensed with, despite signs that he was finally beginning to turn things around. The Brazilian Federation turned to a reliable pair of hands in the man who led them to the most recent of their five World Cup wins in 2002, Luiz Felipe Scolari. The early indicators were far from overwhelmingly encouraging but at the Confederations Cup last summer, Scolari’s plan came together and Brazil beat Spain 3-0 in the final to ensure they will be favorites going into their home World Cup.
Schedule: Group A
Vs. Croatia (June 12, 16.00 ET, Sao Paulo)
Vs. Mexico (June 17, 15.oo, Fortaleza)
VS. Cameroon (June 23, 16.00, Brasilia)
Key Player: Neymar
The poster boy of the World Cup, Neymar will be under massive pressure to lead the hosts to the trophy this summer. After his development appeared to stall in Brazil with Santos, he finally made the move to Europe with Barcelona this summer. Things have not gone smoothly either on or off the pitch, however. After a promising start when Neymar showed far more maturity and unselfishness than he had been previously credited with, he has struggled to regain his mojo since an injury in January and the subsequent fall out over the exact details of his transfer. Still, he has maintained his superb form for Brazil and scored a hat-trick in the friendly win over South Africa in March. The quicker, more direct style of Brazil arguably suits the forward better and there’s every reason to think that he still will have ultimately benefited from his season in Spain and will be ready to be a major figure at the World Cup.
One to Watch: Luiz Gustavo
In the first four games of Scolari’s second reign, Brazil conceded nine goals and had clearly been far too open for the coach’s liking. That changed at the Confederations Cup when Luiz Gustavo was established as the anchorman in front of the back four. The midfielder, who transferred from Bayern Munich to Wolfsburg last summer to ensure first-team football ahead of the World Cup, will garner few headlines in this summer’s tournament. However, his diligent work in breaking up the play and covering for his team’s attack-minded full-backs will be crucial if the Selecao are to lift the trophy.
G: Julio Cesar
D: Dani Alves, Thiago Silva, David Luiz, Marcelo
M: Paulinho, Luiz Gustavo
Hulk, Oscar, Neymar
Formation: If everyone’s fit then Brazil have arguably the most predictable lineup of any team going into the World Cup, with Scolari having seemingly settled on a winning formula at the Confederations Cup. While there are certainly some players with “samba skills,” this is certainly not a team that fits the long-extinct stereotype of Brazilian sides playing with free, attacking abandon.
At the back they are blessed with the world’s most dominant center-back in Thiago Silva. In front of them Luiz Gustavo and Paulinho provide protection, with the latter also able to get forward and utilize his well-timed runs into the opposition area. The three attacking midfielders -- and their potential alternatives like Lucas Moura, Willian and Bernard -- have pace to hurt teams on the break but are also charged with the responsibility of immediately trying to prevent, by legal and illegal means, the opposition from building attacks.
The main doubt about the team is up front, where is no superstar striker like Ronaldo or Romario this time around. Fluminense and former Lyon front man Fred performed admirably at the Confederations but has since spent much of his time on the sidelines. He returned to the international scene in the recent friendly with South Africa and he’s fitness and form will be crucial given that the potential alternatives -- Jo and Robinho -- hardly convince.
Prediction: The hosts have been given a favorable group and will be able to build their way into the competition, especially with Croatia’s star striker Mario Mandzukic suspended for the competition’s opener. Things could quickly get tricky, though, with one of the Netherlands, Chile or Spain likely to await in the last 16. Rather than the two teams who contested the final four years ago, it is Chile who Scolari has said, with some justification, that he fears most. Indeed, their exciting South American rivals pushed them close in a friendly last November. Further local opposition could arrive in the quarterfinals with Colombia and Uruguay potential opponents. The latter would see memories of the devastating conclusion to the last time Brazil hosted the World Cup in 1950 come right to the fore and provide Brazil with arguably their biggest psychological test of the competition.
Throughout, though, this is a tournament that will be a mental test as much as a physical one for the Selecao. It is that factor which arguably makes their coach the right man to have in charge. In Scolari they have a manger with the experience and calming hand to guide his players through the extreme pressure and Brazil could well finish the competition with a glorious celebration at the Maracana.