On the face of it, a fairly meaningless friendly between Brazil v Bosnia on a chilly February night in St.Gallen does little to warm the cockles. A closer look, however, tells a different story.
Back home, preparations for World Cup 2014 are in full swing (strikes and other work stoppages aside). But the Mundial is two years away. For now, 2012 means only one thing for Brazilian football - the Olympics.
Hard though it is to believe from a European perspective, Olympic football, and the Seleção’s failure to ever win gold, comes close to a national obsession in Brazil.
Perhaps it’s because it’s the only tournament the country has yet to win. Perhaps it’s because of South America’s long history of success in the competition – Uruguay won early gold in both 1924 and 1928.Perhaps, lurching into sociology for just a moment, it’s because in a country with so much promise but yet that often disappoints away from the football field or the volleyball or basketball court, sporting success puts a reassuring hand on the shoulder. Look! We’ve won again! See? Things aren’t so bad after all. The flip side is that when plans go awry, defeat hits harder than it otherwise might.
And defeats have come thick and fast in the Olimpiadas. Only in the 1980s did Brazil come close to gold, losing in the final to France in 1984 and, despite the presence of Romario, to the USSR in 1988. In 1996 there was that classic semi-final capitulation against a Kanu inspired Nigeria (Brazil had led 3-1 only to lose 4-3). In 2000, elimination came at the hands of Cameroon. In 2004 the team failed even to qualify, and in China in 2008 Brazil managed only bronze.
Expectations have been high for 2012 ever since qualification was assured with victory at the South American Under-20s championships in Peru last year, and many of tonight’s squad, even if not starting, are likely to make the trip to London. There are seven (and would have been eight) players aged 23 or under in the group, and Mano Menezes has also stated that the three over-age players who go to the Olympics will come from this squad.
Of the perhaps lesser known players on the list, young Santos keeper Rafael has come on in leaps and bounds over the last couple of years, and gained valuable experience in Santos’ triumphant 2011 Libertadores campaign. Ex-Santos left back Alex Sandro will be on the bench, where he would have been joined by his Porto teammate Danilo had the latter not been injured against Man City recently.
Tottenham’s Sandro, strapping Internacional forward Leandro Damião, and Lucas of São Paulo (whose club form has been sputtering in 2012), are the other younger players in the group, along with Santos pair Neymar and Ganso.
There are two more Brazil based players on the list - swaggering Vasco Da Gama zagueiro Dedé, whose inclusion should by now be a surprise to absolutely no-one, and Ronaldinho Gaúcho. The latter is a slightly baffling choice, given his years and no more than middling form for Flamengo this year and last. There are probably others more deserving of a chance, though memories of a glorious past still linger.
As always, though, most eyes will be on the Santos duo. Neymar is now one of the first names on Menezes’ team sheet, and, aside from his talent, is fast developing into an (almost) model professional. The days of on-field tantrums and getting coaches sacked seem to be behind him.
There were those who questioned Neymar’s decision to extend his contract with Santos last year, suggesting that he would develop faster in Europe. It’s a valid argument, though as always, much depends on circumstance. It’s true that banging in hat tricks against the likes of Mogi Mirim in the Campeonato Paulista might not teach the youngster a great deal about wily international defending. But, one suspects, neither would sitting alone and unloved on the bench at Real Madrid, at least in the short term. Neymar is still very young, and injuries and form permitting, there should be no great rush to move.
And the player enjoys a relatively stable existence at Santos, untroubled as yet by the turbulence that affects other Brazilian clubs. Pity poor Under-20s volante Fernando, for example, whose Grêmio have just sacked bright young coach Caio Junior after a generous 77 days and 8 games in charge. The player’s new professor will be craggy Walter Mitty-esque bullroarer Vanderlei Luxemburgo. Whatever the rights or wrongs, Neymar is playing with gusto these days, that torrid afternoon against Barcelona in December seemingly forgotten, for now.
Ganso is another who had a rough time in Yokohama. But here too there are signs of redemption. The player’s form has been good for Santos this year, and recovered from injury and relieved of the pressure to assume the mantle of Seleção playmaker-in-chief, he seems happier. This can only be good news, for despite the best efforts of Hernanes or, very sporadically, Ronaldinho, there is no one else in this squad with Ganso’s vision or guile. All that remains now is for the player to defeat his two personal demons – how to find, at a higher level, the space he enjoys while playing for Santos, and how to deal with the pressure that comes with being touted as the next Arthur Antunes Coimbra.
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The Curious Case Of The King Of The Pernambuco
To me, the thing that is worse than death is betrayal. You see, I could conceive death, but I could not conceive betrayal.
- Malcolm X
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