Brazil begin World Cup journey tonight at Wembley
Neymar and some familiar faces start the process of trying to win the ultimate prize on home soil at Wembley
Brazil, ranked an absurd 18th in the world by Fifa, begin the long march back to the summit of the game at the home of football. Where better to lay down your credentials as custodians of the sport's highest values than Wembley, the mother country's enduring gift to the world? Returning coach Luiz Felipe Scolari has assembled an eclectic bag of tricks for his first game back in charge. Ronaldinho is resurrected more than a year into what he thought was international retirement to steer the Selecao towards the goal of World Cup glory at home alongside the nation's new great hope, Neymar.
It is incumbent on Brazil to produce a talent beyond the imagination, to deliver a player who merits the label "best in the world". At 32, Ronaldinho long ago ceded that mantle to Lionel Messi, but in Neymar, 21 on Tuesday, he sees a player capable of breasting that tape. "He has time to do whatever he wants in football," Ronaldinho said. "He is the idol in Brazil, our best player. The difference is that at his age, I was already in Europe, and he can continue in Brazil."
There was a cake and a hug for the freshly minted key holder, surely the first global superstar to turn 21 on the playing fields of Barnet, where Brazil prepared for tonight's gala game. Despite his tender years and delayed departure for Europe, Neymar's YouTube catalogue has kept the world well briefed on his progress. An enhanced TV deal in Brazil has enabled Santos to hold on to their biggest asset, despite covetous glances from the usual suspects in Europe. It is said he is bound for Barcelona, a deft accoutrement to the genius Messi. Ronaldinho, an old Nou Camp doyen himself, is happy to indulge that idea. "Of course I imagine that he [Messi] and Neymar can play together. They are among the best players in the world. It would be wonderful to watch them."
Neymar is flattered by the acclaim, though denies any association with Barça. "It is nice when I hear top players say I will be the best player in the world. It is important to stay humble, but I have to believe that I can be the best in the world. I know I have the talent to be, I just need to carry on working hard. I am happy at Santos and am not even thinking about leaving. When the time comes I will consider all offers from big clubs in Europe. But any talk that I have already committed to a club is not true."
He was less complimentary about Brazil's hosts tonight. England, he believes, rely too much on our own talisman. "England are a good team with very good players but I don't look at them as one of our main rivals for the World Cup," Neymar said. "They have the players to do well but do I think they have the same quality as Spain and Argentina? No. I think maybe they rely on Wayne Rooney. In Brazil we have many players who can win the game. The same with Argentina if Messi is not having a great game they still have [Sergio] Aguero and [Carlos] Tevez. With Spain if [Andres] Iniesta is having a bad game they have Xavi and [David] Villa. Once you look past Rooney you don't see an obvious player who can win them a game."
Fantasy comes as standard with Brazil yet, officially at least, this is the worst Brazilian team since the introduction of rankings 18 years ago. For 12 years Brazil were ranked No 1. Ronaldinho last delivered any kind of authority at a major international tournament in 2006. He did not feature in the 2010 World Cup and thought his time was past until Scolari was reappointed in November. His selection tonight is, therefore, at least as interesting as Neymar's following a highly acclaimed return to domestic football with Atletico Mineiro.
"I have worked with most of the coaching staff before. That is an advantage," Ronaldinho said. "It makes things easier. I know that they are all champions, and that they are very professional. I don't see age as a problem, it is a positive factor. We all know the path to victory. I am ready to help, however I can. Like everyone here, I live for football and for the national team. I have always made myself available.
"My first game with any national team was here, in London, against England. I said to Julio [Cesar] before, that the last time we were here together it was for one of the junior national sides – we were 15 or 16 – and it is something really special. I have a special fondness for Felipao [Scolari]. I know how he works, and I know what he wants me to do. I have to show that I belong here. That is my aim."
Scolari met his squad for the first time on Tuesday. With the World Cup in Brazil less than 18 months away he dismissed any idea that tonight's fixture will be friendly in nature despite being a part of the FA's 150th birthday celebrations.
"This is about gathering people behind us, to integrate fans and people with us for our big goal, which is being champion in 2014 in hour home country. We are the country to host the World Cup. We've already lost one at home so now it's our turn to win it and that's our big goal."
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