Which Brazil will we see?
The most popular Brazilian team of the last 40 years was the 1982 Selecao of Socrates, Zico and Falcao. However, Tele Santana’s team did not reach the final. A dozen years later Brazil won the trophy on penalties after a sterile goalless draw.
Brazil coaches have subsequently been inclined more to the functional than the spectacular, but they have still incorporated individual talents so lavish that an impressive highlights reel can at least be guaranteed.
Luiz Felipe Scolari is no different. His 2002 winning team was more entertaining than expected given his club background at Palmeiras where he encouraged the art of tactical fouls. The current incarnation was encouragingly attack-minded in lifting the Confederations Cup last year.
In truth, a Brazil team playing at home have to go on the offensive, especially when an undercurrent of dissatisfaction with the whole Fifa shebang threatens to explode at any moment. Nevertheless, results matter as well as style and Scolari will ensure his side retains a defensive rigour.
Nominally playing 4-2-3-1, Brazil will usually look more like 2-3-2-3 with the full-backs pushing on and one of the wide players, usually Neymar, coming inside. Behind him Oscar, with his passing and movement, is likely to be as influential as Neymar, while Luiz Gustavo and Paulinho guard the defence. This is, in fact, the XI that defeated Spain 3-0 to win the Confederations Cup last June, which shows how well-honed Scolari’s team should now be. That win was part of a run of 15 victories in 16 matches since being held 2-2 by England in the Maracana last summer.
The one exception was a 1-0 defeat to Switzerland in Basel in August. While much of the opposition has been moderate, this run does include victories against half-a-dozen major opponents.
Brazil should be confident and can be expected to start fast, pressing Croatia and looking for an early breakthrough to calm nerves and intimidate the Croatians. For their part Croatia should look to counter-attack into the space behind Brazil’s adventurous full-backs, and try to quieten the crowd. Easier said than done, of course.
What can we expect from an opening game?
Probably not much, but you never know. The first World Cup started with two matches kicking off simultaneously, France’s Lucien Laurent scoring the first goal in a 4-1 win over Mexico. The next in 1934, began with an eight-match programme.
By 1938 there was an “opening game”, Switzerland v Germany, an odd choice since neither were hosts or holders. It was a 1-1 draw setting something of a trend for stalemates that reached a nadir between 1966 and 1978. Four successive tournaments were launched with goalless draws, the sequence kicked off by England and Uruguay at Wembley.
More recently, they have been worth watching. Scotland gave Brazil a decent game in Paris in 1998 before losing 2-1, holders France were stunned by debutants Senegal in Seoul in 2002, and Germany beat Costa Rica 4-2 in Munich four years later. By then hosts were again kicking off the tournament rather than the holders, and the 2010 finals started with a lively 1-1 draw between South Africa and Mexico.
Perhaps the most dramatic start was in 1990 when rugged newcomers Cameroon shocked holders Argentina 1-0 despite being reduced to nine men. Argentina still reached the final.
How important is a team’s start?
Very important. There have been 10 World Cups in which the top two in a four-team group have progressed to the second stage without play-offs being involved (1962-1982 & 1998 onwards). Eighty per cent of teams winning that first game have qualified (68 out of 85), 85 per cent of teams losing that first game have not. Settle for a draw? Taking a point gives a team a 56 per cent chance of progress. Four years ago, however, Spain lost their opening game to Switzerland 1-0, but won the tournament while the Swiss went out at the group stage.
Is Brazil ready enough?
The sight of Sao Paulo’s stadium still undergoing safety tests is worrying. The appetite is whetted, anticipation is bubbling, but at the back of the mind there is concern. Eight workers have already died in stadia construction accidents. Whoever wins, whatever the football is like, it is to be fervently hoped there are no more deaths in Brazil directly related to the World Cup.