Wold Cup 2014: Brazil star caught in Ukraine

... and Anelka says Brazil move was always a 'fantasy'

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The Independent Football

When he rejected interest from Porto and Arsenal in favour of a move to Shakhtar Donetsk last summer, talented Brazil winger Bernard could hardly have imagined what he was letting himself in for.

Homesickness and the difficulties of adapting to a new culture and style of football haunt many young Brazilian footballers in Europe where, according to a recent study, 471 of them now play. A less common challenge, however, is civil war breaking out on your doorstep.

“It’s difficult. The situation is very tense,” Bernard admitted recently while on duty for the national team in South Africa. “We’ve taken the necessary precautions in case we need to catch an urgent flight out. We have air tickets ready, and have left our names at the embassy.”

That was in early March, before the civil unrest in Ukraine reached Donetsk. Now, with government buildings in his adopted home city in the hands of separatists, and violent clashes between pro-Ukraine and pro- Russian supporters resulting in at least one death, the crisis in the region has become increasingly worrying.

So much so that Bernard, fearful of upsetting his club and local people, is now declining to comment on the volatile situation. However, he has indicated to those close to him that he does not feel he is in any immediate danger in the city.

Even before the trouble broke out, the talented 20-year-old, who Luiz Filipe Scolari described as having “joy in his legs” after he shone during Brazil’s Confederations Cup triumph last June, had not been finding it easy to establish himself in Shakhtar’s first team. It did not help that the Ukrainian championship returned from its mid-winter break two weeks late due to the unrest.

The good news for the diminutive forward, who seems certain to be named in Brazil’s final World Cup squad on  7 May, is that he is not alone among Scolari favourites in having experienced an uneven season in club football. However, typical of the man perhaps, the Brazil boss seems to care not a jot.

If the club form of Brazil’s players is anything to go by, the host nation’s World Cup hopes are on shaky ground. Goalkeeper Julio Cesar is attempting to rediscover his form at Toronto FC in the not terribly rigorous surroundings of Major League Soccer. David Luiz continues to endure an up and down relationship with Jose Mourinho at Chelsea while Paulinho has not always been first choiceat Tottenham by Tim Sherwood.

Up front, first-choice striker Fred is gingerly finding his way back from injury and a serious dip in form at Rio de Janeiro’s Fluminense, and even the mercurial Neymar, on whose slender shoulders the hopes of 200 million Brazilians will rest this summer, has been criticised by supporters and press alike during Barcelona’s recent fall from grace. Then he suffered a foot injury in the recent Copa del Rey final against Real Madrid, which may put him out of action until the World Cup finals.

But Scolari’s ability to throw a protective blanket around his team has characterised his reign as Brazil manager – both in his current stint and when he led the team to World Cup glory in 2002. Such is his loyalty to his players that the squad is referred to as the familia Scolari (the Scolari family) in Brazil.

“It doesn’t matter whether one league is weaker or stronger than another,” the manager has said of Julio Cesar’s situation in Toronto. “What’s important is that the corners are the same, the goalkicks are the same, the shots are the same.”

Scolari is also adamant Mourinho’s apparent lack of confidence in Luiz will not affect his World Cup plans. “David Luiz is one of the best central defenders in the world and Mourinho is an intelligent man,” he said last November. “He’s not going to leave a player like that on the bench all the time. And if he does, then David will arrive for the World Cup even fresher and more relaxed.”

It is the same with defensive midfielder Paulinho, scorer of the winning goal against Uruguay in the Confederations Cup semi-final and a key part of Brazil’s World Cup hopes, but in and out of the side at Spurs. Yet Scolari’s faith in his man has never wavered, and Brazil’s technical director, Carlos Alberto Parreira, recently visited the player in London. “I talked to Paulinho for two hours,” he said. “He was incredibly important for us in the Confederations Cup… I told him to keep up the level of his performances for the national team.”

Scolari even encourages the Brazilian media to spread a little bit of “them and us” paranoia to spice up the nationalistic fervour that the coach hopes will help push Brazil over the line at the World Cup. 

“Criticised by who? It’s in the interests of those from other countries to criticise them,” he muttered darkly when discussing the treatment Paulinho and Neymar have been receiving from the British and the Spanish press, respectively. “If you Brazilians watch them play you’ll see they are playing normally, and are important to their teams. They’re not important for journalists in the cities where they play, though, because it’s in their interests to criticise them.”

While making it difficult for late runners such as Liverpool’s Philippe Coutinho to break into the squad, the close bond between Scolari and his most trusted soldiers is one of Brazil’s strengths. “I have no doubts. In fact we just pretend we have doubts to make you have doubts,” he joked this week.

French football player Nicolas Anelka arrives to attend the 4th Youth conference, organized by the Kuwait Ministry of Religious Endowment and Islamic Affairs, in Kuwait

Anelka: Brazil move was always ‘fantasy’

Nicolas Anelka was in Kuwait rather than Brazil this week, failing to sign for Atletico Mineiro. The club said they got fed up of waiting and cancelled the deal, with director Eduardo Maluf saying Anelka “is a player who thinks he’s even bigger than his Muslim god.” The club is now threatening to take the case to Fifa, but Atletico’s documentation, which consists of emails and a handwritten note from the player saying he is “interested” in their offer, is a long way short of a signed contract, and Anelka has hit back on video. “It’s complete fantasy… I know where I want to go, and if I continue playing football, it won’t be in Brazil.”

Soldiers patrol the city center during a police strike in Salvador

Police strike in Salvador – and more industrial action planned for World Cup

The World Cup host city of Salvador was plunged into chaos this week as police went on strike. A total of 39 murders were registered in the city during the 42-hour period when the police were off the streets, shops were ransacked, and 60 cars were stolen on the strike’s first day. “It’s hell on earth here,” said police chief Marcos César Silva, as around 5,000 army troops were flown in to restore order, before the strike was halted on Thursday. Meanwhile, a recent story in the Folha de Sao Paulo newspaper stated that unions from 16 different sectors of the Brazilian economy plan strike action around the World Cup. Said Wilson Manzon, a food services union representative in Sao Paulo: “If the workers don’t slaughter the cow, there’ll be no barbecues at the World Cup. If the beer truck doesn’t leave the brewery, there’ll be nothing to serve in the bars.”

Marco Polo explores new challenge

The Brazilian football association, the CBF, elected a new president on Wednesday. Seventy-five-year-old Marco Polo del Nero, who stood unopposed in the election, will take over from Jose Maria Marin next January. He faces a difficult challenge restoring credibility to the organisation, which is seen by most Brazilians as either incompetent, corrupt, or both. Plagued by low crowds, a chaotic fixture list, massive club debts, fan violence and administrative chaos (relegation from last season’s top flight was decided in the courts rather than on the field), the Brazilian domestic game is shambolic, while the CBF gets rich off the back of lucrative sponsorship deals for the national team. “This is what we have to live with,” said former Brazil legend Romario, now an outspoken congressman, recently. “The CBF has two rats, Marin and Del Nero.”