No European team has won the World Cup on South American soil. Argentina and Brazil tend to enjoy home advantage and Brazil will certainly hope to take advantage come 2014. But if any team is going to be able to overturn this historical situation, this current Spain team seems to be the best equipped for reasons that we all know following another tournament victory at the Euros. Brazil go to the London Olympics and will go to next year’s Confederations Cup with the pressure of having to form a team capable of ending Spain’s dominance and returning the yellow and blue to world football dominance. After the failure of 2010’s organized and rigid team, Mano Menezes has followed the lead of Spain to encourage a possession based strategy, rather than all out counter attack. However, perhaps aware that Spain’s wizened heads and experience of wining with this style of football make them incredibly difficult to beat at this game, and the need to follow the penchant for flamboyant attacking football that comes with the Brazilian pedigree, he will also look to combine keeping the ball with those samba tricks and flicks that may just give them an edge over Spain. The attacking talent is clearly there: Neymar, Oscar, Ganso, Hulk, Damiao and many others all make up another very exciting generation of Brazilian attackers. Their defence is also decent – Thiago Silva is one of the best defenders in the world with the likes of Juan and Marcelo developing alongside him. Finding the best way to gel this all together is of paramount importance though, as the seriousness of their interest in the Olympics and the Confederations Cup (their only competitive matches before the World Cup) shows. Having the talent on the field is one thing, but to do so with a coherent strategy and team ethic is another. Spain have both. Brazil need to have both as well to win the World Cup.
Brazil always go into World Cup with a great talent and flair. Just in recent years, they had Ronaldo blasting his way through defences in France 98 until the mysterious circumstances surrounding his anonymity in their defeat to France; Japan and South Korea 02 saw the three Rs – Ronaldo again, Rivaldo and the blossoming Ronaldinho – swaggering on the counter to win the tournament; in 06 it was supposed to be Ronaldinho at his peak, leading Brazil to retain the trophy before Zidane outclassed him with one of the great individual performances of World Cup football (alas the picture atop this blog); then in 2010, Kaka was supposed to be the player who linked Brazil’s solid defence to their blistering attacks, except Holland were more effective and Snjeider was able to dominate the middle of the pitch. It seems that Neymar is going to be the star of the next Brazil team, and probably the one of the stars of world football for some years to come. By 2014 he’ll be up there with Messi and Ronaldo amongst the world’s best players we’re told – some say he’s already at that level.
Despite the growing strength of the Brazilian league and South American football in general, it seems that for the foreseeable future, Neymar will have to move to Europe at some point to truly prove this. The Champions League is the main tournament of club football, and to be honest, of world football such is the higher quality that comes with sustained club football over the sporadic bursts of international football. So to be truly compared with Messi and Ronaldo his main opportunity to prove himself is in the Champions League. Nonetheless the World Cup will provide a great stage for his talents to shine whether he moves across to Europe or not. His ability is great – great feet, pace, tricky dribbling and an able finisher. There are hundreds of YouTube clips showing him blistering and beguiling his way through various defences. But he’s no Messi yet. Should he come over to Europe (probably Spain) it will take him a year or two to be able to replicate these performances against the better defences in Europe. Certainly, the Champions League would provide a real test of his talent especially in the latter rounds when the defenders start to become world class. He reminds a bit of a 2006 Ronaldo at the moment – very talented and great against most teams, but defendable (plus he seems to be as likeable as Ronaldo was around that time). Like Ronaldo, he’ll need a couple of years as an important player at a top European team to take him to the higher, best in the world level. It seems that for Neymar to the truly effective player that Brazil will need him to be in 2014, a move to Europe can’t come soon enough.
But Brazil’s capabilities of winning in 2014 will depend upon their team efforts a lot more than Neymar’s prodigious talent. Should they come up against Spain, they will need to get the ball in the first place in order to get the ball to him or to any of their other exceptional strikers (Hulk, Damiao et al). In the centre of midfield they’ve got some technically gifted, almost Spain-esque players. Oscar and Ganso in particular look like find midfield distributors (plenty of Neymar’s goals for Santo have been assisted by Ganso’s left foot). What will be important for Brazil is what they do without the ball – will they be able to close down well enough to disrupt the opposition’s quality on the ball. The difference between South American and European club football is that in Europe there is nowhere near the same amount of time to exert yourself on the ball. Although the likes of Sandro and possibly Ramires are players who will work hard for the team to retain position, Brazil would be foolish to rely on just a couple of deeper-lying midfielders to do all the off the ball work. Spain are brilliant at working for the ball as a collective; Brazil will have to do the same – Neymar and Hulk will have to work just as hard as Sandro to hassle opposition.
The other ramification of this difference between European and South American club football is that in South America it is much easier to get the ball up the pitch quickly. Ganso and Oscar can turn deep possession into attack within a few seconds, but such is the combativeness of European football, they won’t be able to do this so easily. They will not be able to simply get the ball to Neymar every time they collect it. Top defences are able to close out players. This has been the problem for Messi at international level – because Argentina focus their game so much through Messi, when he has been closed out of games by quality defences (i.e. Germany in 2010) they have been left relatively toothless despite their other talents. The key to Brazil will be not to play through Neymar in the final third, but to rely equally on their other attackers to take up responsibility and become equally important players as Neymar. One of the key differences between Messi at club and at international level is that at Barca, if a team seeks to close Messi out of the game, then Iniesta, Xavi, Villa, Busquets and so on will instead take control of the game and cause damage. You have to defend against the entirety of their midfield and attack, not just Messi, so Messi gets more space. Brazil in 2006 were too reliant on Ronaldinho being able to run the show, so to speak, but once France closed him out, no one else was able to take control as Zidane instead ran the show. Brazil will have to control and attack collectively, rather than rely on just a plan A.
Against European teams the game will not be as end-to-end as it is in South America (the recent game between Brazil and Argentina would not have been seen at the tighter more tactical Euros recently). Brazil have the talent and ability to cause teams serious problems once the game opens up. Whether they’ll be able to open up games against Spain or Italy will be a fascinating challenge for them over the next two years. It may just be the case that for Brazil to be able to do this, experience of top level European club may be necessary for the development of the combativeness, organization and commitment that is required to supplement Brazil’s great talent should they seriously compete to win the World Cup.