Brazil v Croatia: the hosts know what is expected in World Cup opener
No matter how experienced the player, he’ll always have some butterflies before the first match of a World Cup, but I don’t think we can compare experiences that easily. My first tournament, Argentina 1978, was in a different football universe.
I was 25 and had already played professionally for seven years. However, the bulk of it was in the Brazilian League. Although I won my first Brazil cap in 1976, by the time we arrived in Argentina I didn’t even have a Copa América on my CV, so I was obviously very anxious.
But let’s take a look at the class of 2014: although the majority of players called up by Luiz Felipe Scolari have not taken part in a World Cup, either the qualifiers or the finals, most of them have some decent mileage for their clubs, playing in tough leagues such as the Premier League and La Liga, as well as the Champions League. That helps a bit, even though the Seleção are facing extra pressure to perform thanks to being hosts and with all the history from the last time Brazil played a World Cup at home.
What makes me confident about Brazil’s chances in their opening game against Croatia on Thursday is that the squad are aware of what is expected of them. Scolari has also been very good in shielding the players from the pressure, although I was a bit surprised by some very optimistic quotes coming from the camp, including technical director Carlos Alberto Parreira’s suggestion that Brazil were really close to the trophy thanks to their off-pitch preparations. Parreira is an experienced man – another World Cup winning manager – and he must have his reasons. I just think he is pretty bold. It’s not like the team don’t have enough to worry about.
Brazil need to remember that there is no need to rush against Croatia in São Paulo. The style imposed by Scolari is already very direct. Brazil are like how Mike Tyson used to be in the good days: they go for the early blow which, if it works, provides a psychological boost and brings the fans on board.
Much has been said about how tough São Paulo crowds can be – in 1950, when Brazil drew 2-2 with Switzerland in the group stages, there was a lot of booing. Last week those jeers were echoed during Brazil’s 1-0 win over Serbia, a kind of dress rehearsal before the Croatians, but I have a feeling the crowd will behave differently in a World Cup game. Brazil also need to fire up the supporters, but when I was playing I’d always much rather be at home than away.
Croatia did not impress me in the qualifiers. They never really threatened Belgium for the automatic place and didn’t dominate against Iceland in the play-offs. That, however, doesn’t mean they can’t hurt the Seleção. The Croatians will miss Mario Mandzukic, a player whose size and skill could be a handful for Brazil’s defence. The main point is that they can still pounce if Brazil don’t come out and play. Players such as Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic have more than enough quality to create chances.
Brazil are favourites but it’s worrying that some of our instrumental players have had a quiet few months before the tournament. Neither Oscar nor Paulinho have had an amazing season and we just hope they will click for the national team. I have spoken about Oscar before but Paulinho is also a key component of Brazil’s recent success with his box-to-box brand of football. I would not change Big Phil’s preferred XI, not even Júlio César in goal. There have been worries about his lack of minutes since last year but I think he’s got enough mileage and technique still to be the Brazilian No1.
Of greater concern for me is how our centre-back partnership, David Luiz and Thiago Silva, tend to leave space on the wings when our full-backs advance. I’d like to see them cover either Dani Alves and Marcelo, with Luiz Gustavo slotting in. Instead, they are staying put because many European teams play with more conservative full-backs. That could leave space for crosses, for example.
The important thing is for the players to keep believing it’s collective effort that will win games. Neymar alone won’t do it, just as it was wrong to expect Ronaldinho to bail out the team in 2006. The moment they stop thinking as a team things will get tricky.
I believe in this group. These players look ready for the huge responsibility ahead. In 1982, we conceded a bizarre goal against Russia and should have scored a couple of times in the first half but were still behind by half-time. Had we despaired, I am sure we would not have been able to mount our comeback and win the match in the second half.
It is obviously easier said than done but Brazil have to be able to tame their nerves to start the tournament with a victory. It would take a lot of pressure away from the boys.