|The Netherlands’ Robin van Persie heads the ball into the net during the match against Spain. The Dutch, who lost the final in 2010, crushed the reigning world champions 5-1. (AFP)
Almost lost amid the excitement, anger, colour, controversy and drama of the opening match of the World Cup was one precise fact: Brazil won.
Luiz Felipe Scolari, ever the pragmatist and master strategist, would not have had it any other way. No cares for him about the baffling ceremonial pageant, the will-she-won’t-she eruption of Jennifer Lopez to sync the official song, the erratic samba of Japanese referee Yuichi Nishimura and the consequent fury of Croatia coach Nico Kovac in defeat.
The result was everything. If it was delivered in part due to a non-existent penalty, so what? This is football. However many platitudes Fifa president Sepp Blatter might spout about fair play, competitive sport can be far from fair.
Scolari will not give the hoopla a second thought. As he prepares for Brazil’s second step up the staircase to the footballing immortality of a sixth World Cup and exorcism of the spectre of 1950, Scolari is focusing on refinement and improvement.
The simple conclusion from a 3-1 victory whose margin was cruel to the losers was that Croatia had played as well, in defeat, as they can; Brazil, in victory, had not.
Comparisons may be odious but they can also be instructive. The last sight of Brazil in competitive action was the final of the Confederations Cup in Maracana last year when they dismantled Spain 3-0 on an onrushing wave of confidence and verve.
Since then the players have returned to their clubs, battled their way in the most part through the physically and mentally exacting club-driven tensions of leagues and Champions Leagues, while jetting off only occasionally to odd, sponsor-selected corners of the world for national team friendlies.
So this is back to, if not square one, then square two.
The choice of players was established last year. Scolari did not need to waste time here. In the meantime, however, some of his favoured players have had their careers complicated either by injuries or contrasting tactical demands at club level.
Paulinho and Oscar, who played right and left midfield last year, have been re-programmed with varied success at Tottenham and Chelsea; as for Fred, the bullish centre-forward who was a popular hero (behind Neymar, of course) has missed months through injury and looks sluggish and overweight.
In goal, Julio Cesar has barely handled a ball in anger in 12 months. He was a non-playing reserve — except for one cup game — at Queens Park Rangers until transferring this spring to the less demanding pitches of North America with Toronto.
Still, ever since the magnificent Gilmar retired more than 40 years ago, Brazil have developed a quirky tradition of playing World Cups with a mixed bag of largely less than adequate goalkeepers. This may be the least of Scolari’s concerns.
He will not be changing his tactics, that is certain. Hence it is up to his players to rise to the occasion as they readjust to Scolari’s demands, fit his patterns.
Scolari’s Brazil do not believe in over-sophistication. This is one of their strengths. They do not suffer from possession mania.
Captain Thiago Silva is the world’s most solid central defender, his resolution balancing the attacking instincts of partner David Luiz.
Just ahead of Silva and Luiz is midfield anchor Luiz Gustavo, ever ready to drop back when Luiz charges forward to create midfield mayhem for the opposition.
Such a triangulation permits Scolari the deliberate luxury of two outrageous attacking fullbacks in Barcelona’s Dani Alves and Real Madrid’s Marcelo.
Dani’s right-wing raids proved a key component in wearing down Croatia though Marcelo enjoyed a less enjoyable evening. His 26th birthday was marred by an unwanted slice of football in conceding Brazil’s first own goal in 98 matches since they debuted at the inaugural World Cup in Uruguay in 1930.
Paulinho, on the left of midfield, was a pallid imitation of the power across on the right at the Confed Cup; at least Oscar, brought across from left to right, enjoyed the moment.
True, Croatia did allow him far too much space. He thanked them by tormenting the left flank of their defence and securing the ultimate reward of Brazil’s killing third goal in stoppage time.
Oscar was certainly not to blame for the anonymous inefficiency of both Fred and Hulk in the centre of attack. Hulk was not so much incredible as invisible.
Happily, of course, Brazil have Neymar. His year at Barcelona has provided him a valuable, back-down-to-earth education in the reality of the elite international game. No longer is he the spoiled and indulged poster boy who commanded penalties every time he tripped over his own bootlaces.
Now he is close to the real thing: a supremely talented attacker ready to roam the pitch in search of goals and glory. His solo opener equalised against Croatia; his penalty put Brazil 2-1 ahead.
Brazil are lucky to have him. All Scolari needs do is ensure everyone else provides him with solid rungs on the staircase to glory in Maracana on July 13.