There is probably no greater evidence of how deep Brazil is as a football nation that three starters for their Lusofone cousin, Portugal got their start in the game in Brazil and are naturalized Portuguese citizens: Pepe, Deco and Liedson. Germany has also naturalized a Brazilian, Cacau.
Brazil’s only drawback will be the heavy weight of expectations. I often joke with my wife that Brazil’s greatest problem is that it has some 180 million coaches. Felipe Scolari was roundly – and in my opinion wrongly – criticized for not putting Romario in the squad in 2002. Winning the cup that year silenced the critics and if they can pull it off again this year, it will silence the myriad critics. My personal feeling that winning the game is a lot more important than jogo bonito (the beautiful game) and I believe that is largely shared by the coach, Carlos Caetano Bledorn Verri, aka Dunga.
If anyone saw this year’s Champions League semifinal and final, they know that Brazil has a first rate keeper in Júlio César. The skill in defense doesn’t end there. Lúcio and Juan are excellent and experienced center backs; the former skilled in initiating the attack and deadly in the air on set pieces (he scored the winning goal against the US in last year’s Confederations Cup final off a corner) and the latter one of the few bright spots for Brazil in the 2006 WC. At fullback they have a bit of dilemma: Brazil has two of the best right backs in the world in Dani Alves and Maicon. Expect Maicon to start; more on Alves in a moment. Michel Bastos will probably be the left back.
In midfield, Gilberto Silva and Felipe Melo will be the defenders and Kaká and Elano will probably round out the offensive midfield, with Kaká almost like a withdrawn forward and given his distribution skills, speed and feel for the game, a playmaker to be reckoned with. Melo will need to remember to keep a cool head. If it were up to me, I would put Dani Alves in for Elano. Alves often comes up on the attack in Barcelona, while tracking back pretty well on defense, which would be a good rule when Maicon goes forward. His skills on free kicks are not something you want to leave on the bench.
Luis Fabiano, an excellent target man (look how he took the wind out of the US sails in the Confederations Cup at the start of the second half) and Robinho will be the forwards. Am I the only one who isn’t exactly sold on Robinho? I would prefer Nilmar complementing Luis Fabiano.
Given that I don’t see the Portuguese League that often outside the major teams such as Benfica, Porto and Sporting Lisbon, I have never seen Eduardo, Portugal’s number one keeper play. His club football is with Braga and to his credit they had their best finish ever as runner-ups to Benfica, surrendering only 20 goals in 30 league matches. Bruno Alves and Ricardo Carvalho will figure as center-backs with Alves’ threat on set pieces (he scored six goals for Porto last season and two in WC qualification for Portugal) a nice bonus. I would imagine that given his recent injuries, Pepe willbe brought in as a substitute when needed. Paulo Ferreira and either Miguel or Duda will figure as fullbacks, no doubt leaving coach Carlos Queiroz wishing José Bosingwa was healthy. In midfield Deco and Simão should figure in the attack, but in my mind the heart and soul of their midfield is Raúl Meireles, a versatile player who can do it all: defend, distribute and on occasion, score.
The team received a body blow to their offense with the announcement yesterday that the winger, Nani, who had a dream season at Manchester United, has broken his collarbone and will miss the World Cup. I don’t know much about his replacement, Ruben Amorim, but I’m sure their fans were practically drooling with the thought of Nani and Cristiano Ronaldo as wingers with Liedson as a target man in the middle. I don’t know how they’ll adapt, but I believe that with Ronaldo, they’re still a potent threat. Love him or hate him, his speed, skill on the ball and dangerous free kicks are the real deal.
While everyone is wondering if Didier Drogba will play, precious little attention is being given to their weakness in goal. I have not seen Boubacar Barry play, but whatever I have been able to read about him is not encouraging. He will have some good defenders in front of him. Although Kolo Touré is not nearly the same player at his peak with Arsenal, he still has a fairly good head for the game and is a hard worker. Paired with the imposing Souleymane Bamba, they’ll be the central defenders. Emmanuel Eboué and Siaka Tiéné provide skill and pace at left and right back, but whereas Eboué’s disciplinary record at Arsenal has improved over the years, Tiéné has drawn 21 yellow and three red cards for Valenciennes. That could be a serious problem in an opening round.
Dididier Zakora and Yaya Touré (Kolo’s brother) also provide Barry with some protection as topnotch midfielders, but Zakora again had disciplinary issues with Sevilla, some of which could be blamed on his transition from the English Premier League to La Liga in Spain, a tougher league on fouls, to be sure. I really don’t know who will be helming the midfield offense.
As for Drogba, everyone is waiting. Drogba along with strike partner Salmon Kalou would, in my opinion, be the best strike partnership of any of the African teams. If Drogba can’t play, who will replace him? Gervinho, perhaps? Aruna Dindane?
If there is a team I know next to zero about it’s North Korea. One of their players, Jong Tae-Se, nicknamed the People’s Wayne Rooney plays in Japan. Another, Hong Yong-Jo plays in Russia. the rest all play in North Korea. Expect them to be an hors d’œuvre for the other teams in this group. Trust me: there will not be a repeat of 1966. Enough said.
So, who goes to the next round? Brazil and Portugal. If Didier Drogba can play, Ivory Coast may challenge, but I expect an all-Lusofone move to the next stage. If you live in or near Newark, NJ or Somerville, MA, the morning of June 25th will be fun. Portugal and Brazil play each other. These two communities, with large immigrant populations from both countries, will be rocking.
Cross-posted at Beautiful Horizons.