Brazil ended an unforgettable Confederations Cup both winners and losers after a superb competition on the field was played out against a violent backdrop of social unrest off it.
The Confederations Cup captured global attention as it had never done before as citizens across this huge, restless nation used the event as the catalyst to vent their frustrations at a system they regard as corrupt.
The cost of building or refurbishing the 12 stadiums for next year’s World Cup was the initial focus of the anger, with the message from protesters being that money spent on football should have been used instead on improving public transport, education and national health facilities.
Those issues must now be urgently dealt with by the Brazilian government if it wants to avoid television images being broadcast again during the World Cup of riot police firing tear gas and rubber bullets at protesters.
While the image of Brazil suffered internationally, spectators inside the new and refurbished stadiums saw a series of superb football matches and the confirmation that Brazilian striker Neymar could lead a young and exciting team to glory in 12 months’ time.
It is too early to judge if Brazil’s outstanding 3-0 victory over world and European champions Spain in Sunday’s final marks a turning point for both teams or was a one-off success for Brazil over tired opponents.
What is undeniable, however, is that Brazil were the best of the eight teams in the tournament, deserved to win it and could do very well next year.
“With all respect to Spain, they’ve enchanted the world but football has a hierarchy and Brazil have won the World Cup five times and Spain didn’t face Brazil when they won any of their other tournaments,” Brazil goalkeeper Julio Cesar said after the final. “Now they will understand that playing Brazil is not easy. We respected them and know they will respect us and they will know that when they come here for the World Cup in Brazil they will not want to play us.”
Coach Luiz Felipe Scolari went into the competition under scrutiny after two wins in his first seven games back in charge, but much of the pressure dissipated when Neymar scored a brilliant opening goal after three minutes of the first match against Japan.
Brazil went on to beat the Asian champions 3-0 and never looked back, with a 2-0 win over Concacaf champions Mexico and a 4-2 victory over Italy giving them first place in their group.
A laboured 2-1 semi-final win over old rivals and South American champions Uruguay set them up for Sunday’s final when two goals from Fred and another stunning strike from Neymar brought them their third successive Confederations Cup crown and ended Spain’s record run of 29 unbeaten competitive matches.
Brazil’s players were clearly stung by a decade in which Spain won the World Cup once and the European Championship twice and created a tiki-taka style of play that had some commentators declaring them the greatest side ever. At the same time, Brazilians, who consider their teams of 1970 and 1982 better than Spain, watched their own side plummet to 22nd in the world rankings, their lowest ever.
Although Spain left empty-handed, coach Vicente Del Bosque said they had gained huge experience and knowledge which would benefit them if they returned as expected next year. Spain gave a masterclass of their own in their opening 2-1 win over Uruguay and took first place in their group with a 10-0 win over amateur Oceania champions Tahiti followed by their 3-0 victory over African champions Nigeria. They then started poorly but recovered to finish the stronger side against a highly impressive Italy, winning on penalties to reach the final where they looked jaded and never found their rhythm. The chances of another Brazil-Spain final in the World Cup next year cannot be dismissed.
Italy might have something to say about that as their team, despite some uncharacteristically poor keeping from Gianluigi Buffon, showed signs of re-emerging after a spell among the also-rans since their 2006 World Cup triumph.
Their 4-3 comeback win over Japan after trailing 2-0, their 4-2 defeat to Brazil, their semi-final with Spain, and even their penalty shootout victory over Uruguay to take third place thrilled the crowds and Cesare Prandelli’s men could well be involved in the later stages next year.
Striker Mario Balotelli played with a growing maturity before injury curtailed his involvement and, like his young contemporary Neymar, could have a big influence next year.
The tournament produced record global television viewing figures, and a record 68 goals, 24 of which flew into the back of Tahiti’s net.
The South Pacific part-timers, whose players included a professional mountaineer, managed to score once in their 6-1 defeat to Nigeria which represented a major achievement.
They also brought a welcome Olympian spirit to the cup, playing with an attacking abandon that was widely applauded.
The Confederations Cup is not the most important tournament in international football but it serves its purpose as a test event and one of its hallmarks is its competitive but friendly spirit.
The Brazilian government will be working hard to ensure that the friendly spirit also extends to the streets of the country in June and July 2014.