Brazil will be playing for more than a victory when they face Japan in the Confederations Cup opener this evening.
Coach Luiz Felipe Scolari said yesterday that winning the first match will be crucial to winning the support of demanding home fans and to put the squad on the right track for their fourth title in the World Cup warm-up tournament.
“It’s fundamental to win this match and that’s what I’ve been telling the players.” Scolari said. “We need to have the fans on our side, so it’s important we get off to a good start.”
Brazil haven’t won a major title since the 2009 Confederations Cup in South Africa and home fans have criticised and jeered the team following after a series of poor results recently.
“We need to take advantage of the home fans, and to do that we need to play well,” Scolari said. “Our team is not fully ready yet and we know it’s not going to be easy, but we need to work hard to keep the fans on our side.”
Scolari led Brazil to the 2002 World Cup title but has endured disappointing results in the seven matches he has coached since returning to the national team in December. Brazil are coming off a convincing 3-0 win over France in midweek in their final warm-up, but they had won only one of their six matches until then, against Bolivia.
Scolari and the Brazilian players were loudly jeered and booed by nearly 50,000 home fans after a 2-2 draw in a friendly against Chile in April.
Scolari knows first-hand how an opening loss at home could make the team’s path to the title more difficult. He was head of the home team when he coached Portugal at the 2004 European Championships, when the hosts lost the opening match but eventually reached the final.
“It’s horrible to lose the first match at home, just horrible,” he said. “It’s tough to handle and that’s something we have to avoid at all costs. If we lose, it’s going to be difficult with the fans, the media, with everything.”
Scolari said it’s even tougher because Brazil are not as respected at home as they are abroad. Brazilian fans often feel distant from the national team, in part because most of the players are from foreign clubs.
This time the coach included 11 players from domestic clubs in the Confederations Cup squad, repeating the winning formula of the 2002 team that thrived in South Korea and Japan, when 13 members played at home. Since then, the national team have had only a handful of domestic players in most tournaments.
The current players know the responsibility that comes with playing at home. “There’s always a lot of pressure when it comes to the ‘Selecao’,” said Neymar, the 21-year-old Barcelona striker touted to lead Brazil to the title. “We know there is a lot of pressure and we know of our responsibility. But we have a great group and we will do everything we can to reach our goal of winning the Confederations Cup and then the World Cup next year, which everybody knows is the most important thing for us.”
Neymar is carrying Brazil’s hopes but he has struggled with the national team so far, failing to replicate the success that he had with Brazilian club Santos before joining Barcelona.
He scored three of his 20 goals with Brazil this year, but he hasn’t found the net in nine straight matches, including some with Santos before the Barcelona transfer. If he fails to score against Japan on Saturday, it will mark his longest career run without a goal.
Brazil have won the last two Confederations Cups, in 2005 in Germany and in 2009 in South Africa. They also won the 1997 tournament in Saudi Arabia. The five-time world champions haven’t won a significant title since the 2009 tournament. Only Julio Cesar and Daniel Alves were in that squad.
“The team has been revamped and it’s always hard when you start from scratch,” Neymar said.
“But we are starting to put a team together and that’s the most important thing right now. We know we have talented players who can make a difference in the end.”
Brazil beat Japan 4-0 in a friendly last October, when coach Mano Menezes was still ahead of the national team.
Today Group A: Brazil v Japan (20:00)
Tomorrow Group A: Mexico v Italy (20:00) Group B: Spain v Uruguay (23:00)
Monday 17 June Group B: Tahiti v Nigeria (20:00)
Wednesday 19 June Group A: Brazil v Mexico (20:00) Italy v Japan (23:00)
Thursday 20 June Group B: Spain v Tahiti (20:00) Nigeria v Uruguay (23:00)
Saturday 22 June Group A: Italy v Brazil (20:00) Japan v Mexico (20:00)
Sunday 23 June Group B: Nigeria v Spain (20:00) Uruguay v Tahiti (20:00)
Wednesday 26 June First semi-final: Winner Group A v Runner-up Group B (20:00)
Thursday 27 June Second semi-final: Winner Group B v Runner-up Group A (19:00)
Sunday 30 June 3rd/4th-place play-off (17:00) Final (22:00)