When Brazil soccer coach Luiz Felipe Scolari’s young Confederations Cup squad struggled in exhibition matches, thousands of fans booed the team and some called the coach a “donkey.”
Record five-time World Cup champion Brazil came into the tournament ranked 22nd, its lowest placing ever in soccer governing body FIFA’s national team rankings. Many in the soccer-mad country feared a flop at next year’s World Cup, the first hosted by Brazil since 1950.
Now, with his team one win away from the Confederations Cup final, Scolari is trying to lower expectations for a squad that had a perfect record in its three group games in the World Cup test event.
“We are earning back the history of the Brazil team,” Scolari told reporters yesterday at the Mineirao stadium in Belo Horizonte. “But we still have a long way to go to say we are as good as the top four or five teams in the world.”
Brazil coasted into today’s semifinal against Uruguay, outscoring opponents 9-2 in its three group games -- including a 4-2 win against Italy on June 22 in which 21-year-old striker Neymar continued his streak of scoring in every game.
Scolari, who guided the team to its last World Cup title in 2002 and returned as coach this February after Mano Menezes was fired, faced fierce questioning on May 14 when he announced his 23-man Confederations Cup roster. He left out established stars such as World Cup winners Kaka and Ronaldinho in favor of younger talent, which struggled to find a winning formula in the buildup to the tournament and was booed as recently as an exhibition game with England on June 2.
“What’s going to happen is people are going to criticize me if I choose A, B or C, and if things go wrong I know it will get ugly,” he said at the time.
Instead, Scolari’s team has earned the support of the public. Led by Neymar, who’s been chosen man of the match in each game Brazil has played in the Confederations Cup, the national team has boosted hopes for a sixth World Cup success next year.
Neymar is drawing attention for more than his goal-scoring ability. Uruguay captain Diego Lugano yesterday accused the Brazilian of feigning being fouled and warned officials to be aware that Neymar “is very lightweight, he can drop to the ground and fool the referee.”
If Brazil makes it to the June 30 final, it would meet the winner of the semifinal between world and European champion Spain and Italy, who meet tomorrow.
The national team’s success has come against the backdrop of Brazil’s biggest street protests in more than two decades. Demonstrators have rallied against corruption, poor public services and transport costs, as well as criticizing the amount of money spent on hosting the World Cup. Brazil’s President, Dilma Rousseff, was jeered during the Confederations Cup opening ceremony on June 15, and the tournament has provided a focus for protestors.
As many as 100,000 protestors are expected on the streets of Belo Horizonte today, and authorities said they plan to deploy 5,000 security personnel to prevent a repeat of the violence that occurred when some demonstrators tried to storm the stadium as Japan played Mexico on June 22.
“Brazilians have been with us, but everything we have done to build a better country will not be in vain if we can keep this run up,” Scolari said. “We must find a way of working together, I repeat together. Not fighting with each other. Maybe in five or 10 years’ time we can have a better country.”
Striker Fred, who scored twice against Italy, told reporters he was concerned about the scale of today’s planned protest.
“The forecast is for a very strong rally,” he said. “That makes me worried. We asked the people to be united and give only joy for at least 90 minutes of this game. But they are fair claims. All I can hope is that they are peaceful and there are no clashes with the police.”