Tuesday, June 06, 2006

#5: Selecao


Where? The bulk of the South American continent.

How big? Very big. The second largest nation in the World Cup after the USA. Bigger than the contiguous 48 states, believe it or not. Population is very large as well, making Brazil the 5th most populous nation on earth.

Something I learned from the CIA Factbook? Brazil has the second most number of Airports of any country in the world (after the USA) and the second most number of heliports in the world (after South Korea???). Only China, the US and India have more roadways (more than Canada, three times more than Russia). Mexico, which I thought was dry and had less arable land than I expected, has 12% of the land arable, while Brazil only has 6%. That stuns me.

Geopolitical significance? The future could be Brazil's. A large population, modernized economies, natural resources galore (more than twice the oil reserves as the entire European Union). Brazil has a chance to become a major worldwide player. But it's also an environmental timebomb, and not just with deforested rainforests. The major cities suffer from rampant pollution of air and water. Brazil's future is directly tied to its ability to clean things up and regulate better.

Fun? Four words: Snoop Dogg's Beautiful Video. "The Girl from Ipanema" might've been pretty damn sexy a few decades ago, and this is the modern equivalent.


Picking Brazil here makes me certifiably insane. They're the only team to qualify for every World Cup! They've played in the last three finals! They're five time champions of the world! They're ranked number 1 in the world! They have so much talent! True, true, true, true. But I still think that this isn't their year, for a few reasons.

First, the history: As I wrote above, Brazil is the world's best team, historically. The only team to have qualified for every World Cup. Five time Champs, Runners up twice, and three more semifinals appearances. They're the best. Period.

Qualifying this time around wasn't a cakewalk, and in fact it was a little odd that they had to qualify at all - before this time around holders of the Cup automatically qualified for the next tournament. Brazil only lost twice in 18 matches (at Argentina and at Ecuador), and drew another 7 times. Only nine wins doesn't seem all that great, but it wasn't too bad either - South American qualifying is more rugged than many think because of the odd locations and strong opponents.

Over the last 20 or so years, things have changed dramatically for the Brazillian roster. Back then, only a few of the team members played professionally in Europe. Now, only two players are on domestic teams. The remainder populate the best teams in Spain, England, Germany and Italy. In some ways this is better for Brazil, considering that the players know international opponents better, and European competition may be better than an isolated nation's competition. But in other ways this can be a drawback. The national team doesn't play together as much as many others as they used to. The rest of the world has seen the amazing skills of Brazillians, but also their weaknesses. The global game is dominated by Brazillians, no doubt, but there are two sides to every coin.

I could spend the rest of this page writing about the talent on the team. Ronaldo, Adriano and Robinho are three of the most dangerous forwards in the cup - and Brazil has a threat better than all of them in Ronaldinho (more in a second). The midfield is also one of the strongest in the tournament. Emerson, Kaka, Juninho, Gilberto Silva, Ze Roberto... the trouble is not in praising them but in finding room on the pitch for them all. If there is a weakness on this team, it's the defense. In 2002 the defense was far better than anyone expected - and probably the real reason Brazil were champions. Cafu and Roberto Carlos are undoubtedly among the all time greats for Brazil, but they are also both on the down slope of their careers. Dida is among the world's best in goal, but if the guys in front of him have lost a step, he could have trouble.

The one to watch is Ronaldinho. If you follow soccer enough to have kept reading through this interminable series, I do not need to write any more.

The group Brazil has drawn isn't among the most difficult, but it also isn't among the easiest either. All three opponents are decent, if none exceptional. A problem is that Brazil will face one of the better second place teams if the win the group, since Group E is so deep.

Why don't I think they'll get farther than the quarterfinals? Well, a number of reasons. First, there's the European factor. Brazil just doesn't fare as well in Europe as they do when the Cup is anywhere else. Brazil won it in Sweden in 1958 with a guy named Pele on the field. But since then, Brazil has always gone home empty handed. Second, there's the European club factor. Brazil's team is loaded with players for some of Europe's best teams, and Brazil has had to play a whole lot of qualifying matches over the last two years. AC Milan, Barcelona, Real Madrid, Arsenal, Bayern Munich, Inter Milan. These are the teams where Brazil's best play. These are also teams that have played some of the most crowded fixture schedules - Champions' League, domestic matches, domestic cups and then add to that Asian and American tours for the clubs and 18 qualifiers. The last two years for most of these players have gone by with barely a break in the action. It wouldn't surprise me if Brazil is hurt by that. Third, the age factor. Soccer sometimes isn't a fair game. Sometimes the best forwards keep hitting the posts or shooting just wide. That's why every great champion has a good defense. This year's Brazil team has questions there. What if Cafu and Roberto Carlos have lost a step? It could show at the worst time. And the final reason why I think Brazil doesn't win it all is that it's just a gut feeling. I think it's another country's time to shock them. And I think I know the one to do it.

The opener is Croatia. I don't see any way Brazil loses this one. Early goals by Ronaldo and Adriano put a stop to Croatia's hopes. Ronaldinho adds a glorious goal in the second half. And everyone thinks the Cup is Brazil's to lose.

Australia is second, and while a lot of people think the Socceroos might have a chance in this, I actually think this will be one of the biggest blowouts in the entire cup. Ronaldinho scores twice in the first half, and Ronaldo ties the all time record for World Cup goals with a third. Late in the game Ronaldinho bags a third. Stunning. 4-0 Brazil.

The third match is academic, with Brazil already qualified to advance and it being pretty much impossible to unseat them at the top. Japan comes in needing to win to advance. It's nice to need things. Brazil doesn't comply, even though many of the best players sit. Robinho makes the most of his time on the field with two goals. Japan doesn't score. 2-0 Brazil and it's a dominant group performance.

The round of 16 brings the Czech Republic and Brazillian confidence is sky high. Unfortunately for the Brazillian defense, Jan Koller is sky high tall. An early corner finds its way into the net and the Czechs take a 1-0 lead. Ronaldinho, earning every cent of sponsorship money, scores two for Brazil to go up 2-1. With about 10 minutes to go, Koller scores again off a corner, this time making Roberto Carlos look foolish and short. Just seconds into stoppage time, though, the Czech defense tires and substitute Robinho shows that the future is bright in Brazil, streaking right down the middle and scoring. 3-2 Brazil, the match of the Cup.

When looking at the draw, Brazil would probably be happy to see the perennial chokers Spain as a possible quarterfinal opponent. I take a different approach: Spain is loaded with players that know the Brazillians well - they train with them, mark them all year long, watch film all the time. The several great Brazillians playing in Spain could end up a disadvantage. If any team knows inside ball on Brazil, it might just be Spain. And come on now, of course Spain is due for a little luck and karma, aren't they? I think karma comes early for Spain, as the somewhat tired, somewhat overconfident Brazillians give up not one but two goals in the early going, one from Raul, one from Fernando Torres. Brazil gets one back as Ronaldo sets the all time record. Brazil's strength grows, and Spain's fatalism looms, but then the amazing happens - Xabi Alonso and Raul hook up together for a third goal with just ten minutes to go. Brazil gets a last second stoppage time goal, but it's not enough. Tears throughout Iberia. 3-2 Spain and a new champion will be crowned.

Now, the realist in me thinks I'd be a fool to wager on this happening. True. And considering the odd things that have happened in international competitions the last few years (Greece at Euro 2004, South Korea and Turkey in 2002), we're probably due for a Cup to go to form. But that's not as fun, is it? Brazil will be one of the most enjoyable teams to follow, and they'll put on an incredible display of scoring and skill. But I don't see them winning it all this time.

If the World Cup were March Madness, Brazil would be... Dominant through the years, loaded with one superstar following another. Brazil is North Carolina.

Sorry, Brazil. You'll have to skulk back to your incredibly gorgeous beaches, beautiful weather and stunning, Giselle-like women. Damn you, Brazil!

Edited for some clarity and a typo.