As protests swirl, Brazil rides positive energy to semifinal win
BELO HORIZONTE -- It is not just on the streets that Brazil is finding its voice. As thousands protested against political corruption and incompetence outside, inside the Mineirão the Seleção showed a little revolutionary spirit of its own, beating a stubborn Uruguay side 2-1 in the Confederation's Cup semifinal with a late winner from Paulinho. Brazil will now face the winner of Spain vs. Italy in Sunday's final.
For Brazil, this month has been about two things. Firstly, the winds of social change blowing across the country. But recent weeks have also seen Brazilian football fans rediscovering some pride in their national team. The country's pride lost its luster after months of listless friendlies (played mainly outside Brazil) and also by recent disappointing performances that have caused the team slip down the FIFA world rankings.
But Brazil's games in the Confederations Cup, most notably against Mexico in Fortaleza when supporters continued singing the national anthem long after the music from the stadium speakers had stopped, have become outpourings of mutual affection. "It was emotional when the fans continued singing," said Marcelo, "it made us sing louder too." The scene was repeated against Uruguay, and there was hardly a dry eye in the house.
Seemingly now more focused under the leadership of Luiz Felipe Scolari, the Brazilian players look pacy and energetic, pressing eagerly when not in possession. "Brazil's strength is pressurizing the opposition. It's a way of creating chances, taking the ball from the other team when its defense is disorganized," said former Seleção legend Tostão.
This admirable Uruguay side, however, was in no mood to play the simpering bridesmaid. The visitors were stubborn and organized throughout, relying on the talent of Luís Suárez, Edinson Cavani and Diego Forlan on the break. The plan looked to have worked when David Luiz clumsily hauled down defender Diego Lugano in the area after only 12 minutes, forcing the referee to point to the spot.
But Belo Horizonte has proved a blessing for Brazilian keepers of late. It was here, just under two months ago, that Atlético Mineiro stopper Victor sent half the city into paroxysms of delight with a last minute penalty save against Tijuana that kept Galo in the Copa Libertadores. This time it was an entire country punching the air as Júlio César sprawled to his left to keep out Forlan's kick.
The game soon settled into a pattern. Uruguay coach Óscar Tabárez is a wily old fox, and by sitting back and not taking unnecessary risks, it was not difficult for his side to negate Brazil's energy. The home side looked occasionally cumbersome, and there was more than one miscommunication at the back.
This is a potential problem for Brazil. Paulinho and Luis Gustavo, the starting defensive midfielders, haven't looked particularly good at bringing the ball forward, which can lead to the attacking players seeming distant. And when the energy has waned, as it did for long periods against Mexico, and at times against Italy, Brazil can look a little befuddled. Also, while Oscar is a clever, sharp thinking midfielder, he is not always the kind of truly creative player that can pry open a massed defense.
There were sporadic chances for both sides in the first half. After 27 minutes Hulk burst into the area, but his shot was hopelessly high and wide. Forlan, now playing in Brazil for Internacional and looking powerful, crashed a drive just over.
Neymar, meanwhile, was struggling. From his thumping opener two minutes into the first group game against Japan, to the sleight of hip shimmy that created Jô's goal against Mexico, Brazil's next great hope has finally learnt his Seleção lines and come of age in this tournament. But tightly marked, and perhaps thinking of Lugano's pre-match criticism ("he's light, he goes down easily, and he can fool the referee") he was finding space hard to find.
All that changed in the 40th minute. Paulinho lofted a clever ball down the middle, sending Neymar rushing into the box. As the Uruguay defense stumbled and fumbled, the forward poked a shot against goalkeeper Muslera. The rebound fell to Fred, playing in his home state, who poked the ball home.
The lead lasted until just after half time. As the ball bounced off knees and shins in the Brazil penalty area, Thiago Silva committed a rare error, playing a soft pass to Marcelo when hacking the ball clear would have been the wiser choice. Cavani won possession and slotted the ball into the net. Silence fell upon the Mineirão. The game reverted to its previous cautious state, with Brazil probing ineffectively, and Uruguay happy to soak up the pressure. The first grumbles were heard from the fans.
Then, on 63 minutes, Scolari played his wild card. Another hometown hero, Bernard, the lightning fast Atlético winger, came on to wild cheers, and Brazil was suddenly energized. "I've been desperate to get Bernard onto the pitch," Felipão had said during the week. Almost immediately, the youngster scampered into the box, turned sharply, and hit a dangerous cross onto the toe of Fred. The ball whizzed over.
Uruguay was still looking dangerous, with Suarez heading narrowly over the bar from a Forlan free kick. Then the dangerous Cavani made space in the area and sent the ball crawling past Júlio César's goal. The game drifted slowly towards its end, and thoughts turned to the possibility of extra time, and the dreaded penalty kicks.
But Brazil still had energy for one last push. With five minutes left Neymar, after blowing kisses to surly Uruguayan defender Alvaro González, hit a corner deep into the area. Paulinho leapt highest and headed the winning goal past Muslera. The Mineirão erupted. Brazil was in the final.
The state of Minas Gerais has played an important role in Brazilian history. It was here, during the Inconfidência Mineira, that the seeds of independence from Portugual were sown in 1789. More than two hundred years later, some of the biggest street protests in the country are helping to drive political and social reform. As the final whistle blew against Uruguay, it felt like this maturing Seleção might have taken an important step of its own.
Felipão certainly knew who to thank. "The fans carried us to victory today," he said after the game. "They made us keep trying. They were vital."
James Young writes about Brazilian football for The Independent / Independent on Sunday, The New York Times, The Blizzard, and World Soccer, among others. He has lived in Brazil for the last eight years, and is currently at work on a novel about "love, death and football" in the northeast of Brazil. He can be reached on Twitter at @seeadarkness.