FORTALEZA, Brazil -- In the frenzied, chaotic build-up to the World Cup, last year’s rousing Confederations Cup triumph was the one touchstone on which manager Luiz Felipe Scolari and his Brazil squad could rely. Barely a press conference or interview went by without the magic words of “just like in the Confederations Cup” or “after all, we won the Confederations Cup” being incanted by someone from the Brazil camp.
Even when players such as Fred, Paulinho or David Luiz suffered through difficult spells with their clubs, Scolari was unfazed – these players, remember, had won the Confederations Cup together. Two games into the World Cup, however, and last June seems a very long time ago indeed.
Not that Brazil played all that badly this afternoon against Mexico at a feverish Estadio Castelao. The hosts may face better teams later in the tournament, but they are unlikely to witness a better goalkeeping performance – Guillermo Ochoa was simply outstanding here.
“I didn’t enjoy Ochoa’s performance at all,” Scolari joked afterwards. “He was terrific, spectacular even.”
Nor was Ochoa the only Mexican standout. El Tri’s midfield trio of Jose Vazquez, Andres Guardado and Hector Herrera was more composed and effective than their Brazilian counterparts, with Paulinho and Ramires in particular struggling to impose themselves for the home team. While Ramires is effectively a stand-in for the injured Hulk, the fact that Paulinho looks as leaden for Brazil as he did for Tottenham this season is more of a worry – his knack of scoring goals from midfield is a key part of Scolari’s game plan. The energy of fullbacks Miguel Layun and Paul Aguilar also ensured a fretful afternoon for their Brazilian equivalents Marcelo and Daniel Alves.
Mexico will be delighted at having held the hosts to a draw in their own backyard, and at remaining unbeaten in the competition. “It’s fantastic for us to draw with the favorites. But we haven’t won anything yet. We haven’t even qualified,” coach Miguel Herrera said after the game.
Brazil, however, is likely to be less thrilled with its afternoon’s work. It seems a safe bet that Scolari’s men will beat Cameroon in their last group game, but a Mexico win over Croatia would then see first place come down to goal difference, and a potentially more hazardous onward journey. Even though Spain’s meltdown against the Netherlands has cast doubts over which potential round of 16 opponent Brazil should fear the most, the host nation had surely envisaged a less stressful opening phase than this.
The game itself was a cracker. Brazil had most of the early possession, but with Fred ineffective and the midfield lacking cohesion, it struggled to find a way through the Mexican defense. When the Selecao did, Ochoa was there to deny them, first saving smartly from a Neymar header, then getting down to block a Paulinho toe poke from close range. Mexico were quick and neat when going forward, and played with a tireless energy that made Brazil uncomfortable throughout.
And while, as Scolari pointed out, Mexico’s best efforts were from long range, these were no hopeful punts. Hector Herrera, in particular, has a kick like a mule, and had Julio Cesar scrambling on more than one occasion. Vazquez and Guardado supplied a couple of fizzers of their own as, particularly at the beginning of the second half, the Brazilian goal came under considerable pressure.
When Mexico’s energy waned and Brazil turned the screw towards the end, there was Ochoa again, saving Thiago Silva’s fierce, close range header with just a few minutes left.
“I think so,” Ochoa smiled and said when asked if it had been the most important game of his life.
At the end there was a rousing ovation for both teams, an unusual enough event in the passionate, tribal world of Latin American soccer.
It was a fitting end to the afternoon, for this was an occasion where the fans played a key role. In the build-up to the game much had been made of the warmth and passion of nordestino fans – people from the northeast of Brazil, where Fortaleza is situated, and Brazil’s poorest but arguably friendliest region. Sure enough there was a tangible World Cup buzz in the air before the game, with locals, whether in possession of a ticket or not, thronging the streets long before kickoff, and canary yellow shirts everywhere. The home fans supplied a raucous atmosphere inside the stadium too, particularly during a spine-tingling rendition of the now familiar extended a capella mix of the national anthem.
But just like on the pitch, Brazil did not have things all its own way in the stands either. Mexico brought thousands of fans to the game (including 3,600 who had traveled by cruise ship from Miami) and even out-shouted the locals at times. Julio Cesar, in particular, must have thought he was playing at the Estadio Azteca, such was the fearsome hooting every time he took a goal kick.
For Mexico, a more dominant performance by front man Oribe Peralta, goal-scoring hero of the win over Cameroon, could have resulted in an even unhappier afternoon for Brazil, but that was a minor headache considering how well the rest of the team performed.
The concerns of the host nation, which is under considerably greater pressure to perform than the team it faced today, are potentially more serious. Both Fred and his deputy Jo looked ineffective and cumbersome against the quick, well-organized Mexicans, and Brazil’s midfielders rarely seemed to be on the same wavelength.
After the game Scolari insisted that his team had played well, but failed to keep his irritation completely under wraps. As the post-match press conference drew to a close, the coach told journalists that it was his turn to ask a question.
“Aren’t Brazil going to get any more penalties in the World Cup?” he snapped, a reference to Marcelo’s claim for a spot kick in the second half, which was waved away by the referee. “All you want to do is criticize Fred,” he continued, before stomping huffily from the stage.
Amidst the heat of Fortaleza, it seems the World Cup pressure on Brazil has been turned up a notch or two.