x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Confederations Cup: Neymar offers some relief amid tensions in Brazil

With protesters outside the stadium and questions about the team's recent slide, Gary Meenaghan reflects on the importance of Brazil putting on a good show and winning.

Brazil’s Neymar, left, shoots a volley to open the scoring at Confederations Cup on Saturday. Kai Pfaffenbach / Reuters
Brazil’s Neymar, left, shoots a volley to open the scoring at Confederations Cup on Saturday. Kai Pfaffenbach / Reuters

Tears, jeers and cheers marked the start of the Confederations Cup as Brazil continued its journey towards a future that remains unclear in more ways than one.

In recent days, the Brazilian public have grown increasingly vocal in their disapproval of the way their country is being run. In Sao Paulo, what started as a peaceful protest against a 20 centavos (35 fils) bus-fare hike grew into a mass demonstration on Thursday evening that ended with riot police firing tear gas and rubber bullets at flower-waving protesters.

Since then, protests have erupted across Brazil and they reached the capital, Brasilia, in time for the country's tournament-opening match, Saturday against Japan. Around 1,000 demonstrators rallied outside the city's Estadio Nacional de Brasilia, condemning the government for excess expenditure and a failure to prioritise the public sector.

Protesters carrying placards reading "Brazil is awake" and chanting "Fifa, go away", said public money should have been spent on improving hospitals and transport infrastructure rather than on a stadium that will see little use after next summer. The crowd was eventually dispersed by military police, who used pepper spray and tear gas.

Inside the US$561 million (Dh2.1 billion) stadium, Sepp Blatter's charm offensive fell on deaf ears as the Fifa president and Dilma Rousseff, the Brazil president, were loudly heckled during their opening speeches. Blatter, having earlier greeted a volunteer with a hug, pleaded in Portuguese for "respect" and "fair play" as the jeers grew more pronounced. Rousseff appeared to cut her speech short.

When the action got under way, the opening exchanges were greeted with an eerie silence as the 64,000-plus crowd battled with anxiety, fear and anticipation. It lasted just 173 seconds however, before Neymar, Brazil's gifted 21-year-old forward, kicked the football carnival off with a memorable volley from 22 yards that resulted in an explosion of patriotic relief.

The early goal allowed Brazil – players and supporters – to relax and the team eventually won comfortably, scoring three times without reply against a Japan side too quick to play the role of intimidated tourists. While an easy victory will have been welcomed by the team, a tougher assignment awaits them on Wednesday, when they face Mexico, the side they lost to in the Olympics final last summer.

Hernanes, the Brazilian midfielder, told The National scoring an early goal against Japan had been crucial to his side's performance and it will help them going forward.

"It was a great goal and also very important for us because we were able to remain calm and play our own game," he said. "That was very important because our fans were not so confident in us.

"With this victory I think they have begun to believe. This can make the difference for us because we are playing at home and that should be an advantage rather than something to make us nervous."

Brazil are ranked an all-time low of 22nd in the world, but there is no doubt they are expected to win this month's tournament, even with an inexperienced squad that the coach Luiz Felipe Scolari has conceded he is experimenting with ahead of next summer's showpiece. Anything less than success on June 30 will be seen as failure by Brazil's quick-tempered fans.

The experimentation is not limited only to the playing staff. The purpose of the Confederations Cup is as much about testing venues as it is about testing teams and Estadio Nacional had its own teething issues.

Having missed its completion deadline twice, the stadium had held only one test event – two fewer than Fifa suggests. On Saturday, one spectator showed photos of an assigned plastic seat that had detached from its wall-fixing, forcing the ticket-holder to be relocated to another section of the stadium and away from his family. Meanwhile, the wireless internet for working media was overloaded and several guides and volunteers were still acquainting themselves with the different areas of the stadium facilities.

Such minor venue matters can be ironed out before next year, while Brazil's national team will certainly gain experience even if they do not gain a trophy this summer. What lies ahead for the nation's public, however, remains to be seen. Large-scale protests are planned for this evening in major cities across the country with sharp focus on the behaviour of the police force, which has been condemned for an unnecessary use of force.

The Confederations Cup has brought global exposure, now the world is watching to see what Brazil does next. Both on and off the pitch.

gmeenaghan@thenational.ae

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