An opener featuring untypical styles
RIO DE JANEIRO -- Every World Cup, another little chunk of cliche and stereotype falls. Another little slice of national or regional identity crumbles away under the blows of globalization and cross-pollination.
Economists and sociologists would have a field day with this. Walk into a convenience store today in Sao Paulo and, odds are, a big chunk of the products on display will be identical to those in, say, Zagreb. From clothes in closets to playlists on iPods, there would, broadly speaking, be a creeping sameness.
Perhaps, in light of this, it's not surprising that the World Cup opener throws up two nations that eschew some of the historical cliches associated with them.
At the 1998 World Cup, when Croatia famously reached the semifinals on a wave of patriotism for a (relatively) newly recognized republic, they were a side that combined athleticism, technique and size throughout the lineup. Zvonimir Boban, Aliosha Asanovic, Mario Stanic and Robert Jarni all had presence and bite to go with their skill.
The 2014 version is based primarily on finesse, to the point that for the opener against Brazil, they could well line up without a holding midfielder, leaving the middle of the park to the hugely gifted -- but hardly physically intimidating -- trio of Mateo Kovacic, Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic.
Out wide, Ivan Perisic and Ivica Olic are attackers who'll have to play two ways to contain the Brazilian full-backs, and they'll have to work especially hard since their own full-backs -- Sime Vrsaljko and Dario Srna -- are particularly offensively oriented. This is a side defined by skill rather than brawn.
Brazil, on balance, present the opposite. Not that skill is lacking, just that it's subordinated to teamwork and athleticism and channelled by tactics. It's about as close to the Brazilian stereotype as the Champs-Elysees is to Ipanema Beach.
Necessity or design?
A bit of both perhaps. It's an oft-repeated truism that Brazil can not fail at this World Cup, which may help explain why they got not one but two coaches who have won the tournament to lead them. Luiz Felipe Scolari, of course, was in charge when he made the Selecao 2002 world champions.
Alongside him will be Carlos Alberto Parreira, who pulled the strings in 1994. Both are nothing if not pragmatists of the highest order. That doesn't mean they're necessarily defensively oriented, just that they can adjust their game plan to the human capital at hand. Parreira's team featured a grinding, physical midfield, low on creativity, while his 2006 side (beaten quarterfinalists) crammed as many attacking superstars into the lineup as the rules -- and footballing sanity -- would allow.
This time around, they've opted to go blue-collar and hard hat, in attempt to help the virtuosos strut their stuff (though even the likes of Neymar will need to work to a degree unknown to many of his Selecao predecessors).
There are two central midfielders shielding the back four: Luiz Gustavo, a flesh-and-blood barricade, and Paulinho, more box-to-box, but still safety first in a Brazil shirt. David Luiz, who lines up alongside Thiago Silva at centre-back, is a distant relative of the marauding Chelsea version (so marauding in fact that neither Rafa Benitez nor Jose Mourinho -- who rarely agree on anything -- liked to play him in defense), opting instead to drop deep and mop up, like a free safety in the NFL.
Full-backs Marcelo and Dani Alves are both, obviously, attacking forces, and the defensive quadrilateral in the middle is partly designed to give them freedom. You also get the sense they're in the lineup for their experience (they have more than 100 caps between them) and because Scolari, once he puts faith in a player, tends to remain loyal (this will likely be the same XI that started the Confederations Cup final a year ago).
Which leaves the front four and, here too, the rolled-up sleeves are evident. A year ago, some Brazilian critics turned up their noses at Hulk, deployed wide right, preferring instead the mesmerizing, pint-sized box of tricks that is Bernard. But Hulk's bulk, tracking of opposing full-backs and ability to bludgeon his way into the box at the far post makes him invaluable to Scolari and a useful counterweight to Neymar on the opposite flank.
Neymar himself has licence to roam, starting from a wide left position. But his every movement is tracked by the third attacking midfielder, likely Oscar, though his Chelsea teammate Willian could come into the reckoning at some point.
Oscar's work rate when fully fit -- and, due to severe overwork, something approaching 140 games in 2012 and 2013, he may not be, if the last few months of the Premier League season are anything to go by -- is prodigious. He runs himself into the ground, but does so intelligently, plugging any holes vacated by teammates, and always ready to find space to receive a pass.
Then there's Fred, the man charged with converting the goals. He's the classic forward who looks entirely unremarkable to the naked eye, but whose results far outweigh the sum of his parts. In the past 18 months, he has scored an eye-popping 10 goals in 14 games for Brazil. And no, those aren't padded stats, either: he notched three against Italy, two against Spain and England and one against Uruguay and Russia. In the same time frame -- partly due to injury -- he has scored just 11 in 24 for his club team, Fluminense. True, he has a better supporting cast in a Brazil shirt, but it's equally true that he faces stiffer opposition with the Selecao.
The thinking is that Fred is up front because his intelligence and finishing make him the ideal option to convert the chances created by Neymar, Oscar and co. That may be the case, but he's also up front because Brazil currently have a scarcity of quality centre-forwards unseen since the beginning of time.
And that's the other challenge for Scolari. He can't come out and say it, because it would undermine the confidence of his team, but this World Cup doesn't exactly come at a time when Brazil is teeming with talent. Apart from Silva, Dani Alves and possibly Neymar (though his best years -- you'd think -- are ahead of him), there aren't too many other candidates for a world XI.
What's more, a chunk of this side is coming off lackluster club seasons, whether because of injury or poor form. Oscar lost his place at Chelsea down the stretch due to wear and tear. Fred was sidelined for five months. In the past 18 months, Luiz only started a handful of games at centre-back, the position he'll play in this World Cup. Marcelo missed nearly a third of Real Madrid's Liga games. Julio Cesar couldn't get a game in the Championship at Queens Park Rangers and had to move to Toronto in MLS. Paulinho blew hot and cold at Tottenham. Neymar himself had a rocky first season at Barcelona.
Given all this -- and factoring in the pressure that comes from simply being Brazil, let alone hosting the World Cup -- it's maybe not surprising if Scolari and Parreira put substance ahead of style. And given that Croatia had a rocky road that went via the playoffs to even get here, it's equally not surprising that they may be the more carefree of the two contenders in Sao Paulo on Thursday.
Gabriele Marcotti is a columnist for ESPN FC, The Times and Corriere dello Sport. Follow him on Twitter @Marcotti.