Flair returns as Brazil hammer Cameroon
BRASILIA, Brazil -- Three thoughts on Brazil's 4-1 win over Cameroon in the final game of Group A.
1. Brilliant Brasilia
A lot of Brazilians won't appreciate the sentiment, but the country built incredible stadiums for this World Cup. Protesters have made it known that they'd rather the money was spent on hospitals and other public services, and who is a non-Brazilian to argue with that? But some of the venues will be well-used after the finals, chiefly those in the principal footballing cities of Rio, Belo Horizonte, Porto Alegre and Sao Paulo. The others look like they could become white elephants, monuments to footballing folly.
So what of the beautiful stadium in Brasilia, the national stadium no less, and the most impressive of the tournament? It holds 70,000 -- a capacity that would be even higher if each seat didn't have enough space to dance in front of it. It's steeper than the Maracana, making for better acoustics. From the outside it looks like a public monument, in keeping with the concrete splendour of Oscar Niemeyer's glorious modernistic architecture in Brazil's capital. Huge pillars support a roof that looks like a flying saucer. It's magnificent.
The problem is that Brasilia doesn't have a top team to fill the stadium. The city isn't on the major touring circuit for bands, either. Brazil will surely play international games there -- the 4-1 win Monday against Cameroon was their 11th match in the stadium, and they've won nine and lost only once -- but there will be question marks raised.
Without the club rivalries that can sully Brazilian games in other cities -- a Sao Paulo player can be jeered in Rio -- Brasilia offers a safe haven where the locals, starved of quality football, love the national team and sing: "I'm Brazilian with a lot of pride and a lot of love." On Monday night, the players repaid that love by bowing to the crowd at the end of their win.
Brazil haven't been overly convincing so far, and though some of their swagger returned against Cameroon, they'll face far harder games in the final stage. It's a shame that they won't play them in this venue, named after one of their most enigmatic former stars: Mane Garrincha. Unless, of course, they return for the playoff for third and fourth place. One doubts the enthusiasm would be quite the same.
2. Neymar service resumed
The roar when Neymar's face appeared on the giant screens just 30 minutes before kickoff made it clear which Selecao player is the most popular.
In Barcelona, Neymar is prince to King Messi. He has been rightly advised that Messi is the main man, that he shouldn't step on Messi's toes, as Zlatan Ibrahimovic and David Villa were perceived to have done. While his modest demeanour has been welcomed in the Camp Nou dressing room, his wage packet -- though shrouded in obfuscation, but certainly the biggest at the club -- wasn't, and it's safe to say he hasn't had the warmest reception from the Barcelona fans.
The opposite is true in his homeland, where Neymar's face appears on so many products it's impossible to avoid him. Kids think he's cool; adults find him a man of the people. Indeed, he's a national hero who broke the mould of previous stars by staying in Brazil for five years rather than accepting the first big offer from Europe.
Coach Felipe Scolari believed that Neymar's potential to make a difference was much greater than that of other players. Less than two minutes were on the clock when Neymar first beat a clumsy Cameroon offside trap, drawing cheers from the crowd. When Alan Nyom pushed him over toward photographers in the 15th minute, he found out that he'd have been more popular if he had put an Argentina scarf around Rio's statue of Christ the Redeemer.
Neymar dusted himself off, smiled, and a minute later, sidefooted a Luis Gustavo cross coolly into the net. Any nerves Brazil were harbouring dissipated at that moment -- though only briefly, as Cameroon equalised. Normal service was resumed with Neymar's second before he began to showcase his trickery, and the fans loved him until he was substituted in the 71st minute, allowing other stars to shine. He had done his work.
Certainly, the young idol is a far more potent force for country rather than club, but can he lead Brazil to World Cup glory? If he can, he'll be the nation's biggest hero since Ayrton Senna, the late Formula One star.
3. Cameroon crumble
Cameroon were uninspiring in qualifying and they've been even worse in the World Cup finals, scoring no goals and conceding five in their opening two games. That became six when Neymar put Brazil ahead.
Already eliminated, and with dressing-room discord apparent when Benoit Assou-Ekotto head-butted teammate Benjamin Moukandjo in their previous match, they were playing the tournament favourites without star men Samuel Eto'o (injured) and Alex Song (suspended).
Cameroon started nervously and were soon a goal down, yet they had a surprise in store for their opponents. From nowhere, they found a charge, as if they'd been plugged in. They passed coherently, attacked Brazil and after 26 minutes, Nyom got the better of Daniel Alves and crossed low for Joel Matip, who had lost his marker, David Luiz. It was the least expected equaliser of the tournament.
Despite the renewed hope this equaliser afforded, Cameroon didn't survive the Neymar-driven onslaught that followed. With their stars absent and with a team that doesn't possess any creative attacking midfielders of note, the vital connection between defence and attack wasn't there.
Cameroon's record in recent tournaments has been a poor one. In Brazil 2014, it reads played three, won none, drawn none, lost three, scored one, conceded nine. It's likely to be the worst record of the 32 finalists once the dust settles. They wouldn't have qualified at all had a 2-0 loss at Togo not been turned into a 3-0 win because Togo fielded an ineligible player. But at least they managed a goal in their final game to salvage a little pride.
Andy Mitten is a freelance writer and the founder and editor of United We Stand. Follow him on Twitter: @AndyMitten.