Big Phil fires back

Luiz Felipe Scolari cannot have expected bouquets after the 0-0 draw against Mexico in Fortaleza on Tuesday but what he did get from a critical media visibly riled him. The Brazil manager, however, is not a creature to scuttle off under a rock and so he reacted in the way that he tends to react. 

He hit back.

“One more, one more,” Scolari said to the Fifa official, who was attempting to wrap up the post-match press conference. “Because I want to ask a question myself. Yes, I want to ask a question.”

Scolari was promptly sidetracked by the extra question that is invariably jammed in from somebody in the room. It came in Spanish and it was from a Mexican journalist who wanted to know his thoughts on the hero of the hour, goalkeeper Guillermo Ochoa and whether Brazil were sick and tired of the North American nation.

Mexico’s recent record against Brazil now reads: P14 W7 D3 L4, and that does not include the victory over them in the final of the 2012 London Olympics, which was ostensibly an under-23 fixture. There was a moment of light relief as Scolari said that he did not like Ochoa very much at the moment before he got around to making his own point.

“OK, so there are no more penalties for Brazil, right?” Scolari said, fronting up to everybody in the auditorium. “That’s my question for you. All you did was criticise Fred … ”

It was a curious line of attack. What Scolari was referring to was the outcry in the Brazilian media over how Fred, the striker, had essentially conned the Japanese referee, Yuichi Nishimura, into awarding Brazil the penalty that had helped them to victory over Croatia in the opening Group A tie. Thanks to that, Scolari seemed to be saying, there would be no more penalties for Brazil at the World Cup.

“So I hope you’re pleased with yourselves. Well done.” Scolari did not actually say that bit, he was already striding towards the door, but it is what he meant.

Two observations. First, Brazil did not have any penalty appeals against Mexico, so the media’s thick-headed behaviour could not have triggered the inevitable payback on this occasion, rendering Scolari’s complaint somewhat fatuous, at least in terms of what had just happened. Second, the very fact that he was embroiled in an argument said it all.

The press conference was pretty much one long argument. The questions were phrased politely enough but they carried stings and the episode reflected the wider mood of anxiety about Brazil’s prospects of winning their World Cup.

Down on the Beira Mar Avenue in Fortaleza, which looks out on to the sea, the party was going on. This was the city’s big day – playing host to the Seleção for a World Cup game – and a 0-0 was not going to kibosh the thing. Outside the fan fest, it was a struggle to move through the shimmying crowds.

But there was an undercurrent of disappointment. “Because we were supposed to win,” said one supporter, lowering her voice to a whisper, as though inviting you into a secret. Brazil’s expectation of victory is no secret. Others blew out their cheeks, pulled faces and gave the thumbs down.

Scolari was on solid ground with several of his points. Mexico had played very well; they were disciplined and difficult to prise apart. Brazil teams cannot simply expect to turn up and beat Mexico. Moreover, they had created the chances to have won and, were it not for Ochoa, they might have done. Ochoa’s first-half save from Neymar’s header, when he plunged low to his right to paw the ball to safety with an upwards swipe of the hand carried, shades of Gordon Banks against Pelé in 1970.

Most important, Brazil remain set fair to reach the last 16.

On the other hand, Scolari’s team had flattered to deceive against Croatia, when a goal from Neymar, followed by the lucky penalty, which Neymar converted, bailed them out. Now they have drawn 0-0. Neymar played well but he was not decisive.

There are clear problems. The defensive insecurity on the flanks; the lack of creativity in central midfield; Fred. But the biggest one involves the overreliance on Neymar in the final third.

Against Mexico, Oscar was peripheral, Ramires got himself booked, became a liability and was substituted, and Fred was Fred. The substitute winger, Bernard, was lively and Dani Alves marauded from right-back. But all eyes were on Neymar. He was the player that fired the crowd. At times, he seemed like Brazil’s only hope.

Scolari disagreed. “Neymar cannot win or lose on his own,” he said. “He is part of a group. In the group, he has a potential which is higher sometimes than other players, as we know. All the players, by the way, know that. But he is part of a group. He can win or lose with the group.”

Neymar is remarkably level-headed and he can seem like an impish kid who wants to have fun. He dyed his hair blond for the Mexico game and nobody would bet against another new style for the final group tie against Cameroon next Monday.

His impact with the ball is rather more serious. He has 24 goals in his past 30 appearances for Brazil (33 in 51 overall) and, against both Croatia and Mexico, he had four or five excellent moments. It might be asked whether that, in itself, is enough.

What is clear is that a Brazil without Neymar is unthinkable. The dream of going all the way rests with him. It feels balanced on a knife edge.

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