Monday, 23 June 2014

World Cup Hiatus

This blog will enter hibernation for the next month or so, however World Cup related waffling can be found on the sites of Sports IllustratedFusion Soccer, ESPN and others.

Wednesday, 11 June 2014

The Pressure Builds On Brazil

Luiz Felipe Scolari is answering a question about Neymar. Scolari answers a lot of questions about Neymar. And about David Luiz, and Hulk, and all the other members of the Seleção. He also answers a lot of questions about pressure, and preparation, and a thousand other subjects connected with the most important, and least answerable, question: Will Brazil win its sixth World Cup this summer.

We are in the temporary press conference tent at the Serra Dourada stadium in the parched midwestern city of Goiânia. Scolari is happy. His team has just beaten Panama 4–0 in its penultimate friendly before the World Cup begins, and everyone is in a good mood. Playing in undemanding Goiânia is not like playing in other big Brazilian cities. While there are a few grumbles from the crowd during a sluggish start—a reminder, perhaps, of what might happen during the World Cup if things don’t go well for the home team—once Brazil wakes up, every goal and every shot is cheered wildly, despite the modest opposition. There will be no World Cup games here, and the 31,000 people at the stadium, together with the 20,000 who turned up just to see the team train the day before, are grateful to catch a glimpse of their heroes....

You can read the rest of this article on Dr Felipão and Mr Scolari on the Soccer Fusion site here.

Neymar Happy To Shoulder Brazil's Great Expectations

After last week’s friendly against Panama, the Brazilian TV reporter had only one thing on his mind. And there was only one player he wanted to talk to about it.

“The pressure, Neymar, how are you dealing with all the pressure?” he asked when his target finally appeared.

Neymar shrugged, his eyes flicking from side to side in that now familiar street urchin, Artful Dodger way. “Why should I worry about pressure?” he grinned. “Being here is a dream come true. I’m going to enjoy myself.”

It was a typically carefree answer from a player who seems to take everything in his stride, from making his Santos debut at only 17 to his big money move to Barcelona just over a year ago. Sometimes it is hard to remember that Neymar is only 22. For Brazilian football fans at least, he seems to have been around for ever.

Yet in a few days’ time he will need all the happy-go-lucky spirit he can muster. It is doubtful that a team has ever been under quite as much pressure to win the World Cup as Brazil will be this summer. 

This article on Neymar, pressure and other stuff appeared in The Independent on Sunday. You can read it here.

Manaus Special

It is a galaxy far, far away from the alien-mother ship bulk of the gleaming Arena Amazonia World Cup stadium. Hidden in the scruffy Manaus suburb of Petropolis lies the CIAN soccer field – barren white sand dotted with the occasional unfriendly rock, most of the right wing a marshy quagmire. A rusting, disused amusement park hulks behind one goal, and after the park lie the standard crooked alleys and cramped, dilapidated houses of a poor Brazilian neighbourhood. Before kick-off, the pitch is dotted with boys flying cheap plastic kites under the sweltering Amazonian skies.

The Amigos do Tucha team is first to get here. While they wait for their opponents Santos (boasting the same kit as that worn by Pele, Robinho and Neymar) to arrive, the players sit or stand amongst the overgrown grass on the other side of the road. All are in their mid-thirties and forties. Not all, it’s fair to say, have managed to retain the trimness of their younger days.

The teams are about to play a group phase game in the Petropolis Sporting League, a neighbourhood competition. Both have already qualified for the next round, making the tie something of a dead rubber. Perhaps because of this, Amigos do Tucha start a few men short. “The other players are probably off playing in more important games,” explains Carlos Cavalcanti, the league organiser. “Some of them play three games a day, sometimes....”

This article on the famous Peladão amateur football competition in Manaus was one of three World Cup build-up pieces I wrote on the city for ESPN. You can read them here, here and here.  

Tuesday, 3 June 2014

Fred Interview - The Independent

Surrounded by global superstars such as Messi, Ronaldo and Neymar, the name of the striker who hopes to fire Brazil to World Cup glory might have more than a few casual football fans rushing to Google. But as Brazil prepare to take on Panama tonight in their penultimate friendly before the tournament begins, striker Fred, who plays for Brazilian club Fluminense, intends to change that.

“We’re extremely confident,” he says. “This might be the most important World Cup ever for Brazil. After all, the last time the World Cup was held here we lost. Now we want to exorcise the ghosts of 1950.” He is referring to the “Maracanzo”, the Brazilian nickname for the final game of the 1950 World Cup, when the hosts were stunned by Uruguay in front of 200,000 expectant fans at the Maracana...

You can read the rest of this interview with Seleção striker Fred in The Independent here.

Wednesday, 28 May 2014

Inside The Organizadas

In a dimly lit concrete bunker on a deserted side street, not far from the Arruda soccer stadium in the Brazilian city of Recife, Paulo Cesar Cunha is holding his cell phone over his head and talking quickly. "When I leave the stadium, I hold my phone like this," he says, his eyes glinting. "I see the police watching me, and I say come on, hit me if you want. I'm filming you. And I won't put it down until I get to my car. It's how I defend myself."
It is a clammy, rainy Friday night in early May. Cunha, tall, heavily muscled and thirtysomething, wears a baseball cap, gold chain and baggy clothes, which gives him the look of a pissed-off b-boy. He is the president of Inferno Coral, a torcida organizada, which is the Brazilian term for an organized fan club, or, depending on your point of view, dangerous gang of lower-class hooligans. The Inferno are fans of Santa Cruz, the best supported soccer club in Recife, the state capital of Pernambuco and one of Brazil's 12 World Cup host venues. The U.S. national team will play Germany here on June 26th, but Paulo will not be at the game. "The World Cup isn't for me, or him, or him," he says, about his friends and fellow Inferno Coral senior leaders (known as "directors"). "It's for the middle classes and the tourists. And they're using it to squeeze us out."

You can read the rest of this article on the Rolling Stone website here

Monday, 26 May 2014

A Beer Before Lunch in Recife

May has not been a good month for the World Cup host city of Recife, where the USA national team will play Germany in its final, and possibly decisive, group game on June 26th. Three weeks ago, after the Santa Cruz v Parana Serie B game, three fans linked to the Santa Cruz torcida organizada (organized fan club or hooligan gang, depending on your point of view) Inferno Coral, dropped a toilet from the top deck of the Arruda stadium onto the street below, where it struck and killed a supporter of Santa’s city rivals Sport.

It was the latest in a series of violent incidents involving the organizadas of the city’s three professional clubs, Santa Cruz, Sport and Nautico, and made negative headlines around the world.

Then two weeks ago the city’s military police went on strike, seeking a salty 50% wage increase. Large parts of Recife descended into lawlessness, with widespread looting in the suburbs and a total of 27 murders in 48 hours. The Brazilian government sent in the army to restore calm, and soon there were tanks and armored cars patrolling the streets. The strike has now been called off, and some kind of peace has returned to the city.

“I told my friends back home it was like the O.K. Corral,” says Stacey De Melo, a 33-year-old English teacher from New Bedford, Massachusetts, who has lived in Recife for two years. Then she laughs and sheepishly apologizes, explaining that she doesn’t want to give too negative an impression of the city...

This profile of Brazil's greatest city Recife appears on the Sports Illustrated website here