Rio de Janeiro - The World Cup is rapidly becoming a celebration of South and Central America. Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica and Mexico are all exceeding expectations and exciting the world with their style of play.
Argentina are comfortably placed and after Thursday even Uruguay have a performance of which they can be proud. But one nation from the region stands apart, unimpressive and uninspiring - and that is the most important one of all: Brazil.
The hosts, synonymous with the idea that football should be joyful, stand apart from the Carnival at present after two quite drab displays.
The laboured performance against Croatia, where a contentious penalty helped them nudge ahead, and the scoreless draw with Mexico, albeit after heroics from Mexican keeper Guillermo Ochoa, has many Brazilians worrying if their team will rise to challenge of hosting the tournament and win a sixth World Cup.
The pressure is immense. Brazilians regard World Cup wins as a birth-right and hosting the tournament has intensified that expectation, especially amid social unrest and protest, when many look to the team to be a unifying force for the nation.
There is a very real fear among the authorities that an early exit will cause the daily protests against the cost and corruption of this tournament to escalate into a mass movement. So this side carries an even heavier load than most Brazil teams. And it is clear much of the burden is falling upon 22-year-old Neymar.
Tostao, a member of the great 1970 Brazil side and now a respected newspaper commentator, wrote: “The major problem is the team’s reliance on Neymar. If he plays well, then they are ok; if not, it’s a disaster. After the first match, I though Brazil would be better against Mexico but it was as though they were letting the game pass them by, waiting for good luck.”
Emerson Leao, the goalkeeper from the 1974 and 1978 World Cup teams who captained his country and is now a renowned manager, has been a prominent critic.
“The national team have been shocking,’ he said. “Against Mexico they started too slowly, as they had done against Croatia, and they didn’t get the luck. Nobody did anything special: the defenders were lost; Oscar and Ramires were lost in midfield; and Neymar was lost. I don’t know what was happening.
“Against Cameroon on Monday all the players need to be pressing more and better focused. Neymar is a very good player but he is not alone on the pitch. All the players have to support him. In my opinion, at this moment the national team is not a united group.”
A feature of their games has been the stirring renditions of the national anthem, which has reduced some players, including Neymar, to tears.
Zico, a Brazilian great from the 1982 side who also played in the 1978 and 1986 World Cups, said: “All the players have to take care during the national anthem, because they need to have focus on the match. In the first game, I understood because the World Cup was here and the game meant a lot to Brazilian people. But they need to control themselves. I don’t understand why the players were crying against Mexico. Those kind of feelings can mean that you lose focus on the other team. If they want to become champions, they will need to concentrate on football.”
The question is what can Luiz Felipe Scolari, the former Chelsea manager and 2002 World Cup winner, do about the sluggish start? The attacking options of Fred, Hulk and Jo, who had inglorious spells at Manchester City and Everton, are hardly inspiring. Chelsea’s Willian is yet to start, which is surprising.
Scolari is an old hand, having overseen the 2002 Brazilian triumph and taken Portugal to the Euro 2004 final and 2006 World Cup semi-final. But criticism will be intense if the display against Cameroon is again mediocre.
Zico said: “I don’t know why Scolari starts with Ramires on the right. Mexico played like champions and had perfect tactics to stop midfielders. And Brazil did not react, maybe because they only played smaller teams during the preparations.”
Tostao said: “Against Mexico, Scolari had better options like Willian, Hernanes or Fernandinho, to try to get closer to Neymar, but he chose Bernard. It’s clear the national team depends a lot on the talent of Neymar, talent to create any offensive play.
“In the last game, Paulinho, Oscar, Fred, Ramires and Bernard did not have a good time. Jo moved a lot. Dani Alves was slow and Thiago Silva, David Luiz, Luiz Gustavo, Marcelo and Neymar, played well, but some way from their best. They need to show more beauty in their play, to play like champions.”
Brazil are a long way from that. The next few weeks could be very difficult if they cannot fulfil expectations.
The Mail on Sunday