Hosts feeling the pressure already
31 May ~ The judicial order which had temporarily suspended Sunday's friendly with England in the Maracanã was the latest glitch in Brazil's World Cup planning. Now overturned with the necessary safety certificates presented, it marks another embarrassing episode in the run-up to the World Cup. Much of the stadium's surroundings still resemble a building site just days before the first effective test event, with the ground scheduled to host the finals of both the 2013 Confederations Cup – in June – and 2014 World Cup.
It adds to the tension between FIFA and Brazil over stadium delays generally, as well as more specific problems such as the torn roof in Salvador's Fonte Nova Stadium.
Brazil's preparations have involved club-country wrangling with Bayern Munich over the availability of Dante and Luiz Gustavo, as well as a staggered turn-out due to the Copa Libertadores commitments of Fluminense and Atlético Mineiro. But arguably the biggest distraction of all has been Neymar's move to European football, a fixation that underlines the lack of star quality elsewhere in the team. The 21-year-old has struggled to impress in national colours but, despite this and a slump in club form, Brazil's chances of a sixth World Cup title are widely believed to depend on their Barcelona-bound starlet.
The faith in Neymar's virtuosity only partly masks deeper misgivings about the direction of the team, yet to record a meaningful win under the returning coach, Luiz Felipe Scolari. Without the mettle-testing South American qualifiers, Brazil have taken on tougher opponents this year (Italy and Russia among them) than at times under Scolari's predecessor Mano Menezes, but without discernible progress. There is also confusion over the tactical direction sought by Scolari, with some hoping to see David Luiz morphing into the Edmílson-style midfielder of Brazil's 2002 World Cup winners. Scolari's preference for Fluminense striker Fred, largely a penalty area finisher, raises questions about its compatibility with a more mobile front line.
The forthcoming friendlies against England and France provide further tests ahead of June's Confederations Cup. Scolari has already courted unpopularity by omitting Kaká and Ronaldinho, with the latter's exclusion particularly slated in the Brazilian media. While Ronaldinho was unimpressive at Wembley in February, he has pulled the strings in Atlético Mineiro's Copa Libertadores campaign. Another Atlético player, Bernard, and Paris Saint-Germain's Lucas could also contribute to a more adventurous Brazilian team. The pro-Ronaldinho lobby is far from universal; others feel veterans such as Grêmio's Zé Roberto or Coritiba's Alex could add composure and creativity.
Public interest ahead of Sunday's game is generated more by curiosity over how the R$1.2 billion (£370 million) has been spent on the Maracanã revamp – the venue has been closed since September 2010 – rather than anticipation of what may be served up by Sunday's teams. Brazilians are generally more enthusiastic about the Premier League than the English national team, although the historic nature of the match is reinforced by the nearly 30-year wait for England to return to Rio. Both the stadium and the host team look worryingly incomplete with time running out. Robert Shaw