Brazil Meets Spain In Dream Final of Confederations Cup


May 30, 2012; Landover, MD, USA; Brazil forward Neymar (11) celebrates after scoring a goal on a penalty kick against the USA in the first half at FedEx Field. Mandatory Credit: Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

On Sunday in Rio de Janeiro, the world will get a very small taste of the spectacle that awaits us all a year from now at Brazil 2014. As the Spanish masters of the midfield will be at the Estádio do Maracanã to do battle with Neymar and el Jogo Bonito of Brazil.

-Brazil vs. Spain-  Sunday 3pm pst, ESPN.

Since 2005 the Confederations Cup has been hosted by the nation that will hold the World Cup a year prior to the big dance. It features the champions of all six continents, the reigning World Cup champion and the host nation. The tournament acts as an important test drive for stadiums, infrastructure, protesters, Kobe Bryant and anyone else preparing for the 2014 World Cup.

This year’s tournament has been extremely entertaining, and this delicious final gives us the best national team of its generation playing a country that many people feel is inseparable from the sport itself, right in Brazil’s beating heart of Rio de Janeiro.

La Furia Roja has offered the world its own version of the Beautiful Game with pass-masters such as Xavi Hernandez and Andres Iniesta, a team heavy on technique that makes you feel fortunate to ever touch the ball and will literally try and pass it all the way into your net. Spain is the favorite to win again in 2014, after having won an unprecedented three straight major tournaments (Euro 2008, 2012 and World Cup 2010).

Jun 8, 2013; Miami Gardens, FL, USA; Spain midfielder Andres Iniesta (6) dribbles the ball against Hait during the second half of a friendly at Sun Life Stadium. Spain won 2-1. Mandatory Credit: Robert Mayer-USA TODAY Sports

Brazil turned away from its roots at the 2010 World Cup under its defensive-minded coach Dunga. Playing a pragmatic, physical and utterly un-Brazilian style, the Selecao were bounced in the quarterfinals by the Netherlands.

Brazil qualifies automatically for the 2014 World Cup as the host nation, so while other South American countries have been battling in World Cup qualifying, Brazil has played a series of high profile friendlies against teams all over the world, and it hasn’t looked that impressive while doing so. But the Brazilians have played better since the return of Luiz Felipe Scolari in November, the coach who led the five-time World Cup champion to its last title in 2002.

Brazil’s talent pool at the moment is deeper than it was in 2010, although the Selecao’s abundant riches in decades past still make the great players of today seem quite ordinary.

The brightest young star on the planet, in any sport, is Brazil’s best player, 21 years old, with style to spare as he floats into the box from the left wing, Neymar and his bag of tricks will be in Barcelona next fall. His longtime club in Brazil, Santos, sold him to the Spanish giant for between $50 and $100 million, depending upon who you believe.

Brazil’s starting 11 also includes Oscar, a 21-year-old attacking midfielder, and David Luiz, a versatile player in central midfield and defense who looks a lot like Sideshow Bob from the Simpsons. Marcelo and Dani Alves are aggressive fullbacks charging up opposite wings, while Brazil’s captain is Thiago Silva, who may be the top central defender in the world.

Two of the Selecao’s attacking players have no semblance of Brazilian rhythm and movement, Hulk, who has a cannon for a left foot but doesn’t combine well with other players; the other is Fred, a striker who was the 2012 MVP of Brazil’s top league. For me, Fred is the perfect forward for Brazil, which features creative youngsters playing fluid positions. He’s disciplined in his location, doesn’t need much of the ball to score and his consistency borders on boring. Fred also holds the ball, and will look for others, augmenting Brazil’s assets instead of uncorking 40-yard bombs, like Hulk. Lucas Moura is a devastating young winger with speed and skill who many fans in Brazil would like to see replace Hulk in the starting 11, and I couldn’t agree more with their preference.

Brazil appeared headed for underdog status as host to the World Cup next year, but its recent momentum, and excellent form at the 2013 Confederations Cup, has bolstered everyone’s confidence. Beating Spain would be icing on the cake, although it could raise expectations for next year’s World Cup a bit too high.

Jun 3, 2012; Arlington, TX, USA; Brazil defender Marcelo Vieira (6) defends against Mexico midfielder Pablo Barrera (7) during the second half at Cowboys Stadium. Mexico shut out Brazil 2-0. Mandatory Credit: Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

For Spain its all about maintaining a level of excellence we may never see again in our lifetimes.

This is a game Vicente del Bosque’s troops will want to have, if only to own the psychological advantage if they have to face Brazil a year from now, when so much more will be at stake. Del Bosque has lots of decisions to make after a grueling victory over Italy on Thursday. A match that went to penalty kicks still scoreless, and could well affect Spain’s performance and energy levels.

Fernando Torres played poorly up front and Pedro was average on the wing, while substitutes Jesus Navas and Javi Martinez were two of Spain’s best players. Spain has been playing with only one defensive mid, Sergio Busquets, but del Bosque normally starts two holding midfielders, so Martinez could be added. Even though Navas was the best player on the field after coming on against the Azzurri, I doubt he’ll start against Brazil. Navas’ speed and darting runs are even more effective against tired legs as a sub. Jordi Alba’s had a good tournament at left back, but he got pinned back quite a bit against Italy, yet another reason for Brazil to start Lucas on the right wing, forcing the offensive-minded Alba to stay at home and play defense.

Brazil heads into this game playing with tremendous confidence, and if Spain plays as poorly as it did in the first half against Italy, Iker Casillas will be punished in the Spanish net. But I’m going to be absolutely glued to my screen for one reason only — the spectacle.

Brazil’s national stadium is hosting its first final since it was renovated, and these are two teams worthy of being associated with such a distinction. Neymar the wunderkind will be facing many of his new teammates at Barcelona, who are also stars of the Spanish national squad, as the best team this century faces the Selecao in Brazil, the all-time heavyweight champs in their own ring.

And because the next time these two proud soccer nations square off, it could well be in the very same stadium — in next year’s World Cup Final at Brazil 2014.