One year ahead of the World Cup, host nation Brazil had its coming out party with a convincing win over Spain in the Confederations Cup while locals rioted in the streetsFor all those tantalizing tourist snaps of bronzed bodies and gleaming beaches, Brazil – at least right now – is a nation prepared to ditch its laid-back image and fight for a cause.
And now it has a soccer team to match.
The fierce riots that sparked up around this beautiful South American country over the past few weeks have been a constant subplot to the Confederations Cup, with tear gas used to quell another outbreak on Sunday, even filtering up and into the iconic Maracana Stadium.
Yet as the host nation lifted both the trophy and the spirits of its citizens with a stunning 3-0 demolition of World Cup holder Spain in Rio de Janiero – doing so with a performance built around tenacity and desire – it was almost as if the team had somehow tapped into the current national mentality.
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Twelve months out from what will surely be a spectacular World Cup in these parts, this present incarnation of the Brazil national team appears to have a harder edge to it than some of its predecessors and is prepared, when necessary, to sacrifice some style points in search of ultimate success.
Such an approach might not have met much favor with Brazil’s soccer-crazed populace at a different time, with generations past carrying the expectation of not just victory, but that it be executed with verve and panache. Current political sentiment, though, reflects a more practical ethos. Just as the rioters want to see tangible results such as reduced transport fares and more equality in society, so too do soccer fans want nothing short of the World Cup trophy next summer, however it is attained.
The way it got the job done in the Confederations Cup final was to get into the trenches, using physicality and intensity to knock Spain out of the passing rhythm that confounded everyone else during the last two European Championships and the 2010 World Cup.
Meanwhile, a vocal home crowd sat roaring its approval. Home advantage is one of soccer’s great intangibles: everyone knows it exists but no one is quite sure why. Perhaps there's never been a greater example of it here, and it makes Brazil even more dangerous looking ahead to next summer.
It took less than two minutes for Brazil to set the tone, Fred reacting quickest amidst penalty area mayhem to clip the ball past Iker Casillas despite having stumbled to the ground.
For Spain, which has built its dynasty of glory through error-free organization, it was a shock to the system. Yet even more surprising was the way in which Brazil came after the Spaniards, with ferocious tackling, relentless pressure and a healthy dose of rough-housing.
By the end of the first half, Brazil was firmly in control, with Neymar having smashed home the second goal just before the break.
Whatever the result here, it is too early to anoint Brazil, or indeed any other team, as being a clear favorite for 2014. Despite this setback, Spain has too much tournament experience to be discounted, while Germany is in a vein of form as rich as any.
However, this was nothing short of a monumental signal of intent.
Brazil fans have lost count of the times when it has gone into a World Cup as favorite, only to bomb out unexpectedly. It happened in 1998, again in 2006 and once more in 2010.
Whereas the supposed lack of quality in the team was deemed to be chronic as recently as last year, the biggest danger now might be complacency. What made this victory and the manner of it possible was that Brazil, compared to its predecessors, does not come with an in-built air of superiority and accepts that it needs to scrap and battle like mere mortals.
It will need to do so again if it wants to have a night even more glorious than this on July 13, 2014. Brazil is not yet back on top of the world, but this sure as heck felt like a step toward it.
Martin Rogers is a soccer columnist for Yahoo! Sports