Climate Change: A Brasil World Cup 2014 First Round Preview affected by the weather

The Brasil 2014 edition of the World Cup is upon us and while everyone is talking about FIFA’s corruption, pre-tournament injuries, and Brazil as heavy favorites, not enough are talking about what could be a deciding factor: the weather.

Brazil is a country slightly larger than the (continental) United States, boasts a population of 200 million people, and has a staggering 17 cities with over one million residents. This is presumably one of the reasons they decided to host the tournament in twelve cities, including some very remote ones.

Image: wikipedia

Brasil 2014 Host Cities (Image: wikipedia)

The tournament venues can roughly be divided into two groups: The Southeast and The North/Rest of Brazil. The former, which is the home of the Brazil we all know and is the center of the country culturally, politically, economically, in football terms, and is simply where you want to play. The heat and humidity of the North and interior of the country is most certainly an undesirable draw.

The North/Rest of Brazil (June temp avg hi/low in Celsius, precipitation) – an undesirable draw

Fortaleza – 29/22 160mm
Cuiabá – 31/17 15mm
Recife – 28/21 392mm
Manaus – 31/23 114mm
Natal – 28/21 210mm
Salvador – 26/22 251mm

The Southeast of Brazil (June avg hi/low in Celsius, precipitation) – a mild winter

São Paulo – 22/12 56mm
Rio de Janeiro – 25/19 81mm
Brasilia – 25/13 9mm
Porto Alegre – 19/11 132mm
Curitiba – 18/8 99mm
Belo Horizonte – 25/13 15mm

What follows is a group preview based largely on what we’ll call the Climate Draw, which we’ll use to assess the chances for success or failure of the countries involved following the basic principle that adverse climate conditions favor the weaker team, and that non-European countries will be more used to hot/humid conditions.

Group A Brazil (São Paulo, Fortaleza, Brasilia) Croatia (São Paulo, Manaus, Recife) Mexico (Natal, Fortaleza, Recife) Cameroon (Natal, Manaus, Brasilia)

This is one of the harder groups in the tournament, featuring no less than the hosts and favorites, as well as three other sides with notable talent. No surprise that Brazil got the kindest draw of the group and should win rather easily. The second spot is up for grabs considering that while Croatia have the best midfield, their game will be stifled by the conditions in their second and third matches. Mexico got the worst draw but along with Cameroon should not be as affected by the conditions.

Prediction: Brazil and Mexico qualify

 

Group B Spain (Salvador, Rio de Janeiro, Curitiba) Netherlands (Salvador, Porto Alegre, São Paulo) Chile (Cuiabá, Rio de Janeiro, São Paulo) Australia (Cuiabá, Porto Alegre, Curitiba)

This is a group of death featuring the 2010 finalists and one of the dark horses of the tournament in Chile. Each play a hot game in the first match day followed by two cooler games. No one is expecting much from Australia here, so the second spot, behind Spain should be in dispute between Chile and the Netherlands. With Holland likely dropping points in their first match, they will need a result in the final match to qualify, but it might not be enough if Chile can get their confidence in the first match and get a heroic point against Spain.

Prediction: Spain and Chile qualify

 

Group C Colombia (Belo Horizonte, Brasilia, Cuiabá) Greece (Belo Horizonte, Natal, Fortaleza) Cote d’Ivoire (Recife, Brasilia, Fortaleza) Japan (Recife, Natal, Cuiabá)

Japan got the short end of the stick with the draw here and will have to sweat it out in order to qualify. Colombia who have a Golden Generation should win the group and the second spot is very difficult to predict. The Africans will be best able to deal with the hot matches and should go through if their star players can perform.

Prediction: Colombia and Cote d’Ivoire to qualify

 

Group D England (Manaus, São Paulo, Belo Horizonte) Costa Rica (Fortaleza, Recife, Belo Horizonte) Italy (Manaus, Recife, Natal) Uruguay (Fortaleza, São Paulo, Natal)

A clear Group of Death where the climate may indeed play a decisive role. While it’s hard to count them out, Italy will face a twelfth man in terms of the heat in each of their encounters. England, for all of their complaining about having to play in Manaus, actually got the kindest draw here. If they can get at least a draw from that first match, they should be in decent shape to qualify in their final match against the Costa Ricans. The Uruguayans and Costa Ricans will be the best suited to the conditions as they come from similarly subtropical and tropical climates respectively, but the South Americans have the clear advantage in terms of quality and should go through.

Prediction: Uruguay and England to qualify

 

Group E Ecuador (Brasilia, Curitiba, Rio de Janeiro) France (Porto Alegre, Salvador, Rio de Janeiro) Suisse (Brasilia, Salvador, Manaus) Honduras (Porto Alegre, Curitiba, Manaus)

A very interesting group. Ecuador and Honduras, two countries who would otherwise have wanted to play in the heat, will play in what could be the only match with temperatures close to freezing: a night fixture in Curitiba. The Swiss have quality in their back line, but if the French can take advantage of their favorable draw, they should qualify over their neighbors. The worry for Ecuador is that they do not have the heat or altitude advantage here, but they have a highly energetic squad with excellent play on the wings and could go through if the Swiss don’t find their scoring form in two brutally hot matches.

Prediction: Ecuador and France to qualify

 

Group F Argentina (Rio de Janeiro, Belo Horizonte, Porto Alegre) Bosnia (Rio de Janeiro, Cuiabá, Salvador) Iran (Curitiba, Belo Horizonte, Salvador) Nigeria (Curitiba, Cuiabá, Porto Alegre)

There are no easy draws, but it cannot be denied that Argentina lucked out in the climate draw at the very least. Indeed, if they qualify as everyone expects them to, their path to the final would never travel north of Brasilia. With Iran being my pick for last place in the tournament, Bosnia or Nigeria will progress. The Bosnians have it tough facing the group favorites in their first match and the Nigerians in the heat of Cuiabá in the second.

Prediction: Argentina and Nigeria to qualify

 

Group G Germany (Salvador, Fortaleza, Recife) Ghana (Natal, Fortaleza, Brasilia) USA (Natal, Manaus, Recife) Portugal (Salvador, Manaus, Brasilia)

This is for many the Group of Death. The draw was kind to no one of these sides and the Germans and the Americans in particular have amongst the worst draws of the tournament. Germany have one of the best midfields in the world and while the heat favors a slow and deliberate possession game, the squad selection will be important as players like Özil and Götze are not known for their physicality and work rate, but you can’t exactly bench them for all three matches. Each of the other three sides will be more accustomed to playing in the heat, which could offset their inferiority on paper. Another factor that may prove decisive is, ironically, advertising money. While both European sides play two noon fixtures for their audience and sponsors, the US similarly has two night games and this could mean they stand an off chance to qualify in that decisive noon match in Recife against Germany. But the difference in squad strength is likely too significant and they’d have to go in needing only a draw.

Prediction: Portugal and Germany to qualify

 

Group H Belgium (Belo Horizonte, Rio de Janeiro, São Paulo) Algiers (Belo Horizonte, Porto Alegre, Curitiba) Russia (Cuiabá, Rio de Janeiro, Curitiba) South Korea (Cuiabá, Porto Alegre, São Paulo)

This is the most difficult group to predict. Belgium have a Golden Generation and a sparkling geographic draw. Only the inaugural match between the Russians and Koreans will be played in the heat, meaning that as of the second match this group will be wide open. Not many are looking for good football from Group H, but I would look out for open games between sides playing in comfortable conditions.

Prediction: Belgium and South Korea to qualify

 

This tournament will highlight why the South American game evolved the way it did. The close control, the short passing, the possession-based approach comes from playing in the alleys under the tropical sun. The compact defensive and sprint/counterattack approach employed to great effect by so many sides will be difficult to pull off in matches where chasing the ball and fast breaks will be difficult to recover from physically.

It quite literally takes a different skill-set to play in conditions described as inhuman by no less than the locals themselves. And it will be those sides with talent and adaptability for contingency that fare the best in Brazil. Those who attempt to ignore the conditions do so at their peril. But expect the unexpected and always keep the climate in mind as an equalizer between sides of varying quality.

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Are Spain trying to keep Diego Costa from Brazil?

The Spanish national team has been known since 2008 for producing one of the finest generation of midfielders in the history of the game. Indeed, they have even been known to field the six-man midfield in the absence of a striker. The absence of a target man has been so conspicuous that many forget that the Spaniards also boast the most depth in that position. The competition for the Spanish number 9 jersey is so fierce that four of the five top choices made big summer moves to get more exposure during this World Cup year.

That’s why it’s so shocking to see Spain coach Vicente Del Bosque courting La Liga’s early season revelation: Atletico Madrid’s Brazilian star Diego Costa. Long gone are the days when Spain lacked the depth of talent to resort to calling up the likes of Juan Antonio Pizzi and Marcos Sena. Conversely, Brazil may be underrated, but no one would call this a Golden Generation where second tier strikers would take their chances abroad.

Is the Spanish manager serious? Is it possible Spain are trying to keep Diego Costa from Brazil?

Spain’s next number 9? Image: Carlos Delgado

 

The Decline of the top two choices

Spain’s record scorer David Villa and his strike partner/replacement Fernando Torres have not been at their best in the four years since the last World Cup. Part of this is due to age, Villa is 32 in December, and injuries have hampered both he and Torres. Both have suffered for form due to a lack of continuity in recent seasons, and while each is still capable of genius in the course of a full season, few would start them regularly in a seven game tournament.

The ones who left the League

Fernando Llorente, Alvaro Negredo, and Roberto Soldado each left La Liga with the latter two making public statements that it was impossible to win the league without joining one of the big two. So far Llorente has mostly been a bust at Juventus, but the season is long and while Negredo seems to have a place sealed, a lot can happen over the course of the year to change that.

Spain have taken three target men to each of their last three successful tournaments: Euro 2008, WC 2010, and Euro 2012. One could argue that it’s time for the two historic starters to step aside, but Del Bosque will probably only sacrifice one, leaving two open spots for three players. This is where Costa comes in.

Diego Costa, Spain’s gain or Brazil’s loss?

Diego Costa has been a revelation in La Liga this season. He is in the form of his life, and while most in their right mind would not rate him anywhere near the level of talent and experience his Spanish counterparts, he has something none of his competitors can offer. Costa is a master of controlling the temperature of a match, the conductor of an orchestra of chaos on the pitch that can get under the skin of impressionable opponents and can be used to manipulate the referee.

When he is at his best, Diego Costa is the perfect foil to the otherwise typical narrative most Spain games take; with one-sided domination of the ball rubbing up against a 10 man wall of defenders outside of their 18-yard box. But more importantly, he is the perfect weapon against a team with more energy than Spain. The Confederations Cup final saw Brazil simply outwork Spain physically.

In Costa, Del Bosque has the kind of player that can neutralize the work of both teams and turn the game into a personal contest between himself, his markers, and the ref. So for a side that has one old guard, one upstart, and one empty spot, Del Bosque may choose the unconventional pick, the specialist, for a role that arguably needs less depth than we may have originally thought.

Either that or Del Bosque terrified of facing a Brazil featuring Diego Costa. If Costa is not called up for the final 23, we can assume the move was to keep him from Scolari’s squad. But if he is called up, he probably won’t start, but will be a specialist on the bench for emergency situations, or the eventual matchup with Brazil.

Why the Brazilian national team are criminally underrated

Better days for Kaka, but a number Brazil want to forget. Image by Roberto Vicario via Wikipedia.

With Brazil languishing in an unprecedented 22nd place in the FIFA rankings a year before they host the 2014 World Cup, the biggest headlines about Felipe Scolari’s Confederations Cup call-up were indeed the omissions of Kaká and Ronaldinho. There was no Brazilian in the top 10 scorers of any major European League last season. The country’s recent performances in friendlies, the Copa America, the Olympics, and a recent managerial change have left many scratching their heads. What has happened to Brazil?

Firstly, there is no denying Brazil are where they are because of their results, or lack thereof. And nowhere are they more criticized than in Brazil itself, but Brazilians know they should be doing much better than they are. To the average Euro-centric football fan however, the conspicuous lack of talent in the top European leagues can be just as easily explained.

The repatriation and retention of stars

The rise of Brazil as an economic power in the last decade has positively impacted their national tournament. We may react with alarm when we see a callup with only three players from the Premier League and La Liga respectively, and only 12 total from clubs outside of Brazil (compared to 20 in 2010). And while it is true that they have failed to follow up their golden generation with international superstars, it must be noted that much of their major talent now plays in Brazil.

Brazilian clubs have been able to use their monetary power to buy back players like Alexandre Pato and to set high recision clauses into contracts of young stars like Neymar, who would likely have gone to Europe much sooner and for much cheaper only a few years ago. Fred and, until recently, Neymar are perfect examples of two almost certain starters on Saturday, with the former having made a respectable European showing before returning to Brazil, and the latter having fended off European football for years due to his clubs ability to pay him well enough to at least stall a move.

The general feeling in Brazil is that talent is somewhat stunted in European football, particularly when teenage players make big money moves only to sit on the bench during their formative seasons. Many of the young prospects on this team lack European experience, but not professional experience. With so much talent in Brazil, there is reason to expect the raw flashy football many love to translate to the national team next year.

Scolari wants to maintain low profile

When Luis Felipe ‘Felipao’ Scolari took on the challenge of coaching Brazil in 2001, the side were on the verge of missing the World Cup. But what most people choose not to remember is that there were no FIFA international dates back then. Just a decade ago most elite European club sides did not allow stars like Ronaldo, Rivaldo, and Roberto Carlos to make the trip during competitive league and Champions League campaigns.

The tables have now turned, with international breaks allowing for the strongest callups and many star players back in Brazil. But the curse of every host is that they do not need to qualify. With the absence of fierce competition in the CONMEBOL qualification group, Brazil have had little opportunity to build a strong, consistent, and well-worked side for the World Cup. While the Confederations Cup presents them a golden opportunity, Felipao has stated that he wishes to use this alternative squad to test players.

It’s a shrewd move by a World Cup winner to not show his final hand, because if they bow out early as most expect them to, an underdog side with considerable talent and the home advantage may stun the world next year. If they win the Confederations Cup, they may find new talent worthy of the final squad. But more importantly it will be a lesson to the world that the home advantage is all they need, and that Brazil remain the only country able to win the tournament with an otherwise below average side. Scolari put in one of the great tournament-manager performances in World Cup history in 2002, and he’s been hired with the singular purpose of doing it again.

We are looking for stars in the wrong positions

Finally, when we think of Brazil we naturally think offense. We think of Zico, Socrates, Pelé, Rivelino, Ronaldinho, and Garrincha etc. But what if we’re looking for stars in the wrong places?

We have seen a shift in the Brazilian national team’s mentality and identity from the star-studded Jogo Bonito side that fell short of expectations in 2006, to the brutally defensive and pragmatic Jogo Efectivo side that probably exceeded expectations in 2010. Dunga failed in creating a defensive Brazil because he simply did not have good defensive players and because his personality and management style pushed away key big-name players.

Ironically, Scolari has the ability to create a solid defensive Brazilian national team with all the big-name players in tow. Thiago Silva and David Luiz rose to prominence in the years leading up to next year’s tournament, and the team is now clearly based on them. Scolari, while remembered for Brazil’s defensive performances in 2002, is an excellent man manager and is less likely than Dunga to eschew offensive talent and present the world with an imbalanced side. If they can reach a harmony between world class defenders and talented attacking players, the world will see why Brazil are a criminally underrated side in 2014.