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.

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.

Video

Greatest passers of the game: Willem Van Hanegem

The best passer you probably have never heard of. Van Hanegem was the creative center of the famed Dutch midfield in 1974. A slow player with no right foot and an unlikely genius technically, Feyenoor great Van Hanegem lit up the 1974 World Cup as shown in this great compilation by Zouzinho. Fans of the current passing central midfielders like Xabi Alonso, Steven Gerrard, and Xavi Hernandez will appreciate the exquisite skill shown here.

On the managerial adaptability of Sir Alex Ferguson

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Photo by The Last Moorish King on Flickr

Sir Alex Ferguson announced his retirement this week. After 26 years in charge of Manchester United, during which he won 13 league titles and a staggering 38 trophies, we can safely say that Sir Alex may be the last of his kind. With such a rich and varied career it is difficult to focus on one, or even a few, things he was best at. So here is very simply what I appreciate most about the great Scot: his adaptability.

Football is cyclical. Arsene Wenger is an excellent example of a similarly able manager who has gone through peaks and troughs as his team has. With all due respect to the Frenchman, his greatest managerial achievements coincided with Arsenal’s golden generation about a decade ago.

Sir Alex largely avoided prolonged mediocrity and has almost always been at or near the top. While you could argue the class of ’99 was a golden generation, Sir Alex has won with less (and arguably more) over a quarter-century, and it would be a pity to name that team his greatest and most memorable achievement. His greatest ability has been to identify the strengths in his squads and build campaigns around key players and key positions on the pitch. His sides have always promoted that football is at its best a team game and that the team can be greater than the sum of all of its parts.

Who will follow him up? The simple answer: David Moyes. But in spirit, Sir Alex leaves a very large void as a long-term manager in an increasingly money and results-driven short-term football landscape. As football fans, we must hope a new high-profile long-term manager arises. As Cristiano Ronaldo tweeted recently: Thanks for everything, Boss.

How we went from el clasico to der klassiker in eight days

At the beginning of last week, the odds were pointing at an all-Spanish final in the Champions League. After the draw I wrote about how the German sides should counter what were the Spanish sides that were favored to beat them. And counter they did. Here’s how they did it.

Bayern 7 – Barcelona 0

Such a one-sided number can be used to refer to domination of shots, corner kicks, fouls, etc. But unfortunately for Barcelona, they were outscored by seven goals. The only major offensive stat that Barcelona dominated over both legs was possession, with 63% and 57% in the first and second matches respectively.

This was no different a strategy than that which I had suggested.

Bayern are actually a team that can counter Barcelona’s midfield possession game, but if Heynckes has been observing the last few rounds he’ll go for the counterattacking strategy despite playing the first leg at home after seeing PSG go home on away goals.

Bayern took full advantage of Barcelona’s conspicuously absent high-pressure, and used their skillful midfielders not to dominate the match but rather to pressure and counterattack with the kind of danger everyone from Celtic to Celta has done this season. Rather than taking the side head on, Heynckes allowed a Barcelona diminished by injuries and an apparent lack of tactical nous to sputter, stall, and fall flat. And the German sides’ goals rained in from there.

Klopp 4 – Mourinho 0

While the first tie saw the use of a familiar tactic against Barcelona, the second showdown of the tournament between Dortmund’s Jurgen Klopp and Madrid’s Jose Mourinho was just as interesting as the first. Back in the first round I had commented (before this blog’s existence) that Klopp out-Mourinho’d Mourinho by playing the same lightning fast counterattacking strategy that saw Madrid set records last season. A lot had happened between the ties, Madrid had found form and were odds-on favorites to win the tournament. But the matches here were played in the exact same fashion.

Dortmund again gave the ball to a Madrid side that would rather counter, and were slightly out-possessed by an opponent that looked as uncomfortable attacking as defending. The first leg was characterized by two periods of concentrated attacking pressure by Dortmund that led to Lewandowski scoring a hat-trick in the first ten minutes of each half. Dortmund pressured high and interrupted Madrid’s buildup, man marking Alonso while Gundogan (who had been man marked by Pellegrini) was allowed free reign to dominate the midfield, shifting the momentum in their favor. Down low, Dortmund cut out passing lanes and largely avoided danger.

The second leg saw Mourinho field a more adventurous midfield with the reintroduction of Di Maria allowing Modric and Ozil to play in their most fruitful positions. But despite an initial lapse in concentration from Dortmund, Madrid missed four clear chances in the first half before Dortmund again shut them down. Switching to a fabled three-man defense and scoring two late goals was not enough to overturn a three goal deficit and make up for another 180 minutes where Klopp out-foxed Mourinho.

Der Klassiker

I realize this is not the name of the of the rivalry between Borussia and Bayern, but in light of the two best teams in the tournament beating the odds and preventing el clasico in the final, I think we are poised for a classic game. A lot has been said about the end of respective eras, as much for Barcelona where I don’t think it applies, to Real Madrid as Mourinho all but confirmed his imminent exit, to Borussia who appear about to raided in the transfer market. But I’ll save these thoughts for future posts in anticipation of the delightful final in a few weeks.