For a few seconds, the entirety of Brazil held its collective breath. Across the beaches and favelas, heads jolted towards the Selecao’s training camp just outside Rio de Janeiro. There, Brazil 2014’s poster boy had dropped to the grass, clutching his ankle as a horde of worried teammates surrounded him.
Fortunately for the plans of Luiz Felipe Scolari’s men – and the tournament as a spectacle – Neymar stood up gingerly just minutes later. He looked to be untroubled by the knock in the remainder of the training session and a nation exhaled in relief.
Rather, Scolari’s anxieties are geared towards his defence. Though the ex-Chelsea manager has been applauded for bringing a clearly-defined structure and organisation to the national team since his appointment in November 2012, the backline has caused worries for him in the two warm-up matches. Brazil didn’t concede against Panama or Serbia, but the quality of opposition will pick up when Croatia try to spoil the opening party on Thursday.
The Croats will be without star striker Mario Mandzukic after his petulant sending off against Iceland in the play-offs, but the underdogs still believe they can hurt the hosts. Experienced forward Ivica Olic, who is certain to start the match, revealed that his side spotted flaws in Brazil’s defence while carrying out their homework.
Olic is a master of exploiting space and confusion in an opposition and, along with Brazilian-born Eduardo who is pushing for a place in the XI, cunning and guile could prove to be valuable assets for Niko Kovac’s men.
The next day, the Cameroonians and Mexicans will kick off their campaign in a slightly more reserved context. But the preparations of the former have been thrown into disarray and farce once again after yet another dispute about financial bonuses.
The Indomitable Lions have qualified for six out of the seven World Cups since Italia 1990, but even prior to their much-celebrated run to the quarter-finals that year, there was a clash over pay. According to Bertin Ebwelle, a left-back in that squad, bonuses were not agreed until 5am on the day before the famous win over Argentina .
It seems that Cameroon’s sporting officials didn’t learn their lesson. Almost every tournament since then, a last-minute disagreement over recompense has seen controversy smother tournament arrangements. This year, the squad refused to leave the capital city of Yaounde for South America until 6am on Monday – almost 24 hours after they had been due to depart.
As outsiders, it’s difficult not to wonder why these things weren’t agreed between every party eight months ago, when Volke Finke’s side secured qualification. Such hullabaloo will encourage Mexico, who have quietly gone about their business over the last few weeks.
Narrow defeats to Bosnia & Herzegovina and Portugal have lowered expectations after successive wins over Israel and Ecuador, but the prospects were already low after a disastrous qualifying campaign. Should they pounce on Cameroon, it could put them in the box seat for a sixth consecutive spot in the knockout rounds.