6 Feb 2013

Samba boys take on England in football’s friendliest friendly

In what manner can the words “Brazil” and “friendly” go together in any meaningful sense?

The England boss Roy Hodgson hinted as much in his press conference, issuing a timely reminder that tonight’s game is but a precursor to rather more meaningful World Cup qualifiers against the mighty San Marino, and Montenegro next month.

But choose a nation, any nation, to arrange a kickaround against. Brazil surely tops the list. For do the Samba boys not embody the “friendly” that “friendly” games are supposed to be all about?

Yes, rainy old England may have defined the rules of the game for all to enjoy, but it is the sun-kissed beaches of Brazil that long ago inherited the mantle of football’s spiritual home.

So before we get on to the rather more stodgy details that may underpin both teams’ eagerness to arrange a double friendly (yes, England travel to Brazil in June for the return “leg”), let us bask in what sports fans envisage of England v Brazil, at Wembley.

Do they not play with the gleeful smiles of schoolboys told double maths has been cancelled – and they can enjoy an extra hour playing keepy-uppy in the yard? OK, so that’s perhaps seen through a somewhat rose-tinted Copacabana sunset, but you get my gist.

Everybody wants to play Brazil. Even my long-suffering sports atheist of a mother would probably understand why Brazil enjoy a special chamber in the heart of all sports fans.

Ronaldinho may have shown England to be the pretenders that they were in the 2002 World Cup with his outrageous match-winning 40-yard-lob-chip-thing over David Seaman, but Wembley is a forgiving place when it comes to witnessing genius. Expect nothing but rapture and applause when the recently recalled 32-year-old takes to the pitch tomorrow – in spite of his previous heinous crimes against English football.

Likewise the chap at the other end of Brazil’s generation game – their wunderkind Neymar, just 21 years old (this Tuesday) but routinely mentioned in the same breath as Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo.

Oh, for the spirit of a certain 21-year-old John Barnes (above) to rise up and strike fear into the hearts of the Brazilian defence. 1984, the Maracana no less, an England “friendly” against Brazil. When Brazilian defences were still Brazilian defences, not the stolid and efficient units they have since become. When an impudent young Barnesy sashayed through half the Brazilian team before scoring one of the best goals any England player has ever enjoyed. Goals like that are meant to be scored by Brazil, not against them. Goals like that are have been recreated many, many times on the damp and grey playing fields of Blighty.

Which takes us back to why tonight’s game – indeed, why both legs of these “friendlies” actually matter.

Walk up Wembley Way and it’s impossible to miss the huge banners proclaiming 150 years of footballing history. 1863, the prosaically named Ebenezer Cobb Morley drew up the rules of the game for the new-found Football Association of England. 2013, and the guardians of the game are beset with challenges to their authority from the money boys of the Premier League, and those interfering do-gooders down in Westminster. Only last week MPs told the FA to improve the way the game is governed or face possible legislation.

Call me a cynic, but two outings against the boys from Brazil (assuming England don’t get totally spanked) is a nice happy-clappy way to deliver a few smiles to the hard-pressed guardians of the game. Not that there’s anything wrong with arranging a friendly against Brazil – far from it. It’s just there may be (unwitting?) method in the FA’s madness.

For let us also not forget – and this was first and foremost in Roy Hodgson’s mind – that England have not yet qualified for the 2014 World Cup. It would surely be a shocker, but it is not inconceivable, that their visit this June for part two of this fixture will be England’s only trip to brazil for some time.

And then there’s Brazil. On the precipice of hosting not just the World Cup in 2014, but the Olympics, too, in 2016. Precipice? Why precipice? Because there is still no guarantee that the stadiums and infrastructure that Brazil promised would be in place – and has spent billions on building – will be completed in time. They are on a PR offensive, and taking the team round the world sells brand Brazil.

English football clearly won’t offer them the sternest test available – but that is as nothing to the potential benefits of visiting the home of the modern game. England’s big selling point when they bid to host the 2018 World Cup – basically, “look at all our lovely stadiums and how much our fans love eating, drinking, and living football – bring the tournament here and you won’t be disappointed” – could as well be applied to what will transpire against Brazil tonight.

It looks good for both sides. It feels good for both sides. Brazil will be welcomed here, indeed, as they should be, for they embody what most English players and fans quite openly aspire to.

So can they be friendly? Of course. Just as long as Brazil don’t try too hard. One, of course, has to congratulate Ashley Cole for reaching his 100th cap. But if the Samba boys decide to turn it on, those World Cup qualifiers will loom large. Are England good enough? Why aren’t England good enough? Where, indeed, did it all go wrong?

Even against beautiful Brazil, in a game that really shouldn’t matter, it does. The woes of the England fan are never, ever, straighforward.

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