FOXBOROUGH — They came out for Monday afternoon’s practice in jungle-green jerseys, some of them wearing DayGlo-ish footwear, and in their usual mood, which is to say tranquil. Brazil’s soccer team is habitually tranquil, particularly nine months before a World Cup that they’ll be hosting for the first time in 64 years.
Ordinarily the Selecao still would be working its way through continental qualifying, playing amid dog-whistle dins in Buenos Aires and Montevideo and Barranquilla and gasping for air in Quito and La Paz. But their host status gives the Brazilians a free pass until June 12 while dozens of other wannabes scramble for a place. That means that manager Luiz Felipe Scolari can take the long view and assemble an appropriate roster while playing friendlies.
Which is not to say that Brazil is being all that friendly about them. The five-time global champions hung half a dozen goals on the Aussies last weekend in Brasilia and just because they speak a common language doesn’t mean that they’re going to go easy on Portugal Tuesday night before what will be close to a capacity crowd of nearly 69,000 inside Gillette Stadium.
“We are not playing it like a friendly but like a three-point match,” said Scolari, whose side is facing the Portuguese for the first time on American soil. “We are playing Portugal as if it is the World Cup. We played Switzerland like that, we played Australia like that, and we have to play Portugal like that.”
The Portuguese, who still are trying to qualify for the 32-team Cup field, might have preferred to play at a more convenient time. They flew here straight from Belfast after Saturday’s 4-2 comeback victory over Northern Ireland and will be without superstar Cristiano Ronaldo, whose second-half hat trick produced a precious victory but who is staying home to deal with tendinitis.
“The Portuguese national team is not just about Cristiano Ronaldo,” said Brazilian goalkeeper Julio Cesar. “The Portuguese national team is a strong team that deserves our respect. It is a selection of tradition and has everything to be a great game.”
Scolari, who managed the Selecao to its most recent Cup crown in 2002, also was the man behind the Portuguese revival of a decade ago, when he directed them to the 2004 European final and fourth place in the 2006 Cup, knocking off the Dutch and English along the way. “For me and all the Portuguese people, we are thankful for what he did,” manager Paulo Bento said Monday. “Namely for the results that he achieved.”
If the Brazilian populace is a bit more grudging with its gratitude, it may be because the only result that matters to them comes with a golden keepsake. Brazil is the only country to qualify for every Cup since the inaugural one in 1930 and the only one to win the global title on four continents. Going two dozen years without one, as the Selecao did after Pele retired, was considered a Biblical drought. “Too many of our people still think about 1958, 1962 and 1970,” groused former manager Carlos Alberto Parreira. “We are 1994.”
It’s been more than a decade since the Brazilians blanked Germany in Yokohama for their last crown. They were shut out by the French in the 2006 quarterfinals and went out to the Dutch in the 2010 quarters. After they lost to Paraguay in the following year’s Copa America and the Olympic team was beaten by Mexico for the gold medal in London, Scolari was brought back to set things right.
This year has been about restoration, which is why Brazil’s home-soil samba through the Confederations Cup for continental champions was so reassuring to its followers. After dispatching Japan, Mexico, Italy, and Uruguay, the Selecao hammered Spain, 3-0, in the final in Rio. “Nobody expected such an emphatic result, not against the world champions,” allowed Scolari. “But let’s not get carried away.”
That Cup isn’t THE Cup, as Brazil found out three years ago when it won the former but not the latter. But the June triumph did much to lower the national blood pressure at a time of massive public discontent with the delivery of social services when billions were being spent on preparations for both the Cup and the 2016 Olympics. The Selecao, at least, was holding up its end. “The team got back its confidence this year, especially after the Confederations Cup,” Julio Cesar said.
The lineup that will take the field against Portugal is the able-bodied varsity of the moment, meaning that it will be without subpar regulars Fred, Hulk, Dani Alves, and Marcelo. “The players are fighting for a place in the team and we only have five more matches,” said Scolari. “So every match for us is very important and the match against Portugal is like that.”
They may be cultural cousins but the Brazilians and Portuguese only have played each other 19 times and just twice in the Cup — in 1966 when Eusebio and Pele (who’ll both be on hand Tuesday) went head to head in Liverpool in Portugal’s 3-1 victory and in 2010 when they played to a scoreless draw in Durban. So they’re playing now as if it’s next summer. “We will try to do what we always try to do — to win the match,” said Bento.
So will the Brazilians, whose next road trip takes them to Seoul in October. Their global tour is a substitute for what otherwise would be 18 head-knocking dates with their neighbors. Those certainly wouldn’t have been friendlies. For the Selecao, the Cup already is underway.