BRASILIA, BRAZIL – Brazil eased to a 3-0 win over Japan at the Estadio Mane Garrincha to open the 2013 Confederations Cup on Saturday.
Neymar scored for the hosts after just three minutes and Brazil never looked back. But for all the joy inside this expensive new stadium at the result, events outside of it continued to cast a pall. Protests - driven in part by the cost of this stadium, this tournament, and the upcoming 2014 World Cup - continue to spread across the nation.
Several thousand protesters flooded Brasilia's city center on Saturday, then marched on the stadium where they were met by lines of police horses and security forces. Similar protests took place simultaneously in Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro. Local media reported that rubber bullets and tear gas were used against the protesters in Brasilia, injuring between 22 and thirty people. However, we saw no such violence in the immediate run-up to the match.
As for the game: it was skilled but slow, somewhere between a friendly and a summer competition. Both teams declined to tackle, and for long stretches Brazil's evident weaknesses at the back were unchallenged.
That suited the hosts just fine. They entered the tournament on a high after beating France 3-0 in a warmup, but have looked ragged at the back and undercooked up top. Both qualities were in evidence on Saturday, with Hulk having a particularly disappointing outing, and had Japan a bit more flair, they would have exploded into the space David Luiz routinely left. As it was, more often than not, the hosts were able to recover, with Thiago Silva playing cleanup.
Yet there was plenty of good, and it sprung from the young superstar, Neymar. Neymar's goal, a fine half-volley to the top corner set up by Marcelo and Fred, was the third-fastest in the tournament's short history, and it may prove an immediate tonic. Certainly the relief it brought was palpable. So much pressure has been placed on the boy wonder in the run up to the games that when his teammates surrounded him after the goal, their celebrations had the air of an exorcism.
The 21-year-old, soon to join a star-studded lineup at Barcelona , came off his goal with aplomb, threading together an impressive performance. Neymar was simply unstoppable, at the heart of every Brazilian attack and a source of constant delight to the crowd. Every touch was greeted with an expectant roar, every flick with applause. When Neymar walked over to take a corner early in the second half and gave a little bow to the end, he was met with rapturous applause. And when he was removed by Luiz Felipe Scolari midway through the second half, the decision was jeered.
Neymar's sparring partner was Oscar, who also gave a performance belying his age. Shifting the point of attack all game long, he was a constant thorn in defender Yasuyuki Konno's side, pushing and prodding the centerback into untenable positions. When Oscar scampered down the left flank, he drew three minders, opening up alleys for Fred and Hulk. When he caromed down the right, he allowed Marcelo time and space on the opposite flank, and more often than not, a shot on goal for Brazil as a result.
Paulinho and Jo would add to Brazil's tally with superb individual efforts. Right after the second half break, Dani Alves threaded a pass in to Paulinho, who collected, turned and fired through Eiji Kawashima. The keeper should have done better on the goal, but there is no denying the quality of the shot. Manchester City outcast Jo would add the capper late, slotting the ball through Kawashima's legs on a stoppage-time break.
For Japan, the good news is that their toughest game is now over. It is never easy to face the hosts in an opener, and Japan did not embarrass themselves. But manager Alberto Zaccheroni will be concerned that he got so little out of his three biggest stars: Shinji Kagawa, looked like he was badly feeling the effects of a title-winning season in Manchester, Yasuhito Endo and Keisuke Honda were shadows of their normal selves. Japan must now recover to play Italy in Recife next Wednesday, while Brazil faces Mexico in Fortaleza.
Before the match, FIFA President Sepp Blatter called for ''respect'' and ''fair play'' after fans loudly jeered him and Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff. Fans booed Blatter and Rousseff the moment their names were introduced at the National Stadium,and also when they made their speeches officially opening the World Cup warm-up tournament.
The jeers seemed louder after Blatter spoke. Before Rousseff started talking, Blatter said, in Portuguese: ''Friends of Brazilian football, where is the respect and the fair play, please?''
While Blatter has been booed during appearances at stadiums across the world, Rousseff has been a popular president in Brazil. The national team was jeered by local fans in previous matches.
The Confederations Cup continues tomorrow with two games as Mexico face Italy in Rio while Spain take on Uruguay in Recife.
Brazil: Julio Cesar, Dani Alves, Thiago Sliva, David Luiz, Marcelo, Fred (Jo, 81), Neymar (Lucas, 74), Oscar, Luiz Gustavo, Paulinho, Hulk (Hernanes, 75).
Japan: Eiji Kawashima, Keisuke Honda (Takashi Inui, 89), Yuto Nagatomo, Atsuto Uchida, Yasuhito Endo (Hajime Hosogai, 78), Hiroshi Kiyotake (Ryoichi Maeda, 51), Shinji Okazaki, Shinji Kagawa, Yasuyuki Konno, Makoto Hasebe, Maya Yoshida.