RIO DE JANEIRO: Both world and European champions Spain as well as Italy followed hosts Brazil’s example by opening their FIFA Confederations Cup in winning style.
Spain beat Uruguay 2-1 in Recife while the Azzurri defeated Mexico 2-1 in Rio de Janeiro’s reopened Maracana stadium.
First-half goals from Pedro and Roberto Soldado provided the foundation for Spain’s bright start with Uruguay claiming a late consolation with a superb, curling free kick from Luis Suarez which can only enhance his value with transfer talk in the air.
As for Italy, veteran playmaker Andrea Pirlo marked his 100th international by shooting them into a 27th-minute lead from a free kick of his own after a foul on Mario Balotelli.
The controversial Milan striker claimed Italy’s winning goal with 12 minutes remaining after Mexico had pulled level earlier with a penalty from Manchester United’s Chicarito Hernandez .
Brazil had launched the World Cup warm-up event by defeating Japan 3-0 in Brasilia on Saturday night and, at long last, the focus of attention had turned to the football.
The run-up to the Confederations Cup – the biggest sporting event Brazilhas ever hosted – had been plagued with all sorts of negativity. Even the Opening Ceremony could not be completed without jeers for state President Dilma Rousseff and FIFA leader Sepp Blatter.
But a mere three minutes of football were needed before Neymar,Brazil’s favourite footballing son, scored the opening goal. Suddenly the football world appeared a happier, brighter place though a lively start on the pitch has not wiped away all the worries off it.
Brazil was awarded host rights effectively by default all of six years ago. So far out that complacency set it.
Strikes by construction workers were matched by the essential legislation becoming bogged down within the parliamentary system. Former World Cup hero Romario was the most high-profile congressman unhappy with FIFA demands over ticket pricing, alcohol sales rights and sponsor protection.
Indeed, if Rio de Janeiro had not ‘won’ the 2016 Olympics it is questionable whether the World Cup project would be where it is, for all the delays. But the Brazilians have had both FIFA and the IOC chasing, harassing and – sometimes – embarrassing them.
FIFA secretary-general Jerome Valcke, in the spring of 2012, suggested the Brazilians needed “a kick up the backside.” The Brazilians reacted furiously but FIFA gained the essential reaction in terms of work on the ground.
Hence, while Valcke admits to corners being cut, the six stadia selected for the Confed Cup are opening their gates to the football. Opening them wide as well. A majority of the tickets have been sold and almost all of them to local fans for all the pre-Cup protests about the games being priced beyond reach.
Foreign supporters will be flying in this time next year with all sorts of concerns about travel, transport, hotel prices, security and all the other issues embedded in such an event as the World Cup.
How will Brazil cope on an even greater stage? The Confederations Cup will provide a crucial yardstick . . . not only for the stage itself but, now that the matches have begun, for some of the World Cup title contenders too.