KEIR RADNEDGE reports from Belo Horizonte
—- Only football can do this. After 10 days of convulsive protests about all the perceived iniquities of modern Brazilian society, the crowd in the Mineirao stadium not only belted out their national anthem at high volume but went on singing the second verse long after the public address music had finished.
The reward for their fervour was a 2-1 victory for Luiz Felipe Scolari’s team though it was hard-earned. They escaped an early penalty miss, took the lead then allowed Uruguay to ambush them at the start of the second half.
Finally it took a finely-judged header from Corinthians midfielder Paulinho from a Neymar corner to lift them into Sunday’s final in Maracana against Spain or Italy who must duel now in Fortaleza.
As the crowd and their heroes celebrated at the final whistle they did not know that shots of another sort, of tear gas, had been unleased simultaneously outside the stadium exclusion zone as police sought to rebuff a protest march estimated at more than 60,000 people.
The temper of the crowd inside the stadium had ebbed and flowed throughout the 90 minutes. Not only was this the semi-final of the Confederations Cup but the opposition were southern neighbours Uruguay with whom Brazil’s footballers always have a score to settle.
Brazil had come a long way already this year even though the oddities of the FIFA world rankings placed them at a lowest-ever 22. As World Cup hosts next year they had lacked the points potential available through competition. Now, at last, in the warm-up Confederations Cup they had capitalised on the opportunity to make up for lost time and opportunity.
Three decisive first-round victories over Japan, Mexico and Italy on the goals of Neymar and Fred had propelled them to the semi-finals and a showdown with possibly world and European champions Spain (or maybe Italy) as Sunday’s prize in Rio de Janeiro’s Maracana.
The prospect appeared to be flailing in the breeze in the 14th minute when Uruguay were awarded a penalty after David Luiz pulled back Diego Lugano while awaiting the delivery of a right-wing corner. He may get away with it in the Premier League but this time the referee, Enrique Osses, came from Chile.
Luiz was booked for protesting before keeper Julio Cesar came to his – and his country’s rescue – by pushing Diego Forlan’s penalty around the left-hand post.
At least the shock of the near-miss instilled a little more focus and decision into Brazil’s play though the game ran on comparatively scrappily considering the sum total of class and ability on view.
Hulk burst into the penalty box for Brazil only to sky his shot and Forlan responded with a waspish effort on the turn which was not far wide of Julio Cesar’s right-hand post.
Brazil then edged ahead six minutes half-time. Neymar chased down a long through ball, keeper Fernando Muslera blocked his shot but the ball ran loose and Fred, following up, mis-hit it off his right shin and into thet net.
Fred bowed to the crowd in delighted honour. The Mineiro boy could celebrate his homecoming with the goal he had promised in sentimental memory of his mother.
The lead did not last long: Four minutes to half-time and then three minutes after the restart when gritty little Egidio Arevaldo dug a route into the Brazilian box and, after the ball ricocheted loose, Cavani thumped home unerringly. Wth that one swing of his left boot the in-demand Napoli striker probably added another £10m to his transfer value.
Brazil’s fans grew restive and then roared back behind their team again after Scolari replaced the misfiring Hulk with local Atletico Mineiro hero Bernard.
Stretching Uruguay wide, with Bernard on the right and Neymar on the left, earned Brazil new command as Uruguay sought to hold what they had – an objective in which they failed with four minutes remaining.
Neymar launched a lefty-wing corner to the far post where Paulinho rose to plant a firm downward header into the net. Not only Tottenham and Real Madrid may now come in pursuit of him next week when all the Confed fuss has died down.
Brazil: Julio Cesar – Dani Alves, Thiago Silva, David Luiz, Marcelo – Paulinho, Luis Gustavo, Oscar (Hernanes 72) – Hulk (Bernard 63), Fred, Neymar (Dante 90).
Uruguay: Muslera – Pereira, Lugano, Godin, Caceres – A Gonzalez (Gargano 83), Arevaldo, C Rodriguez – Cavani, Forlan, Suarez.
Referee: Osses (Chile). Attendance: 57,483.