Brazil face Japan in Confederations Cup opener
Brasilia: Brazil clash with Japan in Brasilia Saturday in the opening game of the Confederations Cup, an appetizer for the World Cup, which they will host next year.
The two-week tournament, which ends June 30, gets underway after nationwide protests over higher transport prices and amid resentment over the huge investments made for sporting events while deep social inequality festers.
A three-time winner, Brazil are aiming for a fourth title but face stiff competition from Spain, Italy, Uruguay, Mexico, Nigeria, Japan and Tahiti.
The eight teams are divided in two groups of four, with the two top teams from each group advancing to the semi-finals.
If Brazil win Group A, they will then travel to Belo Horizonte -- for a June 26 semi-final against either reigning South American champions Uruguay or African champions Nigeria, assuming current World Cup champions Spain win Group B.
But a young Brazil squad, under Luiz Felipe Scolari and currently in 22nd place in the FIFA rankings, first needs to get past four-time Asian Cup champions Japan.
"We need to beat Japan," coach Scolari said Friday. "Losing the first game puts you in an very uncomfortable position."
Brazil`s young prodigy Neymar, who has just signed for Barcelona from Santos, warned that the Japanese, coached by the hugely-experienced Italian Alberto Zaccheroni, should not be taken lightly.
The two teams have met nine times since 1989, with seven wins for the Brazilians and two draws.
The Confederations Cup is seen as a key test of Brazil`s readiness to stage its first World Cup since 1950 a year from now.
All eyes will be on Neymar, widely viewed as Pele`s heir apparent, who has come under fire from the demanding Brazilian fans for failing to score a single goal in nine games for club and country.
"We are going to do our very best to win, not only to win the Confederations Cup, but more importantly the World Cup (next year)," said the flashy 21-year-old star, with his eccentric, perpetually changing haircut.
On Friday, Scolari, who led the Selecao to a record fifth World Cup in Tokyo 11 years ago, sprang to Neymar`s defense, telling reporters: "He does not wear 11 jerseys but one -- he is part of a team.
"He has done what is requested of him with a lot of dedication," he added. "We want him to be a useful, team player -- that is what makes a good player."
The build-up to the tournament has been overshadowed by at times violent demonstrations in several cities over higher mass-transit fares and the high cost of organizing the sporting events.
Police made hundreds of arrests in Sao Paulo, Brazil`s business capital, as well as Rio de Janeiro and Porto Alegre after thousands of youths blocked thoroughfares to protest hikes in transport fares.
Authorities in Sao Paulo condemned acts of vandalism by angry youths but also promised an investigation into charges of police brutality.
In Brasilia, 400 homeless activists burned tires and blocked access to the National Stadium, one of the six host arenas for the Confederations Cup, to protest what they see a land grab by authorities to prepare for the major sporting events.
Many people are frustrated at the millions being spent on the football facilities - $475 million dollars for the Brasilia arena alone - rather than on reducing deep social inequality.
Late Friday, 200 people marched peacefully down Sao Paulo`s main Avenida Paulista, also to condemn the country`s huge investments in the sporting events.
Some 355,000 Brazilians and foreign tourists are expected to watch games in the six host cities: Brasilia, Belo Horizonte, Fortaleza, Recife, Rio and Salvador.