Brazil have played 20 games under Luiz Felipe Scolari in his second spell as manager – and only two teams have managed to beat them. Switzerland did so last August, at a time when a lot of players were still involved in their clubs’ pre-seasons. And the other team was England. The 2-1 defeat at Wembley also had caveats: it was Brazil’s first game with Scolari in charge and he made several changes compared with their previous game; notably the presence of Júlio César, Ronaldinho and Fred, who were not part of the previous manager’s plans. But then the Seleção (Brazil national football team's nickname) played England again last June, a few days before the Confederations Cup, and they still could not beat them.
I attended that game at the Maracanã and was quite impressed by the way Roy Hodgson’s team performed on that day. It was a very good collective display. Individually, Wayne Rooney had a massive influence on that match. He teed up Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain for the first goal and actually put Brazil under a lot of pressure when hit a marvellous lob over Júlio César. Brazil had to work hard to get an equaliser through Paulinho. Hodgson seemed to have a simple game plan to hit Brazil on the break and it worked. The margins in football are very reduced these days so you have to seize your chances.
Of course some things have changed since then. Most notably, England have lost Theo Walcott to injury. For a team to play counterattacking you could certainly use a player with his pace. But on the positive side I see the emergence of Daniel Sturridge. I was impressed by his season at Liverpool, where he formed a dangerous partnership with Luis Suárez. He is also an important player for England because of his movement and his eye for a goal. But the player who can really make a difference in this squad is Rooney. If he is pumped up enough he can create situations to put the opposition under pressure. While Manchester United certainly had a disappointing season, Rooney scored 19 goals with 22 assists and that is not bad at all.
Steven Gerrard did not play at the Maracanã that afternoon but he is another player who has really impressed me in the last few months in his new position. His deployment in a deeper position helped Liverpool move up and down in gears and I believe his country will also benefit from this new role.
Everybody knows Gerrard became famous for his rampaging runs and more attacking profile but when he lies deep he contributes with something crucial: his passing means that the ball will be hit with more quality and that is important if you are planning to hit somebody on the break.
It’s good for England that their No1 goalkeeper, Joe Hart, seems to have got over his bad patch that marred parts of his season. I watched some Manchester City games and it was clear Hart’s confidence had been shaken. After what happened to England in the goalkeeping department in South Africa, I am sure neither the players nor the supporters will want scares again.
After all, England are going to need every department of their team to hit form to progress from their group in Brazil. There is no use sugarcoating things here: it’s a very difficult group, with three World Cup winning sides and a Costa Rica team that will not be under the same kind of pressure. In fact, we need to remember they qualified in second place in the Concacaf zone, ahead of Mexico. They will be no pushovers and that should make their games even more interesting for the outcome of the group.
With three teams of this quality and tradition together, we can expect they will “cannibalise” each other, so the result against Costa Rica could be meaningful even in terms of goal difference. Of the three world champions, I really think Uruguay have an edge as they are much more used to playing in South America. They also have Suárez in the form of his life.
Italy have picked themselves up after the first-round exit in 2010 and could be a side to give anybody problems in the tournament. But it was encouraging for England fans that Andrea Pirlo and his team-mates had to settle for penalties when the two sides met at Euro 2012. They will meet again and the Manaus game is instrumental for England. Can they do it? I think they can.
The important thing is that English football is not as predictable as it was when I was playing. People complain about too many foreigners in the Premier League but they have helped improve the game there and I don’t totally agree that competition for places is a problem for the young players – they have a chance to learn with the best.
I hear that supporters and the media in England have been quite subdued with this team and that they don’t expect much. But England have gone through a renewal process after 2010 and they are doing what they should. They have qualified for the World Cup and if they get out of that group things could get very interesting.
It is necessary to go back to the Maracanã game once again: England frustrated Brazil, didn’t let them play and both Brazil goals came from individual efforts. That kind of performance always has to be encouraging. Hodgson is doing what he can with the players at his disposal and it might be a bit premature to simply dismiss this team.
Arthur Antunes Coimbra, better known as Zico, is a former Brazilian coach and footballer. Often called the "White Pelé", he is commonly considered one of the most skilled finishers and one of the best passers ever. With 48 goals in 71 official appearances for Brazil, Zico is the fourth highest goalscorer for his national team. He represented them in the 1978, 1982 and 1986 World Cups.