It is, officially, nothing more than a friendly exhibition dubbed the Gillette International Soccer Series. But that is not how the Brazilian or Honduran national teams are approaching Saturday’s 7 p.m. game at Sun Life Stadium, a match expected to draw a near-sellout crowd of 70,000.
The 2014 World Cup is seven months away, and both teams have reason to take the game seriously.
Five-time World Cup champion Brazil is hosting the tournament next summer and is considered one of the favorites to win. With those expectations comes pressure. Intense pressure. Most every player on Brazil’s star-studded roster is battling for either a job or a starting job, so they can’t afford to coast. They want to impress coach Luiz Felipe Scolari.
They also aim to please South Florida’s passionate, savvy soccer audience. Fans here are faithful followers of the Selecao, the nickname for the Brazilian team. They are rabid fans of the Brazilian stars who make a living in Europe, as well, such as Barcelona’s Neymar, AC Milan’s Robinho, Chelsea’s Oscar and Bayern Munich’s Dante. Local fans climbed trees, scaled fences and surrounded the Brazil team hotel all week in hopes of getting photos and autographs.
Honduras is also expected to bring intensity to the match. The Catrachos qualified for the upcoming World Cup and are determined to prove they belong alongside the world’s elite teams. A good showing Saturday would do wonders for their confidence and world status.
There is also this little matter of the 2012 Olympic quarterfinal that could serve as added motivation. Honduras was coming off a shocking 1-0 win over powerhouse Spain in the previous round of the London Olympics and went up 1-0 over Brazil in the quarterfinal. That’s when the referee started calling fouls and handing out yellow cards faster than the guy selling beer in the stands.
Wilmer Crisanto was slapped with two early yellow cards, one for a disputed takedown of Neymar, and he was ejected in the 32nd minute. Honduras played a man down the rest of the match but managed to go up 2-1 in the second half before losing 3-2. There were 11 yellow cards and 42 fouls in that game.
Hondurans felt their team might have won had they had 11 men the whole game. Brazilians weren’t satisfied with the unconvincing win. So Saturday’s game will be a chance for the teams to go at it again.
“The Honduras game itself is very important for everyone; they have great players, we know that and our goal is to win the World Cup,” Neymar said. “We know that there is a lot of pressure, and that it’s practically a must. We know it will be difficult, and we must keep training hard to achieve what is a dream for us and all Brazilians. We try to play every game like it’s a World Cup final.”
Honduran coach Luis Fernando Suarez, who is from Colombia, said his team is looking forward to the challenge. His team includes four players who play in England and four from Major League Soccer.
“We are very motivated and aware of the difficulties we face when we play a rival of such high quality,” he said. “But we are also happy that we are able to be in this position because these opportunities are rare, and it’s a great chance for us to display our soccer and celebrate the importance of qualifying for the World Cup. Either way you look at it, this is a game to be enjoyed.”
Suarez said friendlies against Brazil and against Ecuador on Tuesday in Houston are great preparation for what’s to come next summer.
“Ending the year with these two high-caliber games is a prize for us,” he said. “We can’t let up on our preparation. The next year will be tough, so we look at these two matches as very important.”
One of the storylines of the game is the return of 29-year-old Robinho to the Brazilian squad for the first time in two years. Scolari invited him to replace Diego Costa, who decided to play for Spain rather than Brazil.
Neymar is delighted to play alongside his boyhood idol.
“Being with Robinho has been wonderful — you all know he’s been an idol of mine since my childhood,” Neymar said. “After he returned to play at Santos, our friendship grew, and we are still very good friends to this day. I’m glad to be seeing the joy that Robinho is showing. It’s as if it were his first-ever call-up.”
One of the new Brazilians to watch is Willian, a 25-year-old who plays for Chelsea and has had just two national team appearances.
“I was always with expectation, hopeful, waiting for an opportunity,” he said. “Thank God it happened this time; I’m very happy.”
He credited Chelsea teammates David Luiz, Ramires and Oscar for helping get him acclimated this week.
“They became very happy when I was called up; they came over, hugged me, told me that this was a happy moment and that I deserved it,” Willian said. “Then I started asking what it is like, what [Luiz Felipe] Scolari is like. They said a lot of good things about him and about the environment there. They gave me good tips. I am excited to get out there.”
Goalkeepers: Júlio César (Queens Park Rangers), Victor (Atlético Mineiro)
Defenders: Daniel Alves (Barcelona), Maicon (Roma), Thiago Silva (Paris Saint-Germain), David Luiz (Chelsea), Marcelo (Real Madrid), Dante (Bayern Munich), Maxwell (Paris Saint-Germain), Marquinhos (Paris Saint-Germain)
Midfielders: Ramires (Chelsea), Oscar (Chelsea), Paulinho (Tottenham Hotspur), Hernanes (Lazio), Lucas Leiva (Liverpool), Luiz Gustavo (VfL Wolfsburg), Bernard (Shakhtar Donetsk), Willian (Chelsea)
Forwards: Robinho (Milan), Neymar (Barcelona), Hulk (FC Zenit), Jô (Atlético Mineiro)
Goalkeepers: Noel Valladares, Jhon Bodden (Victoria)
Defenders: Juan Pablo Montes (Motagua), Brayan Beckeles (Olimpia), Arnold Peralta (Rangers), Maynor Figueroa (Hull City), Víctor Bernárdez (San Jose Earthquakes), Juan Carlos García (Wigan Athletic), Emilio Izaguirre (Celtic)
Midfielders: Jorge Claros (Motagua), Wilson Palacios (Stoke City), Edder Delgado (Real España), Boniek García (Houston Dynamo), Andy Najar (Anderlecht), Roger Espinoza (Wigan Athletic), Marvin Chávez (San Jose Earthquakes)
Forwards: Jerry Bengtson (New England Revolution), Carlo Costly (Unsigned), Rony Martínez (Real Sociedad), Jerry Palacios (Liga Deportiva Alajuelense)