And then there were two. The final game in the Confederations Cup on Sunday comes down to Spain, the best team in the world, against Brazil, the best in history, in the Maracana, unquestionably one of the most evocative soccer stadiums on earth.
Even if we separate the sport from the uprising in the streets, this World Cup rehearsal has been a tough tournament. And, as host nations invariably do in modern times, Brazil has made sure its most feared opponent took the longest and most tortuous road to the final.
The semifinals - Brazil versus Uruguay, and Spain versus Italy - looked almost like exercises in organized exhaustion.
Brazil's winning goal came very late, from the head of Paulinho following a corner kick in the final moments. The wily Uruguayan coach Oscar Tabarez said he had listened some months ago to the Brazilian director of coaching, Carlos Alberto Parreira, lecturing on how to frustrate the flow of Barcelona's tika taka game by outnumbering its pass masters in midfield. So Uruguay applied that pressure to Brazil in Belo Horizonte on Wednesday evening. (Pics: Spain vs Italy)
Then on Thursday, Italy switched its formation to three at the back, five in midfield, and not only did it deny Xavi Hernandez, Andres Iniesta and company the freedom to express themselves, it was often Italy that sprang, and alas spurned, the greater scoring opportunities.
On and on it went, this second semifinal. Italy's game plan might well have broken the Spaniards' world record run of 29 competitive matches without defeat. But Italy, without the injured Mario Balotelli, ran out of steam in the equatorial heat and humidity up in Fortaleza. (Pics: Brazil vs Uruguay)
The Italians wore black armbands, and most would have known personally the former national team player Stefano Borgonovo, who died earlier Thursday from motor neuron disease at the age of 49. But Italy gave everything, the team running itself to a standstill in a scoreless two hours that, finally, had to be settled by the excruciating penalty shootout lottery.
Exhausted players stepping up one by one, holding nerve and sinew together for one last shot. Goalkeepers who could be hero or fall guy or, in this instance, simply unable to reach any of the first dozen kicks that were planted with remarkable consistency too high or too low to be saved.
And then poor Leonardo Bonucci, a defender whose primary purpose is to keep the ball out of his net, had the misfortune to be 13th in line. His nerve failed, his aim was high and woeful and over the bar. After him, Jesus Navas stepped up with a forward's aim to slot the ball low inside the post - game and semifinal to the Spaniards.
From that, we learned that despite all it has won being world and European champion, Spain still has the deep desire to go all the way even in a hot climate in effectively a mere warmup for next year's World Cup.
Brazilian fans jeered the Spanish on every field, which smacks of envy. When the players' rooms were entered and valuables stolen while Spain played an earlier match, the local media suggested that the victims had made the whole thing up.
The Spanish team under its experienced coach, Vicente Del Bosque, is not noted for seeking excuses. Indeed, it is so long now, three years and counting, that Spain has lost a meaningful contest that it would be ludicrous to complain.
Nevertheless, its journey to Sunday's last game puts it at a disadvantage. Spain played its semifinal in Fortaleza, in the north of the country, a 2,200-kilometer, or 1,400-mile, flight to Rio de Janeiro, where the final is scheduled. Brazil's match against Uruguay in Belo Horizonte was about a sixth of the distance away, and played 24 hours earlier, giving the host a full day extra to rest and recuperate. And time is of the essence, as everyone who plays in the real thing next year will appreciate and learn. Howard Webb, the English referee for the Spain vs. Italy match, had shed three kilograms, or nearly seven pounds, in weight per game keeping up with the players.
Weight loss and proper scientific recovery is obviously part and parcel of a top sportsman's lot. The teams are prepared for every eventuality, and, in Brazil's case, this rehearsal is the closest thing to competitive circumstances that the players will experience between now and their World Cup.
"This team has to face a lot of difficulties," said Luiz Felipe Scolari, Brazil's head coach. "We achieved our goal of getting to the final and giving the players a sense of unity. We have one more objective now, to win this final and to show the fans that we have a good team for the World Cup." (Related read)
Scolari is as pragmatic now as he was back in 2002, when he took Brazil to the winning post at the World Cup in South Korea and Japan. He fostered then a unity, a hard core of reliable competitors, some of whom he gradually allowed to express their individuality.
His star then was Ronaldo. It looks now as if Neymar, the 21-year-old who has just been sold by Santos to Barcelona, is his match winner. But Scolari, who resumed as coach of the national team is no fool.
The coach has been there and done it. He knows that Spain has the best collection of individuals, and the most proven game plan, possibly ever. Brazil is not a match for that, or for its own wonderful sides of 1958 and 1970.
A month ago, Scolari suffered the taunts of Brazilian fans calling him "donkey, donkey."
"We are young," the coach said before this final. "We struggle a little when it's a different game. The 2002 team was much more prepared, we had six players who had been to the previous World Cup.
"Today, we have two or three from the last World Cup. We have a lot to learn about playing with calm. There is nothing like a match to help you mature."
A match in a final, against the team no one in the world has figured out how to beat over the past three years.
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