Brazil boss Mano Menezes would surely agree. The semi-serious Confederation Cup aside, friendlies are all he has to prepare a side for the next World Cup. Whoever the opposition and whatever the result, there is clearly value in getting his group together, working on the training ground, introducing new faces, and so on.
Recently he took his men to Central America, where a scratchy 1-0 win over Costa Rica was followed by a much more satisfactory 2-1 triumph against Mexico.
Brazil had to do things the hard way, going a goal down and then a man down when Daniel Alves was sent off, and conceding a penalty before staging a late rally to win.
There was much for Menezes to savour. Keeper Jefferson pushed his claims, left back Marcelo capped his recall with an excellent winning goal – after the equaliser came from a Ronaldinho free kick, the first time he had been on target for the national team in four years. He also gave his best performance in that time, orchestrating possession from deep in central midfield.
But being on national team duty meant that Ronaldinho missed two rounds of Flamengo’s title challenge in the Brazilian Championship. He was not the only one. Also in the title race, Botafogo lost Jefferson, Vasco had to do without centre back Dede, Corinthians were missing midfielder Ralf, attacking midfielder Lucas and centre forward Fred were absent from the line ups of Sao Paulo and Fluminense respectively.
Last year’s Libertadores winners Internacional, pushing to qualify for next year’s version of the competition, were without World Youth Cup hero, attacking midfielder Oscar. Santos, who have suffered so much this season with international call ups, were once again missing Neymar. And Atletico Mineiro’s fight against relegation was hampered by the absence of centre back Rever.
It is extraordinary that the Brazilian Championship does not pause for FIFA dates. Until recently it was hardly a problem – the entire national team squad would be drawn from European clubs. But Brazil’s economic boom has considerably raised the level of the local game. Established stars (such as Ronaldinho) can be brought back from Europe earlier than before, while up and comers (like Neymar) are staying put for longer. And so now the national squad contains many more home based players, leading to a club versus country conflict that shows no signs of going away.
The 2012 Brazilian Championship is likely to suffer similar problems, since next year’s calendar is very unlikely to include pauses for FIFA dates. There is simply no room for them.
Absurdly, some elements of the Brazilian press pointed the finger of blame at Costa Rica for harming the most exciting National Championship in years. The real villain is closer to home – the inclusion in the domestic calendar of the thoroughly obsolete State Championships, played from January to mid-May, which pit the big teams against opponents so insignificant that they barely exist in any recognisable professional context.
In addition to killing the start of the National Championship (a league competition needs a pause beforehand) and making it impossible for major Brazilian clubs to take part in high prestige international pre-season tournaments, the continued existence of the state competitions is now forcing the stars to miss vital league games. If a 38 round league begins in late May and ends in early December, there is no space to pause for FIFA dates.
One of the burning questions in Brazilian football is this – how much longer will the clubs put up with a structure that so blatantly goes against their interests?
More burning questions surround the build up to the 2014 World Cup. How difficult will the relationship between FIFA and the Brazilian government be? And more sadly and hypothetically, much better might the current situation be had President Dilma Rousseff taken charge earlier than the start of the year?
It now seems clear that the alliance forged between previous president Lula and Ricardo Teixeira, boss of both Brazil’s FA and of the 2014 Local Organising Committee, had disastrous consequences in terms of planning for the World Cup.
Teixeira successfully lobbied for 12 host cities but then would not take the political risk of choosing them, passing the responsibility to FIFA. So years were wasted and the costs of staging a bloated tournament inevitably spiralled – while the government, who would have to pick up the bill, stood idle. In the interests of the Brazilian taxpayer Lula should probably have argued for fewer cities to be used, and should certainly have demanded that they be defined sooner.
Made of sterner stuff, Dilma Rousseff has made it abundantly clear that she has no time for Teixeira. In terms of planning, the damage has already been done. Where she seems able to make a stand is on the issue of sovereignty. Half price tickets for old people, for example, is a measure guaranteed by Brazilian law. FIFA want it dropped for the World Cup, as well as the relaxation of a ban on beer sales inside stadiums and stiffer penalties for those involved in pirate merchandise.
If any country in the footballing world has leverage against FIFA it is Brazil, and it will be fascinating to see how much of this power Dilma Rousseff brings to the negotiating table in the build up to 2014.
By Tim Vickery