For Brazil Wednesday marks the countdown to a World Cup in their homeland. Misleadingly ranked 18th in the world, they still have a galaxy of stars and a manager who has done it before
Graphic: Brazil's world ranking since 2002
The first time England and Brazil met was a friendly at Wembley in May 1956, a brilliantly freewheeling victory for the hosts that was also marked by a rather touching on-field incident. England had just been awarded a dubious second-half penalty by the French referee when Brazil's Alvaro, in a state of some distress, grabbed hold of the ball and refused to give it back. Several long moments passed while his team-mates reasoned with the tearful Alvaro. Finally he relented, the kick was taken and an England team containing Stanley Matthews and Duncan Edwards went on to win 4-2. "Another victory for teamwork against brilliant individuals," the Pathé newsreel footage of the day blithely summarised, deliciously unaware that the age of Brazil's brilliant individuals, melded into a brilliant team in Sweden two years later, was already well and truly dawning.
It would be 28 years – John Barnes at the Maracanã and all that – before England next managed to win a match against football's emergent 20th century superpower, as Brazil graduated from Wembley ingénues into the role of masterly big brother, dominant partner in a relationship of affectionate, engrossing and at times rather widely-drawn contrasts. Even now, ahead of Wednesday's glamour friendly at Wembley, there is no nation England are quite so happy to lose to. And lose they have, winning twice in 22 matches since Wembley 1956. Alvaro's act of on-field grief looks oddly prescient. Insistently but almost always delightfully, Brazil have been taking England's ball away pretty much ever since.
This time around it is Brazil, rather than England, who find themselves poised on the verge of interesting times. Staged as part of the FA's 150th anniversary celebrations, a visit to Wembley also provides a starter's pistol shot on the final 16 months of epic-scale preparation for Brazil's first home World Cup since 1950. If Roy Hodgson's England find themselves in a customary period of reconstruction, this pales next to the current fug of pre-World Cup tension swirling about a Brazilian team ranked – misleadingly – 18th in the world, and with Luiz Felipe Scolari taking charge for his first game back as manager after the sacking of Manolo Menezes.
There are wider anxieties, too. From the moment World Cup-hosting duties were awarded Brazil's football-centred population – aspirations fanned by an ongoing economic transformation – has set its gaze on the tantalising prospect of a sixth World Cup triumph that would mean Brazil assume ownership of the Fifa trophy to go with the Jules Rimet pocketed in 1970. As Scolari prepares to let loose on England's defence a squad containing Ronaldinho, Neymar, Lucas Moura and Oscar it is hard to think of a host nation that has approached a World Cup finals under such concerted and multifarious pressures.
Even so England would be ill-advised to underestimate their visitors. Ronaldinho is the headline act, the enduring gaucho minx recalled to the squad a year after being dropped by Menezes and returning aged 31 as the incumbent Brazilian footballer of the year. Beyond this there are familiar faces – Júlio César, David Luiz, Ramires and Oscar are jetlag free – and an appealing blend of steel and flair to be styled into Scolari's favoured template of stiff defensive midfield behind a roving front-line. Lucas Moura, currently settling in at Paris Saint-Germain, is a genuine dribbler, while Neymar, still only 20 and still with Santos, provides the most intriguing presence among the tyros.
Beyond this Brazil remains an overwhelmingly fecund source of talented footballers. If they have been surpassed for now by Spain, Brazil's current riches are perhaps best measured in terms of sheer volume. Every year close to 1,000 players leave to make their fortune abroad, an army of footballing emigrés that is staffing all points from the leagues of the Middle East through eastern Europe, North Africa and the Americas. It is a strength in depth not lost on Hodgson as he prepares to face Brazil for the first time in his career.
"Looking at their squad, there's probably another 10 or 12 we could name that would have got in there," England's manager said. "I saw Thiago Silva play a while back and he was outstanding. Maicon's not in the squad: that's another interesting one. Neither is Lucas Leiva, who I was with at Liverpool and is a very good player."
Hodgson also had some fraternal encouragement for Scolari. "He's a very popular manager with the Brazilian press: he knows the job. With Carlos [Alberto] they have two very capable pairs of hands there. But it will be a big night for [Scolari]. I'm pretty certain Phil and Carlos Alberto will be thinking we could have had an easier start than England at Wembley. It's our job to make sure that they don't get one. It's going to be a great occasion. The players are very keen to play. "
What kind of opposition this evolving Brazil will provide remains an intriguing question. Beyond the standard flux of new manager and recalled strolling genius star player, there is a broader sense of altered gravity. One of the more notable things about Neymar, at this stage, is that he doesn't play for Chelsea, Internazionale, Real Madrid or Barcelona. Standard bearer for the new refuseniks, Neymar is the most high-profile young Brazilian to pass on the riches of an early-career European move in favour of the promise of a booming domestic league.
A genuine talent, Neymar has already scored 100 goals for Santos, earns prodigious amounts in salary and sponsorial payments, and is a player who exults in the Santos traditions: a delicately skilled attacker performing at his youthful peak at the famous old white-shirted club of Pelé and Zito. Plus he is far from alone in feeling the pull of home. Of the current squad, six players are based in Brazil, more than on any other recent visit to these shores. Intriguingly, all six are forwards or midfielders, rather than the usual mixed bag of goalkeepers and midfielders that tends to stay at home while the glamour boys are lured overseas.
As ever money is the key: prodigious economic growth and continental-scale corporate sponsorship have provided the muscle to attract for the first time star overseas players. Or at least, the 36-year-old Clarence Seedorf, who has a Brazilian wife and whose signing by Botafogo last year was hailed rather giddily as the most important in Brazilian league history. More significant is the return of a senior generation: Robinho, Deco, Jádson, Roberto Carlos and Luís Fabiano have all resurfaced, no doubt drawn in part by the comfort of a generous buck in a comfortable league.
It is perhaps not the ideal preparation for an impending World Cup. Judging by televisual evidence, and accounts from inside Brazil, the year-round carousel of state and national championships still lacks the pace and vitality of top European leagues. Although there is the potential for this to change if Seedorf proves a trailblazer and as young players find they can earn as much money at home as abroad. Certainly the country is transformed from the hyper-inflationary economic wreck of the last century. A new kind of leisured prosperity is in evidence with an estimated 30 million Brazilians considering themselves to have entered the middle classes in the past decade. Television companies have vastly increased their domestic right payments. The Brazilian currency is just about holding its end up. The future, as ever in the country of the future, looks bright.
If the football team can reinvigorate itself Brazil might be able to contemplate its "coming-out" tournament as a first-world economic power with genuine optimism. On this front there is some uncertainty as to the depth of the problems. There have been notable past lulls in Brazil's footballing fortunes, most recently the mid-1980s when a more muscular style seemed to be emerging, only to be cast off by the flowering of the brilliantly flair-strewn Rivaldo-Ronaldo generation. Lately there has been a sense of tactical drift, the old Brazilian style of 4-2-3-1, with two brawny defensive screeners to protect the traditional flying full-backs, seeming to be outflanked by the more fluid midfield angles of the best international teams.
The players are still there though: still high-pedigree and still reassuringly bold. Even in a workmanlike Chelsea team Ramires, a typical modern Brazilian midfield soldier, was able to provide the moment of last season's Champions League, the sublime galloping chip at Camp Nou that effectively eliminated Barcelona's team of the talents. Also still there is the familiar scale of Brazilian devotion to their national game, a product of the booming urban centres of the first Victorian industrial boom.
The pressure of a home tournament is something else altogether, but it comes as Brazil is once again in bloom. On Wednesday night the countdown to a most intriguingly grand-scale World Cup begins in earnest.