The veteran magician and his acolyte fluff their lines on Brazil's troubled road to a home World Cup in Rio
If Brazil arrived at Wembley in a state of mild flux, they left it looking unusually muted. There were plenty among the 90,000 capacity crowd who came to Wembley expecting, unfairly from a thrown-together selecão, a show of familiar attacking panache. They will have been disappointed.
With a year and a half to go before one of the more feverishly anticipated home World Cups this was a friendly that might have signalled the first stage in a concerted Brazilian regrouping, not least with the presence at Wembley of both the returning Gaúcho superstar Ronaldinho and in Neymar a player described rather optimistically by Luiz Felipe Scolari as already on a par with Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi. In the event Brazil were beaten 2-1 by an unusually frisky and uncowed England team. And if at times in the second half they did stir themselves – now and then, they even looked a bit like Brazil – this was a disappointingly muted showing from Ronaldinho and Neymar, who in a first half of declining influence managed to miss a penalty and a sitter between them as Wayne Rooney and Jack Wilshere emerged as the dominant creative influences.
There was plenty of talk in the lead-up to this game about "world-class players" and the general absence thereof. For Brazil this is a preoccupation that has arisen only in the last few years, though for a nation whose foot soldiers staff many of the world's domestic leagues the question is one of quality rather than quantity. For the first time since the pre-Romário years there is suddenly a shortage of peak Brazilians, of Brazilians who can be ranked, unarguably, among the world's very greatest players.
For Brazil it is a lineage that ended with the only man at Wembley who can speak with any personal authority on the subject. At his pre-match press conference Ronaldinho had looked almost alarmingly frozen and dewy-eyed, as he did here for almost the entire 45 minutes he stayed on the pitch. His first involvement involved being sent the wrong way by a shimmy from Joe Hart and, if there was an element of Seaman's revenge here, there was more to come with that 18th-minute penalty. Brazil's No10 won it himself with a flick up on to Wilshere's arm. His kick was hit low but Hart's double save was brilliantly athletic.
At which point Ronaldinho pretty much stopped playing, disappearing at half-time to be replaced by Fred. With the Brazilian leagues in hiatus neither Ronaldinho nor Neymar had much football behind him at Wembley. Frankly it showed.
If Brazil's veteran space-Gaúcho represents the world-class past, Neymar represents hope for the future. Here he started briskly: a wiry, spindly figure, blessed with swift lateral movement and acceleration if not searing pace. In the seventh minute he sped away from Gary Cahill to take a long pass, only for his touch to fail under pressure. There was a lovely swerving run across England's defence and some nice little combinations, enough to make Neymar perhaps the most notable presence on the pitch before Rooney's opening goal.
The two make for an intriguing juxtaposition. If Neymar remains – for those not seduced by Brazilian domestic exploits – all potential, Rooney at the same age had achieved more on a broader stage. And rather than Neymar the outstanding 21-year-old on the pitch was Wilshere, whose vision with a pass in tight spaces caught the eye, not least in the build-up to Rooney's goal.
And so to Neymar's miss on 36 minutes. Skied over the bar from Oscar's cross, it was perhaps not as horrific as it looked at first – the ball bobbled up – but his two-footed lunge at the ball with the goal gaping was horribly callow. After half-time Brazil were transformed briefly, Fred capitalising brilliantly on Cahill's mistake to smash a shot past Hart. Neymar too seemed energised by his promotion to lone frontman status. One flick and swerve away from Glen Johnson was a delight. By now Oscar had moved away from the right flank and into the centre and over 90 minutes it was the Chelsea man, pre-acclimatised, who was Brazil's outstanding attacker.
From Neymar there was an enduring work rate as the half drew on. His movement was lively, his passing neat. For now that will have to be enough. There remains an enormous pressure on those frail shoulders, not simply in the gulf between status and achievement: if Ronaldo has been there and bought the T-shirt, Neymar has to date proved himself above all expert at selling T-shirts (thanks to major sponsorship he is already the seventh best-paid footballer in the world); but also in the clamour from Brazil for a new star to close the stature gap.
Wembley on a cold Wednesday night may not linger long in the memory and Neymar and co will no doubt return in more robust physical shape. "England played well but we will see how they do [at the Maracanã] in June," Scolari said afterwards. At which point Brazil will expect a little more from their next and last generation superstars.