Brazil's dual football mission at the London Olympics
The British public are getting a crash course on the appeal and importance of the Olympic football tournament.
They may still regard it as something of a sideshow, but in Brazil it is seen as the showpiece of the Games, especially over the last three decades when professionals have been allowed to compete.
Olympic gold remains the only major title open to Brazil that they have yet to claim. The quest to win it has been the source of four-yearly frustrations.
But in the UK over the next few weeks, the current Brazil side will be doing much more than trying to complete the set: they are also building towards an even higher objective.
Neymar will be one of Brazil's key players at the forthcoming Olympic Games (Getty Images)
European national teams tend to select their players based overwhelmingly on club form. For the South Americans, performances for their country at junior level are also important, with the Under-20 side traditionally serving as a conveyor belt to the seniors.
The Olympics take this further: an Under-23 competition with three over-aged players, it is an excellent opportunity to have a dry run for the next World Cup.
This is all the more important when the senior side have an automatic World Cup place and do not have to go through the gruelling but team-building experience of qualification. This, of course, is Brazil's case. They host football's biggest show in 2014, when they will have to put up with a burden of pressure possibly greater than that experienced by any previous team.
This also comes at a time when Brazil are struggling for footballing identity. The point was well made recently by Andre Kfouri, one of the country's best football writers, who described Euro 2012 as "the triumph of the intelligent midfielder".
The likes of Pirlo, Xavi and Iniesta, he wrote, "with neurones, retinas and feet of silk, recaptured the midfield battleground".
He added: "Physically frail but superbly technically gifted ... they played a football of undeniable virtues, something which the Brazil team is still looking for, and which Brazilian football has forgotten."
Over recent decades, the dominant ideology in the Brazilian game has based its thinking on football's physical development. The flowing moves of 1958, '70 and '82 were for dewy-eyed nostalgics, argued Brazil's technocrats.
Nowadays, with less space on the field, the central midfielders should be six footers. They should block space while athletic, attacking full-backs launched the counter-attack, linking up with the magnificent individual talent up front that Brazil always manage to produce.
For a while this model was successful, though it never thrilled the senses like the ball-playing teams of old. More recently, though, not only has the trophy cabinet not been filling up, but the central planks of the ideology have been rotting away. If it is no longer possible to win playing possession-based football with a team of small players, then no-one seems to have told this to Spain.
Mano Menezes, then, walked into a tough job when he became Brazil coach two years ago. Not only did he have to build a new side, he had to find a new idea of play, weaning his team off what had become an excessive dependence on the counter-attack.
Menezes cuts an impressive figure - calm, knowledgeable and rational. But it is hardly surprising that he has not had an easy time. And, paradoxically, his task has probably not been eased by the growing economic strength of the domestic game, which has enabled a very promising crop of attacking talent to stay with Brazilian clubs for longer than would have been the case a few years ago.
The problem this causes was clear in last year's Copa America. In domestic Brazilian football the defensive lines usually play deep and there is a lot of space on the field for the talented player to pick up possession and decide what he will do. Against more compact international opponents, Brazil's starlets struggled to make an impression.
A year on, it will be fascinating to watch their progress. There is real talent there. Neymar moves with the balance and fluidity of a young George Best. Oscar is a wonderful prospect - a busy, versatile playmaker.
Lucas Moura has sustained pace, tight dribbling skills and a long-range shot. The progress of Paulo Henrique Ganso has been patchy, but he can open up a defence with his left-footed passing. Centre forward Leandro Damiao is strong, willing and working furiously at his game, and he enjoys an excellent club partnership with Oscar.
Further back, Romulo is an interesting central midfielder who can mark, pass and move. And beefy keeper Rafael Cabral is putting in a strong bid for the number one shirt in the World Cup.
The over-aged players are superb: centre-back Thiago Silva, possibly being given too much responsibility to lead the defensive line, left-back Marcelo, a fine player but a disciplinary hazard, and striker Hulk, who adds some physical presence to the front line.
An 18-man squad leaves little room for error. Inevitably there are quibbles with the selection. Your current correspondent, for what it is worth, does not understand the inclusion of rookie centre-backs Juan and Bruno Uvini when the vastly more experienced Rafael Toloi is left out.
I would have also been tempted to use the tournament to look at alternatives to the hot-headed Marcelo and I would have included Giuliano to give more midfield cover.
Even so, this is a squad worthy of representing Brazil at this fascinating moment of transition in their football. And it is a group that showed real signs of looking like a team in its recent sequence of warm-up friendlies.
True, they played tamely into the hands of the Mexican counter-attack in a 2-0 defeat. Elsewhere, though, they emerged with huge credit from wins over Denmark and the USA (3-1 and 4-1) and a 4-3 defeat against Argentina where Lionel Messi was on fire.
The most impressive aspect of Brazil's play was the pressing, smothering their opponents and winning the ball high up the pitch. It is not a common tactic in the Brazilian game, but Menezes has been working on it for the past couple of years. It should be a key part of Brazil's armoury as they go in search of that elusive gold medal and ease their own passage towards the World Cup.
Comments on the piece in the space provided. Questions on South American football to email@example.com and I'll pick out a couple for next week.
From last week's postbag:
Q) I'd like to know about your views on Clarence Seedorf moving to Brazil. To my mind in many ways it is significant especially given his stature. I believe he is probably the most successful European footballer playing at club level and it also reflects upon the growing stature of Brazilian domestic league.
A) It certainly does - though Seedorf has seen early evidence of just how much Brazilian football is operating below its potential. He was presented to the Botafogo supporters before a recent game. Despite all the hype the stadium was not half full.
Clearly he is a player with a huge amount to offer - perhaps at this stage of his career even more off the pitch than on it. The Brazilian game can only gain from the opinions of such a superbly qualified outsider.
To my mind, though, the most significant deal in terms of football on the pitch is not Seedorf to Botafogo or even Diego Forlan to Internacional. It is Peruvian centre forward Paolo Guerrero moving from Hamburg to Corinthians. This is not a tale of a veteran looking for some late tropical adventure. At 28, Guerrero is at the peak of his considerable powers.