Football: Brazil deliver on pitch amid off-pitch headaches

On the pitch at least, Brazil answered key questions in 2013 with a crushing success over world champions Spain in the Confederations Cup final.

As the year dawned, Brazilian fans wanted to know the following:

-- Could the five-time world champions mould a team worthy of their history with a home World Cup fast approaching?

-- Could they win with style rather than functionality?

-- And could the decision to ignore the never-go-back philosophy by re-hiring the man who delivered their last world title more than a decade ago prove inspired?

Over the past 12 months Brazil have managed to answer all three questions with an emphatic 'yes'.

Whether new-old helmsman Luiz Felipe Scolari really is the man with the midas touch -- he certainly was not in between his two spells in charge with glaring club failures at Chelsea and Palmeiras -- can only be determined come July 13, World Cup final day.

But what Scolari has done is galvanise the team and the fans, not least in sending an admittedly weary Spanish side packing in Rio last June.

That 3-0 triumph, with Barcelona-bound Neymar starting to live up to the hype that he could be the 'new Pele', at least belatedly introduced a feel-good factor to a tournament hit by mass countrywide protests.

More than a million people took to the streets across Brazil in a mass show of discontent at government corruption, maladministration and, not least, the garguantuan cost of staging top sports events.

The World Cup is set to cost $11bn with around $15bn more being spent on the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio.

For the bill, Brazilians will get some upgraded transport and communications infrastructure -- but they will also get swanky new stadiums in places lacking a top football team, such as Manaus, Natal and even the capital, Brasilia.

In a country where large swathes of infrastructure is crumbling, most notably in education and health provision, the money being spent on sport has prompted anger, even if most support the events and their team.

"Brazil asked to host the World Cup. We didn't force it on them," was how FIFA president Sepp Blatter saw the issue.

Observers from sociologists to politicians and the fan in the street predict more protests will accompany the World Cup, noting the negative publicity of four construction worker deaths this year, including two in Sao Paulo, where the stadium due to host June 12's opening match will not be ready until April.

Another storm cloud hung over the Brazilian league with hooliganism marring a final day which saw fans of Atletico Paranaense clash with Vasco da Gama, who were relegated along with fellow Rio side -- and outgoing champions -- Fluminense, as the title went to Cruzeiro.

Even so, as Brazil prepares to get itself more or less ready for 2014 the footballing clouds have lifted with their Confederations form -- even if they have lost Atletico Madrid striker Diego Costa to Spain's ranks.

Scolari, buoyed by the kudos of his 2002 success and that of last June, said earlier this month he is happy in the knowledge he more or less knows his team ahead of unveiling his squad on May 7.

"I am still observing players -- but this is my team," he said after his side defeated a capable Chilean team in a Toronto friendly.

"I think we have a great chance. We shall be competing at home and we have a great team, excellent players and have our home fans behind us," said "Felipao," dubbing glory in 2014 an "obligation."

Scolari first took over a year before Brazil's 2002 win over Germany in Tokyo with the team struggling in qualifiers.

This time, as hosts they have had to live off a diet of friendlies -- the Confederations Cup aside -- but Scolari's steady hand and authoritarian gaze are widely seen as assets.

Even Pele gave his seal of approval, having voiced doubts when Scolari replaced Mano Menezes a year ago.

"I think we have what it takes to be champions. With Felipao, the team has improved," is Pele's current assessment.

In rising above the protests to show Spain they cannot count on being top dog for much longer, Brazil this year created a platform for 2014, when they will finally seek to cast off the memory of losing the 1950 World Cup final to upstart neighbours Uruguay.