Four years on from the 2010 World Cup, Brazil reacquainted themselves with the parp of the vuvuzela and found it, this time, much more to their liking. Invited to Johannesburg as part of South Africa's 20 Years of Freedom celebrations — the hosts wore 46664 on their shirts, the prison number of the recently deceased Nelson Mandela — they did everything expected of them, scoring some delightful goals on the way to a comfortable win.
Like so many friendlies, the game began in pleasantly open, slightly underpowered fashion. On the rare occasions they were able to get hold of the ball, South Africa moved it around midfield neatly but without any real incision, and Brazil's defenders were comfortable in closing down the space. The visitors, meanwhile, soon realised that South Africa's defenders were nudging higher up the pitch than would be wise, and it only took them ten minutes to find the space in behind and take the lead.
Hulk took possession on the right flank, around the halfway line. Immediately, rashly, Thabo Matlaba advanced towards him, leaving empty greenery in his wake. Into the space went the ball, shortly followed by the gliding Oscar, who met the pass a couple of yards inside the box and was able to clip it gently and delicately over the advancing goalkeeper. It was dangerously easy.
Again and again South Africa failed to track runs from midfield; again and again, Brazil were able to exploit the fact, as Neymar began to shimmer. The home side's goalkeeper — 22-year-old debutant Ronwen Williams, who had done nothing wrong for the opener — managed to thwart Brazil's No. 10 on two occasions. On the first, the ball skipped away from the Barcelona forward, and Williams was able to force him wide; on the second, he was fortunate as a chip bounced off the back of his head. But third time was the charm: Under minimal pressure, Neymar was able to advance to collect the ball 30 yards out, advance to the edge of the penalty area and ping a precise shot through the goalkeeper's legs.
You'd hope that a team finding themselves so obviously and systematically undone to take advantage of halftime to identify what went wrong and take steps to address it. Subsequently, you'd hope that that they might not, say, be opened up in exactly the same way 22 seconds into the second half. Yet whatever South Africa talked about in the break, they again found themselves again staring first at one another, then at Neymar, as the ball was lost in midfield, nodded over the top by Fred, and tucked away past the helpless and abandoned Wilson.
South Africa nearly conceded a fourth moments later — Willian, freshly on at halftime, curled a shot just past the post — and then the momentum-sucking monster of multiple substitutions sank its teeth into Brazil. Though Neymar kept finding space, the replacements — Ramires and Juis Gustavo in midfield, Jo up front — couldn't quite click in the manner of their predecessors. By contrast, the introduction of Bongani Zungu energised the South African midfield, as the 21-year-old demonstrated an encouraging disrespect of his more glamorous opponents.
On 62 minutes, with David Luiz slowed by an injury, the hosts found space for three quick passes on the edge of the Brazilian box; Matthew Manyisa tapped the ball through and suddenly Dino Ndlovu was in. Under pressure from Thiago Silva he mishit his shot, and though for a moment it seemed that the ball might find a way past Julio Cesar, the keeper managed to shift his weight and paw the spinning ball out of the air.
Brazil, perhaps slightly put out, reasserted control. Dani Alves made a couple of searching runs down the right, and probably should have scored when put clear by Neymar. Alves returned the favour moments later, but the Barcelona winger lacked sufficient spring and/or height to connect with his chipped cross. The fourth eventually came from Fernandinho, his first for his country -- he may never score a better. Having controlled a clearance 30 yards from goal, he sent swung what looked like a lazy, casual leg and sent the ball screaming and dipping into the top left corner of the net. Finally, in virtually the last minute, Jo nodded a deep cross down for Neymar, who completed his hat trick despite being simultaneously wiped out by the goalkeeper.
Quite how much use this is going to be for Brazil is debatable. This was not, after all, the South Africa that recently beat Spain — that recently deserved to beat Spain — and so this was not, in the final reckoning, any kind of test similar to those that the summer will present. However, they rarely looked less than effortlessly superior, and at times Neymar glittered like the player his country is desperate for him to be. As for South Africa, they attempted to play open football against a stronger team and got slapped down for it. They will know they can play better and cleverer — in mitigation, they were missing their captain and first-choice goalkeeper Itumeleng Khune — and if they are to achieve their goal of establishing themselves in the world's top 20 sides, they will need to.