Tentative GB all mixed up
Samba and Brazil. It's the ultimate cliché, and it was no different on Friday night at the Riverside. When the coach containing Team GB's players arrived at stadium reception, the band in front of the famous gates transplanted from Ayresome Park was playing Kaiser Chiefs' 'Ruby' – underpinned, naturally, by a cheeky samba rhythm.
The never-ending 'carnival' that follows Brazil may be a little forced but it is, at least, a sure nod to a familiar national identity. How Stuart Pearce must wish for the same. It is hardly a revelation that the coach is a staunch patriot and was desperate for this role, but how easy is it to lead when the followers aren't really sure what they're doing there, let alone where they're going?
Described as "historic" by Middlesbrough in the promotional materials for the game, this encounter was certainly a step into the unknown. This was the first time a Great Britain football side had been seen in public – we can exclude the weekend's behind-closed-doors friendly defeat to Mexico – since an unsuccessful, two-legged qualifier for the 1972 Munich Olympics against Bulgaria.
The club had done their best to revive some sense of GB's football heritage, introducing former Stockton FC defender Tommy Thompson to the crowd before the game. Thompson turned down a number of offers to turn professional in order to make the 1960 Olympics in Rome – then broke his leg in the opening match defeat to Brazil. He finally joined the pro ranks with Blackpool the following year, turning out alongside Alan Ball and Jimmy Armfield.
Yet whereas England touring the country while Wembley was under reconstruction fired enthusiasm outside the capital, this was a curio, and Pearce's team found itself in the unusual position of trying to coax a sleepy, if potentially willing, crowd to be on their side. If we should beware of forming a definitive opinion on a mere warm-up, the feared problems were made flesh. There were a few cheers, notably for captain Ryan Giggs, but no songs or chants. Why would there be for a team that's such a nascent concept in the modern era? What would they be? Instead, a crowd of just under 23,000 looked for something to identify with. Former Newcastle player Craig Bellamy's name was booed as it was read out, and again when he was substituted in the second period. Elsewhere, fans tried to bring the perceived smart-alecs down a peg or two. Chelsea target Oscar's first touch, hooking a simple pass towards Marcelo hopelessly out of play, was cheered. Elsewhere Neymar gently reprised the pantomime villain tag bequeathed him by Scotland's fans at the Emirates last year, staying down too long for some fans' liking after taking a first-half tumble in the area, and parading in front of the home support after converting his penalty.
The contrast between the status and stability of the two sides had always been clear. Micah Richards quelled any loose expectation in the match programme by underlining that "we're just a new team", while Brazil coach Mano Menezes had named his starting XI for this game days ago.
The opening goal, in the 12th minute, certainly had a smell of getting to know you. With everyone awaiting a free-kick blast blast from Hulk, Neymar floated a laconic ball to the back post where Tottenham's Sandro looped a header across Jason Steele and into the net. By then, clear chances for Neymar and Leandro Damiao had been nullified by the offside flag.
Even if Pearce's managerial skills are roundly questioned, the players offered hints of being capable of a pleasing fluidity. Set up in a standard 4-2-3-1, the shape shifted at various points in the first half to seeing Bellamy make inroads into the centre, and even Giggs come forward in a de facto number 10 role, sitting just behind the lone Daniel Sturridge.
Yet many of the doubts over the man in charge were borne out. Problems of cohesion were inevitable in a team that has only come into existence in recent weeks, but shoehorning players into unfamiliar positions certainly doesn't help. Defensive miscommunication is little surprise when you see Chelsea's Ryan Bertrand farmed out to right-back, or Richards given remit to marshal the centre of defence, a post he has not seen regular action in for a good few years.
Richards would have been red-carded in a competitive match for his clumsy hack on an accelerating Hulk that conceded the penalty, and it was difficult not to have sympathy for the Manchester City full-back. When Bertrand was hooked at half-time it was Neil Taylor, Swansea's talismanic left-back, that moved over to the right. To his credit, he stuck doggedly to Neymar, Hulk and whoever else popped up on his watch.
Perhaps Pearce would argue that asking his players to make the sacrifice of playing out of position helps to create the feeling of mucking in for a cause, for there needs to be some sense of direction. Unsurprisingly, it isn't there yet.
Even if it's easy to understand why, it is a fair assumption that this set of well-regarded Premier League players would wish to avoid humiliation. That could easily have been their fate at the Riverside, with the impressive Jack Butland making a series of excellent second-half saves to deny a Brazil side that barely jolted itself out of cruise control. Quite how Team GB will cope with an effervescent - and highly-motivated - Uruguay remains to be seen.
As they wait for 2014, Brazil's compulsion to do well is clear, and the pressure on them considerable. Where will it come from for GB? The fans don't seem sure, and neither do the players. Some sort of identity must be found, and fast, if we are to even remember GB's participation a few months from now.