World-class clash has Recife buzzing

RECIFE, Brazil -- The North Eastern coastal metropolis of Recife is known for many things, including its cuisine, homicide rate, sex trade, and fanatical passion for football. I am here for the latter, and to sample the depth of emotion a day ahead of Spain's opening Confederations Cup game against Uruguay, I made a beeline straight from the airport to visit the "Estadio o Shampoosao," a barbers shop run by local legend Mauro Shampoo -- former pro-footballer turned self-taught hairdresser -- whose salon, tucked away behind a strip mall, is a shrine to Recife futebol.

The store is buzzing with excitement the night before the Confederations Cup comes to town. The phone rings off the hook as regulars call to book appointments ahead of the big game. The eccentric Shampoo cuts a striking figure -- picture, if you can, Joe Pesci in a Marouane Fellaini wig -- as he answers every call by screaming his signature catchphrase "Show! Show! Show!" while simultaneously executing casual keepie-uppies with comb and scissors in hand.

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A compact soccer field has been painted onto the salon floor, and each barber's chair is cloaked in the colors of one of the local teams: Sport Club, Santa Cruz and Ibis. Back in the 1980s, the shaggy-maned Shampoo was Ibis' captain and striker when they went on a disastrous winless streak that lasted three years and 11 months and earned them the Guinness Book of Records accolade of "the worst team in the world." One of Shampoo's customers validates the claim by mouthing to me, "He is the worst athlete our nation has ever produced." Yet Recife's love of football runs so deep that Shampoo's failure has become his success, allowing the hairdresser to become a television personality, the subject of a documentary and even a popular song >.

To burnish his bona fides, Shampoo gleefully plucks a framed photo off the wall and forces it in front of my face. It shows Shampoo front and center, grinning as he is flanked by both Maradona and Pele. Underneath, he has printed: "Diego Maradona career goals 358, O Rei. Pele 1,282 career goals. Mauro Shampoo, Career goals 1." As he laughs, I ask through an interpreter what he believes the Confederations Cup will do for Recife, and he shouts back giddily: "Great football is going to put this city on world football's map."

The town is hoping to make the most of its footballing opportunity. Home to one of the nation's most ambitious World Cup construction projects -- the Arena Pernambuco, a 50,000-seat state-of-the-art facility -- it will host three Confederations Cup fixtures ahead of the five it will showcase during the 2014 World Cup proper. Few may prove as fascinating as Sunday's clash between the reigning World Cup and Euro Champions Spain, and Copa America
titleholder, Uruguay.

The Spaniards will be eager to add to their Euro 2012 glory, which enabled Spain to become the first nation to win three straight world and continental titles. Despite this astonishing record, the team are only marginally better at winning trophies than they are at defying those who continually rush in to write them off. Back in Ukraine, as their tiny passes placed sleeper holds on all-comers, coach Vicente Del Bosque was continually forced to defend his team from critics who suggested their obsession with possession had become "boring."

The media's cynicism has barely toned down. Although the Spaniards have bought a first-rate squad to Brazil, they have been accompanied by a low-grade throb of negative stories, a legacy perhaps of transference and the echo of Barcelona's Champions League mortality. Iniesta and Xavi are alleged to have peaked, and rumors of discord swirl between Real Madrid colleagues Alvaro Arbeloa and Iker Casillas -- a wound left by Jose Mourinho's tortured departure.

Memories of 2009's shocking 2-0 semifinal suckerpunch against USA -- a game which snapped the team's proud 35-game undefeated streak -- have also been resurrected. Like footballing Mark Twains, Spain have continuously proven that reports of their death have been greatly exaggerated. They now arrive on a new 22-game unbeaten run, which the serene Del Bosque -- technically the First Marquis of Del Bosque, having been elevated to the Spanish nobility after 2010's World Cup triumph -- will hope to extend courtesy of his tactical entrepreneurialism, flip-flopping between the choice of a false 9 strikerless formation or playing with a striker with false confidence in Fernando Torres. David Villa or Roberto Soldado will also vie for playing time.

Del Bosque's two other big decisions concern a replacement for the injured Xabi Alonso, with Bayern's breakthrough star, Javi Martinez, favored, and the real possibility of Barcelona's Victor Valdes being handed a start over Iker Casillas in goal. The team have never won the Confederations Cup and the prospect of changing that at the legendary Maracana on June 30th should propel them.

Sunday night's opponents, Uruguay, are a team who know exactly how that feels. They lifted the 1950 World Cup in Rio after shocking Brazil, triggering winning goal scorer Alcides Ghiggia's epic quip, "Only three people have silenced the Maracana -- the Pope, Frank Sinatra and me."

"La Celeste” arrive having won Copa America 2011, a victory they believed would affirm them amongst the world's elite. Instead, their faltering attempt to qualify for Brazil 2014 suggests it may have been their apex. Spankings from Argentina, Colombia and Bolivia have left the squad looking old, immobile, and five points away from an automatic World Cup qualification spot.

Coach Oscar Tabarez will hope an impressive Confederations Cup campaign may enable his team to rekindle their swagger. The manager has frantically tweaked tactical formations to jell the striking riches offered by Edinson Cavani, Luis Suarez and Diego Forlan. The coveted Cavani has struggled to play out of position with his national team, and Tabarez may opt for the majestic muscle memory of Diego Forlan behind the toothy menace that is Luis Suarez in an attempt to make the best of the 30-35 percent possession his team will enjoy.

Back at "Estadio o Shampoosao," I ask Shampoo whether he thinks Spain or Uruguay will be Sunday night's winners. Without missing a beat, he enthusiastically gives me his answer, declaring Recife to be the winner. Before I can ensure he understood my question, the hairdresser rushes to answer the phone, screaming his signature line with boundless excitement: "Show! Show! Show!"