The streets of London will be awash with yellow and green this evening as fans get in the party mood up and down the capital ahead of tonight’s clash between England and Brazil.
For the South Americans, this is the perfect opportunity to strut their samba style as they kick-start a series of friendly matches in preparation to host the 2014 World Cup. But for England it’s far more serious than that.
Roy Hodgson’s men are currently almost halfway through their qualification process, collecting eight points from their opening four games to lie second in Group H. And with vital qualifiers against San Marino and group leaders Montenegro coming in March, this is not a match the England manager will dismiss as a mere friendly – games traditionally used to try out new blood.
“We’re taking the game too seriously for me to even entertain the word experiment,” said Hodgson. “For us it’s another important step along the way.
“We think it’s a great way to start 2013 and the 150th anniversary [of the Football Association]. We’ll be doing our best to play well and get a good result, but for me it’s a question of knowing by March what our best team is and which players play best together.”
One player who will definitely start tonight is Ashley Cole, who wins his 100th cap 12 years after making his debut in a 3-1 win over Albania. The Chelsea full-back joins an elite group of players to play 100 times for England, including Peter Shilton (125), David Beckham (115), the late, great Bobby Moore (108), Bobby Charlton (106), Billy Wright (105) and Steven Gerrard (100).
“I am proud, privileged and overwhelmed,” said Cole, who explained that a brief chat as a child with former Arsenal player David Rocastle, who passed away in 2001, inspired him to be a footballer. “After I spoke to him for a few minutes, it was all I wanted to be,” added Cole. “I supported Arsenal at the time and he was someone I wanted to be like. Now I look back and think what a great career I have had but I will never forget speaking to him.”
There are concerns that Cole, the subject of various negative headlines in recent years, may not receive the warm welcome normally dished out by a Wembley crowd on such an occasion – but he has the backing of Stuart Pearce, England’s previous long-term left-sided defender.
“To play 100 times for his country is an amazing achievement,” said Pearce, who himself represented the Three Lions 78 times and is now manager of the Under-21 team. “People outside the squad don’t realise how professional he is. I’ll be standing and cheering when his name is announced.”
Those not making an appearance for England tonight include strikers Jermain Defoe and Daniel Sturridge, as well as midfielder Michael Carrick, who have all pulled out through injury.
With most of the Brazil team European-based at club level, fans will get a glimpse of highly-rated 21-year-old Neymar – a summer transfer target for the likes of Chelsea, Manchester United and Real Madrid – who still plies his trade with hometown club Santos.
England’s record of just three wins in 23 meetings against tonight’s visitors is abysmal, but Hodgson’s men won’t be in the mood to roll over. Brazil will turn on the style, but England have plenty of youngsters keen to impress.