- Associated Press - Monday, June 24, 2013

RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) - The first half of the Confederations Cup has confounded most expectations.

Brazil’s players have emerged from a slump and rediscovered their spark a year before the World Cup.

And rather than the anticipated Samba carnival atmosphere in this soccer-mad country, the streets around stadiums have been in security lockdown. A populace without a recent appetite for mass demonstrations has turned out in hundreds of thousands to rage against the government.

Capitalizing on the global media spotlight, Brazilians have protested against corruption and rising costs at a time when billions of dollars are being pumped into projects for the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympics.

Preparations for FIFA’s showpiece tournament were thought to be well behind schedule, but half the 12 venues being used at next year’s World Cup have so far hosted 12 Confederations Cup games with none of the significant organizational or structural problems anticipated.

It also helps the national mood that Brazil’s soccer team is defying fears it wouldn’t be ready.

Luiz Felipe Scolari, rehired this year in a bid to replicate his 2002 World Cup triumph with Brazil, faced a restive fan base as the five-time world champions stuttered through six games with just one win and plummeted to No. 22 in FIFA’s rankings.

It was a slump that started with a loss to England in February and now seems to have ended with a draw at home to the same opponents.

Since then, Brazil has won four consecutive games, including all three at the Confederations Cup, to march into the semifinals as Group A winners and provide a counterpoint to the strife on the streets.

And that’s largely due to the goal-scoring prowess of Neymar.

His future now settled _ a $75 million move from Santos to Barcelona was sealed before the tournament _ Neymar is finally flourishing as the focal point of Brazil’s attack. Slick goal-scoring touches are showing he has the talent to match the bravado and hype.

With three goals in the Group A games against Italy, Japan and Mexico, it seems a long time since Neymar was jeered by his own fans after a poor performance in Brazil’s 2-2 draw with Chile in April.

Now the 21-year-old Neymar is comfortably settling into the role of national icon, with the swagger and striking that can help deliver Brazil’s sixth World Cup next year, while winning over the public by expressing solidarity with the protesters.

Standing in the way of Brazil reaching Sunday’s final at the Maracana Stadium is Uruguay. The semifinal on Wednesday pits Brazil’s forward line of Fred-Neymar-Hulk against the trio of Edinson Cavani-Luis Suarez-Diego Forlan.

Suarez was the only player to manage to break through Spain’s defense in Group B as Uruguay finished runners-ups to the world and European champions.

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