It should go without saying that Brazil is the most successful national team at the World Cup. Having amassed more appearances at the tournament than any other country, the Selecao have lifted the most prestigious trophy in world football a record five times — one more than both Germany and Italy who can each count four triumphs.
But notwithstanding Brazil’s unrivaled pedigree, we shouldn’t discount the fact that it’s been sixteen years since the South American giants tasted success on the biggest stage in football. Moreover, it’s been eleven years since they’ve ascended to the summit of football in their own continent. For the country’s fans and players alike, a World Cup win is worryingly overdue.
Since 2002, Brazil have consistently fallen short of expectations
Since lifting the World Cup in 2002, following a 2-0 win over Germany, Brazil have consistently fallen short of expectations at the last three iterations of the competition. After falling at the quarter-final stage in both 2006 and 2010 — losing 1-0 to France and 2-1 to the Netherlands, respectively — Brazil capitulated to Germany in the semi-final of the 2014 edition. Playing before its home crowd in the World Cup for the first time in 64 years, the Selecao lost 7-1 to Germany — Brazil’s biggest ever defeat at a World Cup, and the first home loss in a competitive match since 1975.
This year, Brazil will be led by former Corinthians manager, Tite, who took over from Dunga in June 2016 after failure at the 2015 Copa America which saw Brazil get eliminated at the knock-out stage. Tite began his tenure on a winning note, securing five consecutive victories against Ecuador, Colombia, Bolivia, Venezuela and Paraguay. The run resulted in Brazil becoming the first country — other than the host nation Russia — to qualify for the 2018 World Cup.
Neymar Jr. returns
Brazil has always produced some of the most gifted and high-profile players in the world. For every tournament, the country parades some of the brightest talents and the most famous of names in the game. And for every success in lifting the trophy, there has always a star player carrying the team forward. From Pele in 1958 to Garrincha in 1962, up to Romario in 1994 and the three R’s (Ronaldo, Rivaldo and Ronaldinho) in 2002, star-power has been the norm.
In recent times, the burden of carrying the national team has fallen principally to Neymar Jr. The Paris Saint-Germain forward was missing in the semi-final match against Germany due to injury — a contributing factor, no doubt, in the scandalous loss. Neymar, it’s worth remembering, had scored four goals in the tournament before getting injured in the quarter-final against Colombia. After recovering from a recent injury, the Ligue 1 Footballer of the Year returned to national assignment in impressive style, scoring in a friendly against Croatia as part of a 2-0 win.
Other key players in the team include Neymar’s captain at PSG, Thiago Silva; Manchester City’s duo of Fernandinho and Gabriel Jesus; Real Madrid’s Marcelo and Casemiro; Juventus’ Douglas Costa, as well as Barcelona’s Paulinho and Philippe Coutinho. Notice that they all come into the tournament as champions (domestic league or Champions League). Unsurprisingly, Brazil plays a creative style of football that involves dribbling, passing, trickery, and quick pace. This fast flowing attacking style of play has been referred to as Ginga, rooted in the martial art of capoeira which involves the use of rhythm and dance as a way of moving with the ball and deceiving an opponent.
Brazil’s ambition is, of course, always to win. Whatever the tournament, the goal is the same. And with a relatively straightforward group consisting of Switzerland, Costa Rica, and Serbia, Brazil is expected to proceed to the knockout stages as group winners. Navigating the Round of 16 (where they would likely face Mexico) and quarter-final stage (likely Belgium or England) may also be somewhat straightforward, provided their talisman Neymar is fit and Gabriel Jesus is firing on all cylinders.
That said, Brazil will likely run into serious difficulties beyond the quarter-final stage. Tite’s side will be poorly matched against teams like Germany, France, and Spain where their defense would be tested to its outer limits. There are also serious question marks concerning Neymar’s ability to keep his cool in the deeper, higher-stakes, stages of the tournament.
But most significantly, it’s important to note that despite Brazil’s incredible run through the South American qualifying section, and current unbeaten streak, Spain and Germany can match Brazil in every position on the field — and then some. Moreover, Spain has been on an even more impressive unbeaten run heading into the tournament; one that spans 19 matches to Brazil’s 10. And perhaps most crucially, of the three teams, Brazil is most dependent on a single player to carry the team through. The concern for Brazil is that Neymar has been injured and will likely be somewhat short of his best at the tournament despite his showing against Croatia. He is simply too prone to injury to be reliable talisman. And after the rigors of the group stage and quarters, it will be difficult getting the best from him.
As for Germany, Spain and France, it’s more about the team than any individual player. Just as the other South American juggernaut, Argentina, has suffered from over-reliance on Messi, Brazil may experience same in Russia.
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*Odds correct at the time of writing