Group G: Brazil vs Serbia, Lusail Iconic Stadium, Thursday, 7pm – Live on RTÉ 2 and BBC One
The question about dancing came around 35 minutes in. And in fairness, it wasn’t as random as it sounds. Earlier in the week Raphinha announced that Brazil’s squad had prepared and rehearsed 10 different dance routines to be unveiled each time they score at this World Cup. So, a Brazilian journalist asked Tite: “What is the importance of this cultural phenomenon? How important is it to dance? What is the message we can convey to the world by dancing?”
“Naturality,” the Brazil coach responded immediately. “Respect for the culture, respect for who we are. It is happiness, it is joy. Yes, it is a moment for us to be focused and serious. But there are moments when we can have fun, when we can vibrate. Everyone has their own way. Our way is dancing.” Perhaps this offers a small idea of why Brazil’s wise and wizened head coach can be such fascinating company. There is a lightly worn intellect there, a love of words, an attention to detail, a dignity and a levity, as well as the basic decency to give a sincere question a sincere answer.
Phrases like “paradigm shift”, “potentialising the virtues of the players” and “learning may be theoretical but it is fundamentally practical” are not staples of your usual Friday morning audience with – say – Steve Evans.
They call him “Professor Tite” within the Brazil camp, and certainly there is something of the didact to him: a man who sees football not simply as a game of limbs and gumption, but as an opportunity to open minds. On the eve of their opening game against Serbia, Tite knows exactly what is expected of him from the Brazilian public. But he knows, too, that this expectation is borne in part of an emotional legacy well beyond his control: the widespread feeling that this World Cup is somehow Brazil’s destiny, part of their DNA, theirs to reclaim like a piece of lost property.
“I’m not responsible for the last 20 years, just four,” Tite smiled, and on this he was half-right. Tite did not create this baggage but it is his to carry now, and perhaps this was why he seemed so keen to underline the scale of the challenge ahead, the sheer volume of things that have to go right for Brazil to win their sixth World Cup.
“There’s pressure,” he admitted, “but also the tranquility of knowing the opportunities that arise in life. Dreaming is part of life. We dream of having a great Cup and being champion. And in case we cannot, to make the best of it, because there is only one winner. We are aware that there are other great teams who play at the same level as Brazil.”
Implicit in all this, perhaps, was a quiet rejection of the exceptionalism that has buttressed and ultimately bound many Brazil sides of the past. The most striking example of this was on home soil in 2014, when a hysterical Brazilian public discovered in the most crushing way that magic, fate and emotional fervour are no substitute for attention to detail and a vaguely functioning offside trap.
Tite knows this, of course. He is, at heart, a details man: a thorough analyst of the game who likes to consider a problem from every angle, cover every contingency. In concert with his trusted assistant Cleber Xavier, he has assembled a balanced, European-style side with less of the traditional Brazilian emphasis on marauding full-backs and totemic number nines. Instead, an experienced defence will be shielded by Casemiro and two energetic wingers (probably Raphinha and Vinicius Junior).
“I don’t believe in filling the side with attackers or defenders,” Tite said. “The balance point is midfield.” At which point Tite runs into the other strand of Brazilian self-mythology: style. It’s interesting to note that the last team to break a drought, Carlos Alberto Parreira’s 1994 side, is also the least cherished of Brazil’s five World Cup-winning sides. In part this is because of the absence of a popular figurehead like Pele or Ronaldo, in part because of the way they did it: grizzled, pragmatic tournament football played with smarts and a snarl. “There are moments when the spectacle has to be sacrificed,” Johan Cruyff wrote of that team, and even Romario has admitted that Brazil’s tactics in the United States were not entirely to his liking.
And the curiously unloved status of that team encapsulates the delicate balancing act facing Tite here. In short: how far can he reconcile the two largely divergent goals of ending the drought and doing so in a way that feels authentically Brazilian? How much risk does he want to take on against an extremely dangerous Serbia team and their front two of Aleksandar Mitrovic and Dusan Vlahovic? Can they defend and dance at the same time? These are the pressing questions. You can guarantee that Tite has applied his considerable intellect to working out the answers.