Brazil’s biggest enemies: overconfidence and a Neymar dependency
Manager Tite has sought to instil a collective mentality, but potential pitfalls abound
Back row, from left: Paulinho, Thiago Silva, Danilo, Joao Miranda and Alisson Ramses Becker. Front, from left: Neymar, Willian, Marcelo, Casemiro, Gabriel Jesus and Philippe Coutinho Correia. Photograph: Vladimir Simicek/AFP/Getty Images
Maybe every Brazilian remembers where he or she was four years ago when their hopes of winning the World Cup on home soil were crushed by Germany. Peter, a travelling fan who, like the national team, has been limbering up for the 2018 edition here in Sochi, certainly does. He shakes his head as he recalls the pilot on his flight to the US that afternoon repeatedly updating the passengers until most thought it was some cruel wind-up, but all probably felt a little bit better about the timing of their travel arrangements.
Four years on there is a feeling that things are different – better – with current coach Tite having transformed the fortunes of a group whose slide continued for quite some time after its bad day in Belo Horizonte. Under Dunga, things had gone from bad to worse, with the team eliminated from the 2015 Copa America on penalties by Peru in the first knockout round before failing to make it even that far at the Copa America Centario; the highlight on that occasion being a big win over Haiti.
Tite, a warmer, more thoughtful character than the man he replaced, had an instant impact. Sixth in the South American World Cup qualifying group after six games, the team went on a run of eight straight victories, in which they scored 24 times and conceded twice. They qualified with four games to spare and, despite easing up over the fixtures that remained, still beat Uruguay into second place by 10 points.
Since then they have beaten Germany (okay, a depleted Germany, in a friendly) in Berlin and they come here off the back of solid warm-up wins against Croatia and Austria. Confidence was high this week as they continued their preparations. Why wouldn’t it be? But then, that might just be a part of the problem.
Brazil went into the tournament last time as favourites who made little secret of the fact that they believed they already had one hand on the trophy. This time there is much talk about expectations being better managed, but the bottom line is that they find themselves regarded as favourites again, and quite a few around the camp clearly believe they will win.
The current coach, it is said for a start, is a better manager than Luiz Felipe Scolari but Big Phil, for all his faults, knew how to win a World Cup – he had done it 2002. So far it remains unclear whether the man who once worked under him before enjoying huge success in club football with Internacional and Corinthians is actually up to the scale of that particular task.
The bigger question as they prepare to take on Switzerland in Rotov-on-Don on Sunday, however, is whether the players are mentally strong enough to go all the way.
They are certainly a better, more talented group now than then. The introduction of Casemiro and Gabriel Jesus by the current coach has improved the team in midfield and attack while the return of Thiago Silva and Marcelo, both discarded by Dunga has added defensive strength and a bit of attacking verve to the back four.
The team plays in the way that fans like, a possession-based game built around quick movement, an emphasis on width that starts with the two full-backs, then a more focused and central attack as the team approaches the opposition area.
When it is all going well, it is hard to resist, but quite how the players stand up to the sort of quality they are likely to encounter from Europe’s better sides in the latter stages of this tournament remains to be seen.
The fear is that they will prove to be fragile once more. Four years ago they seemed to implode when Neymar was injured, and their endless displays of respect for their stand-out star and obvious dismay over his absence ahead of the game against Germany must have delighted Joachim Löw and co.
It is said that Tite has sought to convince them that they are equal parts of a collective but one clearly remains more equal than the rest and back at home the fearful talk of a “Neymar dependencia” endures.
Almost all of those likely to feature over the coming weeks are big players at very good clubs and most are at the right age to take on the particular challenge a World Cup presents. Thiago Silva, though, whose near meltdown around the penalty shoot-out defeat of Chile four years ago cost him the captaincy, is just one of those whose mental strength remains suspect.
On the positive side, Paulinho has flourished under a manager who helped him establish his reputation at club level, and Philippe Coutinho seemed finally to be rediscovering something like his best form towards the very end of the season.
There have been suggestions that collectively they might actually be technically better even than the side that won Brazil’s third World Cup title in 1970, but even if it’s true, there’s more to winning the competition than that, and Tite’s men have some convincing to do if they are really to be considered the equals of Pele, Carlos Alberto, Rivelino and the rest.
Getting out of a group that also includes Serbia and Costa Rica will do little to convince the sceptics, but winning title number six would, of course, take them a good part of the way.