The current break between triumphs is the longest since between Pele’s last, in 1970, and the Selecao’s win in the USA in 1994. That gap, though, still included top-four finishes in ’74 and ’78, as well as the brilliant team of ’82, perhaps the greatest not to win the tournament.
Since Cafu lifted the trophy in Yokohama 20 years ago, Brazil have reached just one semi-final and, in hindsight, would probably have preferred to skip that one out. For the first time in generations, a Brazilian World Cup triumph is beyond the living memory of some of its players, the likes of Rodrygo, Vinicius Jr and Gabriel Martinelli then still in nappies.
“The fact that we won in 2002 is a great inspiration for all of us,” Thiago Silva, who, by contrast, was old enough to smoke, said yesterday. “In our training centre there are images of the 2002 squad and also of all the other squads that made history in football. This gives us the confidence and motivation for us to write our own history.”
That Brazil arrive in Qatar as favourites is not saying much, but there does appear to be substance to a status they acquire almost by default. Brazil have lost just once in 28 games since the start of 2020 — last year’s Copa America Final to Argentina — and look the planet’s form team, even more so after Lionel Messi & Co were upset by Saudi Arabia on Tuesday.
That result was probably cheered as loudly in Rio as Riyadh, but came with a warning, Tite himself having expressed doubts over the increasingly insular nature of continental international football that has left his Brazil side without much exposure to teams beyond South America since the last World Cup.
There is, for now, a serenity around Tite’s squad at this tournament, fuelled by the unprecedented stability of his position as coach, the first Brazil manager to fail to deliver a World Cup and not lose his job before the start of the next one.
“It is a paradigm shift, it’s not common,” he said. “Brazil has a deep football passion, but it’s a shift that gives me time to implement my ideas fully and, consequently, there’s a greater chance for success. Maybe I’m lucky — other great managers could be here.’’
On paper, this is a hardened, experienced squad in the main, but on feel, there is a new vibrancy to it, afforded by a young cabal of forwards — Martinelli, 21, Rodrygo, 21, Vinicius, 22, Antony, 22, Richarlison, 25, Raphinha, 25, Gabriel Jesus, a baby-faced 26 — almost all of whom are playing at a World Cup for the first time. Together, they offer the enticement of this being a throwback Brazil side of fun, flavour and flair, after the disappointments of more functional outfits at recent tournaments. At 30, Neymar is still the star, but also now the senior man among them.
Young forwards offer the enticement of this being a throwback Brazil side full of fun, flavour and flair
“The best part of that is that he has no vanity,” Silva said yesterday, an eyebrow-raising claim. “The team welcomed the younger guys with open arms. In my opinion, they will help Neymar, because they can share responsibilities. Our forwards are great in one-on-one situations, and that can open space for Neymar between the lines, where he is deadly.”
It will not be as easy as in previous tournaments for Brazil to unite behind Neymar, the messiah figure on whom hopes at the past two World Cups have been almost solely pinned. During a fiercely-fought, nation-dividing presidential election campaign, the Paris Saint-Germain forward threw his support behind far-right incumbent Jair Bolsonaro. Many Brazilians feel betrayed, and will struggle to give the same backing to their former idol.
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Bolsonaro, who was eventually ousted by former president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva last month, also seized on the iconic yellow national jersey as a political symbol, tarnishing it to such an extent that the team’s blue change strip sold out faster when the new kits were released earlier this year.
Brazil’s election cycles always climax in World Cup years, but this unique winter tournament means that, unusually, the result is already known. The hope is that a win here will prove the start of a national healing process.
“I can say to the supporters that they can believe in us because from the inside we have no concerns and we are ready to deliver a great World Cup,” Silva added. “Of course, the title is a long way away, but it costs nothing to dream that we can win.”