The Brazil Globetrotters are the perfect fit for this hot and heavy World Cup

 Credit: Alamy
Credit: Alamy

Since last winning the World Cup in 2002 Brazil have fallen short time and time again, but will this time prove to be different? It seems made for them…

 

They’re the World Cup’s biggest draw but it’s been a lean two decades for the Brazil national team. Since winning the tournament in Japan 20 years ago, not only have they failed to add to their tally of five wins, but they also failed on a monumental scale when hosting it themselves in 2014, with their catastrophic 7-1 defeat to Germany their only semi-final appearance of this lean spell.

Indeed, they have failed to beat any European team at all in the knockout stages of this competition since winning the 2002 final.

But this time around, the mood around the Brazil team camp certainly does seem to be different. The days of Neymardependência, what the Brazilian media came to describe the team’s over-reliance on the output of this one player in recent years, seem to be over, or at least diminishing. If anything, Brazil might now have an over-abundance of talented attacking players.

Neymar, Gabriel Jesus, Vinicius Junior, Antony, Richarlison, Raphinha, Rodrygo, Gabriel Martinelli and Pedro is a range of attacking options unparalleled for depth elsewhere in the tournament and the defence isn’t too shabby either, with Alisson and Ederson as goalkeepers behind a defence that has only conceded three goals in eight games over the course of 2022. Elsewhere, defensive midfield anchor Casemiro has been one of the Premier League’s stand-out players this season.

But the atmosphere surrounding the Seleção hasn’t always been completely rosy this year. The politicisation of the famous yellow shirt by far-right (soon to be former) president Joao Bolsonaro during his election campaign has inevitably led to a disconnect with some Brazilians. But I should probably hush. FIFA said not to talk about the politics.

A sense of dislocation would certainly be understandable. The biggest single reason why Brazil barely even play in Brazil anymore is that the CBF long ago gave up the right to organise their own matches. These are arranged by a British company called Pitch International, and Pitch are pretty explicit on how they view the Brazil national team.

According to their own website, ‘Pitch has the rights to manage and monetise the Brazil Men’s National Football team’s friendlies, delivering all aspects of the world-renowned Brasil Global Tour’, which makes them sound like little more than international football’s Harlem Globetrotters, a branch of the light entertainment business rather than a formerly dominant iconic team in the highly competitive world of elite level professional sport.

The last international break was a case in point. Brazil played two matches in four days against Ghana and Tunisia, winning 3-0 and 5-1 respectively. But these matches were played in Le Havre and Paris, rather than Rio or Sao Paolo. Whether this was wise is open to question.

 Credit: Alamy
Credit: Alamy

But while this may well make for a sense of disconnect between the national team and a proportion of its fanbase, it doesn’t seem to have done the team any harm. Under head coach Tite, who’d been brought in when it seemed possible that they might not even qualify for the 2018 World Cup, they won the Copa America for the first time in 12 years in 2019 and their form since has broadly been such that they have coasted back to the top of FIFA’s rankings.

The draw for the finals hasn’t been unkind to them either, with modest group opponents in the form of Serbia, Switzerland and Cameroon. Qualification from that group would see them play the winners or runners-up from Group H: Portugal, Ghana, Uruguay or South Korea.

But perhaps Brazil’s big test of character might come in two forms. Firstly, should they play European opposition in the knockout stages of the competition. In 2002, they beat Belgium, England, Turkey and Germany to lift the title, but they haven’t beaten a European team at the business end of the tournament since. In 2006 France knocked them out. In 2010 it was the Netherlands. In 2014 it was Germany, and in 2018 it was Belgium.

Much has been made of this unusual run, with many suggesting a shifting power balance between European and South American football. Six different European nations – France, Italy, Spain, the Netherlands, Germany and Croatia – have reached the World Cup final since Brazil last did, while the only non-European team to have done so in the last 20 years was Argentina in 2010.

But if ever there was a time to change that pattern, it is now. Players are expected to wilt in the heat of Doha and European players are expected to do so to a far greater extent than others. Average temperatures throughout November and December in Qatar are 26 and 21 degrees Celsius respectively, but can get considerably higher, especially pitch-side.

The two months during which the tournament takes place will also be amongst the most humid of the year in Qatar, and Qatar has been described as ‘a strong contender for the most humid country on the planet’. Air conditioning is in place inside stadia, but players will have to train without, while acclimatisation – which is strongly recommended for dealing with such conditions – is barely possible because of the tightness of the schedule.

The country that literally contains the Amazon rainforest has players that should be able to cope with humidity, but a failure to lift the trophy in December would equal the 24 year run without lifting it between 1970 and 1994, and that builds pressure which can form a humidity of its own.

The other potential fly in their ointment is the resurgence of Argentina, who are now unbeaten in 36 games since Brazil won the 2019 Copa America. It’s the longest unbeaten run in their history, and even if you don’t get caught up in the ‘last chance for Lionel Messi‘ narrative, that’s a phenomenal run of form by any standards.

The nature of the latter stages of the World Cup means that there are a few variables at play, but should everything go according to form, Brazil and Argentina would meet in the semi-finals. Many might consider this to be the ‘true final’, but unfortunately for one of these two teams, that’s not really how knockout football works.

Brazil are also on an unbeaten run, though theirs ‘only’ dates back 15 games to when they lost to Argentina in the final of the 2021 Copa America. They may also have a last shot at a redemption story of their own with Neymar, upon whom so many of their hopes have been pinned over the last decade but who is reportedly considering retirement from the international game after this tournament.

It’s clear that they have the players to do it. They usually do. But with an unwelcome record on the horizon, the question that will determine whether they lift the trophy is: have the ghosts of 2014 been truly exorcised, or might they still be waiting to haunt them yet again?

It can hardly be said that it hasn’t happened before, in the histrionic pre-match reaction to Neymar not playing before that game against Germany in 2014, or in what happened to Ronaldo before the 1998 final in Paris. The pressure is immense from all sides, including pressure  players sometimes seem to put upon themselves.

If Brazil can tame those worst instincts, the World Cup is theirs for the taking. If they can’t, well, we’ve been there before.

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