There are the types of goals that every team demands from their No9, and others that are only part of the job description if you are applying to be Brazil’s.
Kick-off at the Lusail Stadium signalled the start of the final game of this opening round of fixtures, our first glimpse at the 31st and 32nd of the tournament runners, but it was only with Richarlison’s second goal, an outrageous piece of control and acrobatic finish on the volley, that Brazil truly arrived.
“My childhood dream has come true,” said Richarlison, who feared it was cooked when suffering a calf injury in action for Spurs little more than a month ago. “It’s a wonderful night, a beautiful victory and now we have six games to reach our goal.”
Brazil at the World Cup is to football what Roger Federer at Wimbledon is to tennis, and Tiger Woods at The Masters to golf. This might have been the Selecao simply shaking off the cobwebs in straight sets in round one, hacking round on a Thursday a couple under par, but there were flickers to back up the pre-tournament assumption that they will still be here for the final next month — and certainly enough to suggest that watching them will be plenty of fun along the way.
Tite was as good as his word, starting with an adventurous front-four of Neymar, Vinicius Jr, Raphinha and Richarlison. The Brazil coach had named what seemed a luxuriously top-heavy squad including nine forwards, but by full-time had used eight of them, swapping his entire front line in a show of late power once a resilient Serbia had finally been worn down.
At half-time, with the game goalless, a remix of ABBA’s Gimme, Gimme, Gimme played over the PA and, given the way the lavish approach to stoppage-time has had these 10pm matches stretching on, you wondered if its talk of a man after midnight might be prophetic.
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Brazil had not yet found their collective groove, instead relying on moments of individual flair, though that is a strategy that has not served them too badly historically.
Some teams might have one player whose every touch prompts a collective gasp of expectation — with Brazil it is half of the side. Vinicius, a winger who routinely turns blind alleys into open highway, launched one attack by wriggling out of a tight spot with a seal dribble in midfield. Lucas Paqueta, West Ham’s playmaker who was excellent in a deeper role, put Raphinha in with an audacious back-heel. Neymar, being heckled by the one pocket of red within a sea of sunshine yellow, shot from a corner and almost scored.
Neymar is a divisive figure in his homeland these days, having thrown major backing behind far-right president Jair Bolsonaro in the run-up to his election defeat, but you would not have known it from the ovation he received here, strategically trotting out to warm-up 30 seconds after his teammates. There again, the portion of the Brazilian public that feel most betrayed by their former national icon is hardly that with the means to fly halfway around the world for a football match.
The 30-year-old began the night just two goals shy of Pele’s all-time scoring record, but ended it with an ice-pack on his ankle and tears in his eyes after limping off. Tite offered an upbeat assessment at full-time — “we are confident Neymar will continue playing in the World Cup” — though Brazil’s team doctor suggested a rather nervier wait to discover the Paris Saint-Germain star’s fate.
This was just a start from Brazil, but enough to whet the appetite for what might be to come
The mind raced to 2014, when Neymar’s quarter-final injury against Colombia sent a nation into meltdown and prefaced the 7-1 annihilation by Germany, but should his absence prove prolonged, Brazil look better suited to cope here. That is as much thanks to Richarlison as anyone, whose early goal-of-the-tournament contender was preceded by a bundled rebound and took his tally to 19 in 39 games.
“As Tite says, ‘I am smelling goals!’,” Richarlison beamed afterwards. This was just a start from Brazil, but enough to whet the appetite for what might be to come.