Philippe Coutinho had to wait.
Between his international debut in 2010 and his omission from Luiz Felipe Scholari’s squad Brazil for World Cup 2014, he wouldn’t appear once for this country. The first half-decade of his international career proved a series false starts and frequent frustrations.
A surprising resurrection at Liverpool saw him return to A Selecao under Dunga as Brazil attempted to recover from the 7-1, but his misadventures served only to reflect those of the team’s overall. That his favoured position, cutting in from wide-left, was occupied by Neymar restricted him to intermittent cameos. "Coutinho is taking advantage of his opportunity," proclaimed Dunga after a hat-trick in a 7-1 drubbing of a pitiful Haiti at the Copa America 2016, a tournament Neymar skipped for the Olympics. A few days later, Brazil crashed out at the group stage.
This week, Paulinho insisted that “in four years you learn a lot of things.” For two of them following that infamous evening in Belo Horizonte, both Coutinho and a navel-gazing Brazil learned little.
But then came new coach Tite, far and away his country’s best. Everything changed - both for Brazil and Coutinho. Initially, he was back on the bench, but a sudden dip in Willian’s form – his personal problems at the time no doubt a contributor – gave Coutinho another opportunity. This time, finally parachuting into a cohesive Brazil team, he grabbed it with both hands. Coutinho has been a regular ever since.
A reborn Brazil arrive at World Cup 2018 among the favourites and likely the best-prepared Selecao for generations. Tite has dragged them into the 21st century, ensuring they can play both reactively and proactively. This team have 15 clean sheets in 20 full internationals and have hit 46 goals. They have a mean defence, a balanced midfield and an attack no longer solely reliant on one player. “The 7-1 is no longer in our heads,” says Thiago Silva. “We are at the level to be world champions again.”
Neymar and co. are in Russia seeking greatness. Coutinho, meanwhile, may yet have it thrust upon him – for a late change in tact from the studious Tite has left the Barcelona man as arguably his side’s most important player. Plan B appears to have become Plan A for Brazil. And Coutinho is the central figure.
For the first 18 months of Tite’s tenure, Coutinho for Willian at right-midfield was the sole change to Brazil’s starting line-up. But as the World Cup drew nearer, the meticulous Tite began to experiment. As a series of emphatic victories restored Brazil’s reputation, he became increasingly concerned by the opposition sitting back to frustrate his side with a low block.
His solution was to restore a back-in-form Willian to the right to provide more width and begin trialling Coutinho in a central midfield role. It brought mixed results. Nobody has won more than Coutinho’s 19 caps for Brazil under Tite, but nobody with more than 10 appearances has completed fewer than his two full games.
The frustrating goalless draw against a defensive England in November was a turning point. The cerebral and elegant Renato Augusto, who’d been key to Tite’s success, would be dropped. The coach’s eyes and ears on the pitch, time and again Renato was pulled aside during games and asked to translate Tite’s ideas to his colleagues.
Philippe Coutinho bears down on Germany's goal (Getty)
Moreover, he was the one player who could dictate the tempo, vital to the possession-based approach his contemporary coach was eager to restore to Brazilian football. But, despite Renato’s importance to the team, a knee injury, the fact he was playing in China and that he had clocked up around half the domestic minutes of his Brazil colleagues in 2018, forced a rethink.
“Every quality you think a top player needs, Coutinho has,” Tite told us in March. “His passing, his competitiveness, his speed of thought and execution, the assists he provides… and now he is more mature, which is very important.”
The big question now is whether he has the qualities to provide a bit more while also retaining what Renato offered, particularly when Brazil are pressed. Earlier this month, the first 45 minutes of friendlies against Croatia and Austria both saw the Selecao struggle under midfield pressure in the absence of Renato's cool head and smart feet.
There is also the issue of upsetting the midfield balance. Casemiro was the pivot and Renato sat to conduct, leaving Paulinho shuttle up and down, timing late runs forward. “Renato was key to releasing Paulinho,” former Brazil great Zico told The Independent. “Paulinho looked isolated in the last couple of games, holding much more.” Paulinho has been a star of Brazil’s resurrection under Tite and sits behind only Neymar and Gabriel Jesus in the goalscoring charts under this coach.
“Tite asked me to be more of an organiser, to let others be free around me,” Paulinho told The Mirror this week. "We want to release Coutinho… Tite wants him nearer the goal.” But can he do that while also setting the rhythm? “He is different from Renato,” says Zico. “Coutinho is a more attacking player, who can dribble and offers an individual threat.”
There is still a possibility that Fernandinho, or indeed Renato, will be restored to the midfield should Brazil meet a top team in the knockout round but, should Coutinho star during the group stage, it will be tough for Tite to make a change. “I think Tite can use him there against any team,” insists Zico.
Coutinho, then, will have a key role to play this month as Brazil seek a sixth world title. It’s exactly what he’s been waiting for.