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Can Brazil exorcise the ghosts of the 2014 World Cup in Russia?

Abhranil Roy | Updated on: 19 June 2018, 19:30 IST
(Pascal Guyot/AFP)

Right after referee Cesar Arturo Ramos called yet another foul on Neymar in Brazil’s opening World Cup game against Switzerland, I threw up my hands in exasperation. It was the 10th foul on him and the showboating still did not stop. The 26-year-old was still as impudent as ever, but none of his tricks or frills produced the desired result throughout the game. Brazil didn’t win and I had enough.

In Fever Pitch, Nick Hornby’s beautiful account of life as a football fan, the protagonist Paul is upset after his favourite team Arsenal draw against lowly Derby County at home. His girlfriend tries to cheer him up by saying that it’s only a game. On hearing that, he explodes and says,” it quite clearly isn’t ‘only a game.’ I mean, if it was, do you honestly think I’d care this much?!”

Like every great form of art, football is based on man’s eternal quest to revolt against the meaningless. Sure, to the untrained eyes football is nothing more than 22 men running after a round ball trying to put it in a white net, but to the fan, either casual or hardcore, it represents life in its purest sense.

The frenetic frenzy to chase a goal, the skill and the dedication required to get one, the relief after getting to it and the inevitable cycle to start again to score another one: that in short, is football and by extension, life. And one would be hard-pressed to find a nation that has taken this art to level as ethereal as Brazil has.

South Americans an afterthought except in the footballing leagues?

The South Americans, for all intents and purposes, are an afterthought when it comes to international spheres. They do not boast of Nobel Prize winners, their culture is not the oldest or the grandest and neither do they have any stunning architecture of note. What they do have is an identity in football, an identity that has been built over more than a century and has seen them win everything there is to win at the international stage.

The effect of the sport on the nation and its people is so deep that it permeates through all caste and creed, across all layers of society, right from the country’s president to the have-nots living in the favelas. As such, it is natural that for a country which has such an impeccable record at the biggest competitions would be scarred by a World Cup semi-final 7-1 loss on their home soil.

5-time World Cup champions

Facts are often stranger than fiction and as hard as it is to believe that a 5-time World Cup champion would be humiliated in such a brutal manner, a travesty like that had actually happened. 4 years ago, the Selecao was facing the Die Mannschaft at the Maracana Stadium in a bid to get to the final. Both Neymar and Thiago Silva missed the match due to injury and suspension respectively, but no one expected the home side to suffer a rout like they did.

Gabriel Bouys/AFP

In the words of Jonathan Pearce, who was live-commenting the game,” Brazil is being humiliated, humbled and taken apart by Germany.” It was a wound that is unlikely to be forgotten for years to come, just like the one the country had suffered in 1950 at the very same venue in the final of that year’s edition.

Born out of that catastrophe was the burning desire to avenge the loss. Changes were made across all levels of player and management and slowly but steadily, they bore fruit. Brazil came into this year’s World Cup as one of the strong favourites, having lost just 1 of their last 21 games and having ended at the top of the South American qualifying campaign.

The side looked compact, fluid and above all, desperate to unleash their wrath on all those who stood between them and their much-awaited “Hexa”. Of course, having some of the players who were a part of the team that fateful night has only boosted their morale and hunger.

But all that is on paper and in meaningless friendly fixtures.

Is the team truly ready in reality?

Going by the first demonstration, it certainly seems that they are not.

Having seen Argentina slump to a draw and Germany subjected to a shocking defeat at the hands of Mexico, it was the perfect opportunity to unleash the magic of ”Juntos num só ritmo”(all in one rhythm, the core philosophy of Brazilian football). But Tite’s men missed the trick.

The Canarinhos named a fearsome starting XI, captained by the ever-reliant Marcelo. The front three comprised of Neymar, Gabriel Jesus and Willian while the midfield was made up of Casemiro, Paulinho and Coutinho. At the heart of the defence, Thiago Silva and Miranda prepared themselves to shut off the occasional Swiss counter-attack.

Brazil started the game brightly with Willian making repeated forays from the right wing. Coutinho gave the Men In Yellow the lead following a sensational far-post curler from outside the box in the 14th minute of the game. Fans and pundits both expected the Selecao to dominate and win the game comfortably from there on.

Joe Klamar/AFP

But that was not to be. Just like the previous World Cup where Brazil made a mess of a situation that was in their favour, they ceded control soon after the first goal. Switzerland, to their credit, kept the ball at their feet and stitched attacks every now and then.

The Brazilian midfield was overrun throughout the entire first half, with Xherdan Shaqiri especially tormenting the Selecao defence. Soon after half-time, the Swiss equalized through Steven Zuber following a controversial shove in the box on Miranda which the referee somehow missed.

Despite conceding, the Brazilians did not sort out their passing problems and galvanize their attack, and instead kept on relying on the mercurial Neymar to provide the inspiration. The Paris Saint-Germain (PSG) man was hacked to the ground on uncountable occasions throughout the game and was generally kept silent by an excellent Behrami.

Other than a penalty call on Gabriel Jesus, Brazil had nothing to show more until the last 10 minutes or so, when Roberto Firmino came on the pitch. The Liverpool forward showed why he is considered such a key cog in the tactical set-up once again, and if not for a string of fine saves from Yann Sommer, Brazil would have left Rostov-on-Don with all 3 points.

Entrusted to entertain but failing to do so

The Selecao are a side who are not expected to just win, but also win well. They are historically entrusted to entertain and exhale the audience but the show they put on yesterday was far from the standards that they have set for themselves. Ahead of their next game against Costa Rica on Friday, their manager Tite has to go back to the drawing board and figure out his best side.

The “Penta Champions” have an extremely strong bench. As such, one would imagine that a midfield with the passing ability of Fred or Augusto, the positional awareness and no-nonsense tackling of Casemiro and the brilliance of Coutinho would be best suited for that purpose. It is also imperative that Firmino starts as the number 9 for every game from now on, as he offers the option to consistently interchange positions with the wide forwards which make it extremely difficult to mark him.

Moreover, it is also imperative that Douglas Costa is picked over Willian in the right wing, as the Juventus man offers more pace and is a much more intelligent player than the latter. And last but not the least, Neymar has to learn how to pick himself up from the dust, be a little less selfish on the ball, shed his infantile and nonchalant approach to the game and bring other players into the game rather than always go for the outrageous skill or finish.

The Selecao have been placed in a relatively easy group and they are more likely to make it through to the knockout stages no matter how they play. Despite being the overwhelming favourites, the remaining two group games will not be easy, especially against Serbia. The Serbs have a reputation of “parking the bus” and using their physique to frustrate their opponents, a ploy that has already reaped fruits for the Swiss.

Tite is a manager known in Brazil for choosing efficiency over beauty, and is a follower of the “Carlo Ancelotti school of football” which prioritizes mixing a winning mentality with beautiful football. However, the focus is always on being able to emerge victorious at any cost, thus one is likely to expect a strong answer from the South Americans in their next game.

It is thus, mandatory for Brazil to bring their elements together. Only then will they be able to purge the mortification they had suffered in the last World Cup, or else it is likely that another ignominy awaits them in the knock-out stages of this year’s competition.

First published: 19 June 2018, 19:30 IST