Brazil: Another South American failure could be in the making
Despite prodigious talent, Neymar and company lacked basic organizational efficiency in 1-1 draw with Switzerland
By JOHN DOYLE
Monday, June 18, 2018 Print Edition, Page B13
It is a testament to the predictability of World Cup prognostications that Brazil is always a favourite. Even if Brazil has not actually looked anything like a potential World Cup champion since 2002.
In part, it's nostalgia and longing. The world wants a samba-soccer Brazil: Smiling, yellow-clad players dancing past cloddish European opposition. Like dads yearning for the music and vibe of the 1970s, soccer pundits want that sweet feeling back. Well, it's not coming back yet.
A superbly organized Switzerland held this iteration of Brazil to a 1-1 draw and could have pulled off an upset win. Upset?
You had to see Neymar's theatrical complaining to understand the other meaning of "upset." If complaining was an Olympic sport, Neymar could win another gold medal for his country.
This was advertised as "the new Brazil."
Under manager Adenor Bacchi, usually known as Tite, the team was pronounced efficient, organized and tactically astute.
And talented, of course. It has three of the best attacking players in the world in Neymar, Willian and Gabriel Jesus. And a gifted midfielder in Philippe Coutinho. The team allowed few goals in qualifying, suggesting it was defensively sound. Word is that Tite spent ages in Europe, studying the tactical systems of club and national teams in order to bring discipline, strategic options and advanced knowledge to this World Cup. Well, he must have skipped Switzerland in his research.
Playing a loose 4-3-3 formation, Brazil started with some lovey fluidity. Dads everywhere must have felt that sweet nostalgic sensation. But in truth, Brazil was flattered by Coutinho's gorgeous long-range goal in the 21st minute. Switzerland took over possession and never looked rattled, no matter how many times Neymar was able to pass accurately to Willian or Jesus.
If touched or even shadowed by a Swiss defender, Neymar took umbrage. Not entirely fit and still in recovery from an injury, the striker began to look increasingly flaky on the ball. Very little was created, and if Tite was truly wise, he would have substituted Neymar at half time.
Early in the second half, Switzerland began to get canny. This was one of those evenly matched games that is often decided in the key period of the 51st to 65th minute and, indeed, in the 51st minute, Switzerland got an equalizer through a finely taken header from a corner kick. Brazil claimed goal-scorer Steven Zuber had pushed a defender to get to the ball, but it was little more than schoolboy shuffling and the reality is that Brazil is terrible at defending set pieces. Potential World Cup champions? Needing work on organizational basics is more like it.
All this is not to say that Brazil is sputtering out after an opening game draw. There is enough talent to beat anybody if the talent is more meticulously co-ordinated.
There are danger signs, though. At 82 minutes, Brazil had exactly two shots on target. It is a team that looks more diligent and cohesive than the one that crashed out of the World Cup in 2014, taking a hammering by Germany in a game that ended 7-1. (Speaking of nostalgia, that result must be still warming some German supporters following the loss to Mexico in Sunday's other major game.) This team isn't that shambolic outfit.
Yet there's an ominous pattern unfolding now. One that might make for a better World Cup and a lot of surprises. First, it is a maxim that South American teams rarely do well at a tournament held in Europe.
That maxim holds just as much validity as wide-eyed, hopeful expectations about Brazil and samba soccer. Argentina held 1-1 by Iceland. Peru defeated by a Denmark team that has precisely two world-class players. The whiff of South American failure is in the air.
Second, only one of the five favourite teams won their opening match and that was France, in a lucky 2-1 against Australia. This tournament is the better for Germany's defeat and both Argentina and Brazil being held. That makes every game matter more, every goal and point count for more. There will be no dull or irrelevant games in the first round.
Can Germany recover? Yes, probably.
Can Argentina meet the expectations attached to Lionel Messi and his helpers?
Probably not. Croatia will be a stern test on Thursday. Brazil's path is now bumpy and Costa Rica will be unawed for Friday's game against a team that could come to define a mass South American collapse.
Prognostication or reality? Lets see.
Brazilian forward Neymar tumbles to the ground in the match between Brazil and Switzerland in Rostov-On-Don, Russia, on Sunday. While Brazil isn't sputtering after an opening game draw, an ominous pattern is unfolding, John Doyle writes.
JOE KLAMAR/AFP/GETTY IMAGES