With the 2014 finals just around the corner, Goal is running a series looking at every major nation and arguing the case for each winning the cup. Here we assess Brazil.
An unbeaten home run dating back to 2002 looked in danger. Aleksander Kolarov had twice gone close. Mitrovic had wasted a free header from six yards. Brazil was on the ropes. A notoriously demanding Sao Paulo public had already seen enough. The jeers had begun.
Neymar had over complicated. Paulinho was a passenger. Oscar, who had barely slept after the birth of his daughter, looked in need of a good rest. Fullbacks Dani Alves and Marcelo had seen those vast spaces behind them exploited. Hulk couldn’t even power his way into space. And Fred had been so devoid of service that he began trying to make a goal for himself. Brazil was having an off day.
The team's left the pitch at halftime to a chorus of boos. “It wasn’t a problem for any of my players,” said coach Luiz Felipe scolari. “They are ready for this." He had hoped they wouldn't have to be.
Over 12 months Felipao had solved almost every problem he inherited from Mano Menezes. He found a goalkeeper by sticking by Julio Cesar, identified his holding midfielder by plucking Luiz Gustavo out of the international wilderness, made Paulinho the all-rounder alongside him and forged a dynamic line of three who can interchange and lead the press from the front. He’d even found a center forward in Fred, who despite European skepticism has more than proved his worth.
The Confederations Cup saw a team transformed. In five games Brazil went from national disappointment to outright favorite for the World Cup. The biggest failure had been not beating those perceived to be ‘top-level’ international teams, which was emphatically tossed aside with victories over Italy and Spain.
Since the opening game of that tournament, Brazil has gone from a team that won three in nine to one that has triumphed in 15 of its last 16 – and with an aggregate score of 44-6. The XI that started against Serbia was identical to the one that brushed aside the reigning world champion at the Maracana one year ago.
Scolari had found his formula. He had also cultivated a feeling in the camp akin to the one that led to his 2002 world champion to being dubbed ‘The Scolari Family.’ Both Hulk and David Luiz described the squad as a "family they never wanted to leave".
Felipao then launched a lone campaign to completely rewrite the Maracanazo rhetoric. Tired of persistent questions over the demons of 1950's defeat to Uruguay, in Feburary Scolari recast the protagonists of the nation's greatest tragedy: "Before 1950, Brazil had never made it to the final – that team were the pioneers of the five world titles we have won since then."
Jetting around the world on the Gillette Brazil Global Tour, the players had landed in every country to a welcome befitting their star status. And Neymar was the undisputed star of the show. While he is still adapting to life in La Liga, the 22-year-old has been consistently firing for his country. He now has 31 goals in 49 internationals and has been by far the most productive in terms of goals and assists since Scolari's return.
In November, following a 2-1 victory over Chile, Scolari responded to yet another questions about 1950 World Cup by telling his interrogator: “Brazil will be world champions.” And he had every reason to believe so.
But there was one hurdle yet to be cleared: how will Brazil react in front of an impatient home crowd when things get off to a slow start. They had gone into the break leading in every one of their five games during the Confederations Cup; in three of those they had been ahead inside the opening 10 minutes.
In Sao Paulo on Friday the wheels come off. And at the moment David Luiz and Thiago Silva collided, the aftershock risked derailing the Selecao freight train. But football, particularly in major international tournaments, is won and lost in moments. Thankfully for Brazil, as Mitrovic squared for Markovic, an offside flag came to the rescue.
Instead of pictures of the duo colliding like Laurel and Hardy, David Luiz posted on his Instagram the image a couple of seconds later - one that he said portrayed this side’s ultimate strength: “This picture shows what our group really is! All together we'll be something, separated we're nothing. Thank you God for making me part of this family. Always together, bro.”
On Friday Brazil slipped and fell. But the team hauled itself up. Together the players survived, and they remain favourites for a sixth world title.
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