OPINION - Raisa Simplicio & Rupert Fryer
From the depths of the 7-1 and Copa America humblings to the highs of qualifying and the low of a quarter-final defeat to Belgium, the last four years have been a roller-coaster ride for Brazil.
Defeat to Germany in 2014 called into question the entire makeup of Brazilian football over the previous few decades. But after failing to make any real progress under previous coach Dunga, the rebirth only began in July 2016 with the arrival of Tite.
The former Corinthians boss provided the Selecao the facelift they so desperately needed, dragging the team into the 21st century with a contemporary style that also drew on the great historical strengths of the country’s football.
He moved the team higher up the pitch, got them more compact than ever before, played proactive football in which his side sought to impose themselves on every opposition, and rediscovered Brazil’s love of the ball itself by insisting his team dominate possession and pass through the midfield.
Come Russia 2018, the five-time world champions were back on international football’s map, singled out among the favourites for the title.
They were adaptable, too. One of the main characteristics of his side was that he sought versatility from his players, demanding they that prove themselves multi-functional and were able to evolve along with the team itself.
Moscow Metro tonight! Brasil fans Posted by Brasil Global Tour on Wednesday, June 27, 2018
Philippe Coutinho, for example, played almost the entirety of the qualification process on the right wing. However, as the World Cup drew closer, Tite began to experiment. Desperate for more dynamism and creativity in central areas, the Barcelona man was handed a new role at the heart of the midfield.
The team’s evolution in the 12 months leading up to Russia saw the focus turn to breaking down teams that would sit deep and play only on the counter. Willian returned to the right and, in Thiago Silva, Tite even brought in a central defender almost exclusively for his attacking qualities - to pose a threat from set-pieces and provide the option of launching attacks from deep.
Tite also found balance, both on and off the field. He spoke endlessly of the need for calm and reasoned debate, to draw from the great emotion in and around the squad but also to harness its powers for good.
"The World Cup is made up of human relationships, you have to feel how the dressing room is established, how the players interact, the responsibility, the joy, the pride, you try to balance things out,” he said, desperate not to see a return of the hysteria that led to the Selecao’s collapse four years ago. "If you're hyper, you try to slow it down; if you're a bit low, you try to hype it up."
His side grew tactically, too. Come Russia he had a team that could revert to Plan B, dropping off and themselves looking to break in transition. The hitherto ubiquitous double-pivot had been left behind in favour of a three-man central midfield where Casemiro would sit, Paulinho would shuttle, and Coutinho would attack. Everything was about balance.
Tite’s trademark 4-1-4-1 morphed into a 4-4-2, a 4-3-3 and a 4-2-3-1. Renato Augusto and Marquinhos, mainstays of the previous two years, became observers from the substitutes’ bench. Fernandinho had to make do with cameo roles, as did Roberto Firmino. Tite was a man with a plan - a plan that would never stop evolving.
Against Belgium he was outfoxed in the first-half by Roberto Martinez, who shuffled his pack to free Kevin De Bruyne down Brazil’s left, where the triangle of Marcelo, Coutinho and Neymar was always going to leave space to exploit.
But Tite responded at half-time and, at 2-0 down thanks to freak own goal and a brilliant strike from De Bruyne, the game swung back into Brazil’s favour – they created more than enough chances to win the match. Defeat always hurts, but this one a slightly less.
"Let's not all suffer so much, it is better to understand that losing is part of the game... may we Brazilians learn lessons from defeats, our mistakes, and look to the virtues of our opponents,” wrote Juca Kfouri.
Four years ago, Brazil were lucky to make the semi-finals. This year, they will consider themselves extremely unfortunate to exit before then.
“Brazil were eliminated because of individual and collective mistakes, because of pure chance, and mainly because Belgium have four players who are among the best in the world in their positions (Courtois, De Bruyne, Hazard and Lukaku),” wrote the brilliant Tostao as a nation began a process of mourning.
"We have to let go of our pride and learn from the obvious: Against the best teams, the chances of each winning and losing are almost the same.”
A man who, in 2012, took over a year to travel around Europe's top clubs and speak to the great coaches from Carlo Ancelotti to Carlos Bianchi in order to further his understanding of the game, time and again Tite has stressed the importance of learning. Now it was time for everyone else to join him.
Criticism is not only inevitable following any type of failure, it’s an important part of a process that will define the future. Should Firmino have started? Should Coutinho have been moved back to the right? Should Brazil have taken another fit central midfielder who could sit with Fernandinho? Why were chances missed? And has Tite's Brazil always looked better with Renato Augusto? Ask the questions and search for answers.
Brazil’s World Cup exit doesn't deserve mud-slinging, the singling out of individuals for absurd criticism, and unpalatable personal attacks. Instead, healthy the debate should be encouraged.
And it should be measured and considered in the context of two years of excellent work, of a process that has returned Brazil to their rightful place among the game’s elite. The Brazilian Football Confederation (CBF) deserve high praise for immediately offering Tite a new four-year contract, which he is now considering.
The immediate aftermath of defeat feels always like a low point, but there are countless reasons to insist the Selecao are on an upward trajectory. And with Tite leading the climb, the Selecao will have every reason to believe they can make it back to the summit in 2022.