Casemiro Brasil Equador Eliminatórias 05 06 2021Lucas Figueiredo/CBF

How Real Madrid star Casemiro became a leader for Brazil - on and off the field

The last two weeks preceding the Copa America have been far from straightforward for Brazil, who kick off on Sunday with the tournament opener against Venezuela.

The reigning South American champions saw the tournament foisted upon them after original hosts Argentina and Colombia pulled out in the midst of a second wave of coronavirus infections, prompting another acute health crisis on the continent.

The news did not go down well in the Selecao camp, causing the squad to take almost unprecedented measures to stop the Copa being played in one of the most severely affected countries in the entire world.

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At the heart of that resistance was Casemiro, their leader on the field who stepped up to face the critics when the five-time World Cup winners were on the verge of tearing themselves apart.

The Real Madrid midfielder has regularly taken the captain's armband under Tite since the coach made the decision in 2019 to remove that responsibility from Neymar and rotate it around the squad.

Only Dani Alves has led the team out on more occasions than Casemiro, a natural choice given his position in the heart of the team and all-action style of play. As it happened, he was called to lead during a moment of crisis.

Casemiro is not known for his ease with public speaking. He prefers to make his point within the confines of the pitch and leave bombastic press statements to others around him. Perhaps for that very reason, the few non-football gestures he let slip over the past two weeks were so eloquent.

He decided to boycott Brazil's first press conference following the awarding of the Copa in what was reported to be a protest at the decision, a move that was supported by his team-mates and confirmed by coach Tite.  

Casemiro Brazil GFXGetty Images

Tite also revealed the side's disbelief at the venue change in typically diplomatic terms prior to last Friday's World Cup qualifier against Ecuador.

It was not until after the game that the skipper finally broke his silence with a statement that said less about his team's feelings than their unity amid a bitter attack on Tite, who many demanded should lose his job with immediate effect for doubting Brazil's ability to host the Copa.

“We cannot say any more because everyone knows what we think,” he explained to reporters. “We cannot make it clearer. There is a lot of respect on our side, every time we want to give our opinion a lot of things take place.

“We want to speak after the game with Paraguay [last Tuesday] because the road to the World Cup is our focus. We want to express our opinions.”

Ultimately, Brazil resolved to stay in the Copa, a decision aided by the suspension of FA president Rogerio Caboclo on sexual harassment charges. "We are against organising the Copa America, but we will never say no to the Brazilian national team," the team affirmed in a joint statement.

"We have a mission to accomplish in the historic green and yellow jersey of the five-time world champions."

Tite remains in his post and most reports point to Casemiro as key in keeping the coach on board. He stood up to those in charge and ensured the team would retain a united front.

Back on the field he let his game do the talking, putting in a typically commanding performance after handing the captaincy over to Marquinhos as he picked up his 50th cap and drove his team past hard-hitting Paraguay to maintain their 100 per cent qualifying record to date.

Neymar Brazil GFXGetty Images

The importance of the 29-year-old to the cause can hardly be understated. A relative late starter in international football, he finally nailed down a regular spot at the 2016 Copa America.

Casemiro holds down the midfield, either single-handedly or alongside Manchester United's Fred in recent matches, and allows Brazil's attacking stars the freedom to push forward safe in the knowledge that their backs are always covered.

He is far and away the best midfielder South America has to offer in the present day, and without a doubt among the world's elite.

Just as importantly, he never shies away when the boots start to fly. That is a vital trait when taking on the continent's most fearsome competitors such as Uruguay and Paraguay, infamously well-versed in the game's dark arts. Casemiro, unlike many players accustomed to the more sedate climes of European football, relishes it.

Incredibly, he has never finished on the losing side in a competitive Brazil match. Both of the side's last two defeats – to Peru in the 2016 Copa and Belgium in the 2018 World Cup quarters – occurred when the ever-combative midfielder was suspended and his talents were sorely missed.

Tite may have been able to overcome the loss of Neymar two years ago as Brazil ran out champions of South America but missing Casemiro would be a body blow to his plans.

No single other player is as important in this team and for that alone he would richly deserve to wear the armband on a permanent basis.

The star's activism and solidarity, rare virtues in the modern, hyper-commercialised game, only further confirm that point, marking him out as Brazil's leader in every sense of the word.