- • Joined ESPN in 2011
• Covered two Olympics, a pair of Rugby World Cups and two British & Irish Lions tours
• Previously rugby editor, and became senior writer in 2018
DOHA, Qatar — The beauty of Richarlison’s goal and Brazil’s third even prompted Tite to dance. That sight of the 61-year-old manager joining in the celebrations should be ominous for the rest of the teams at the World Cup.
Monday’s 4-1 Brazilian demolition of South Korea, complete with a mesmeric performance by the returning Neymar serves as a statement to the rest of the tournament. Following a group stage where they showed glimpses of brilliance, the first 45 minutes was a blur of brilliant yellow and blue as they dismantled the opposition amid a flurry of flicks and tricks with Neymar the chief puppeteer. He had the match on a piece of string as Brazil went into the break 4-0 up — it could have easily been double. It’s what Tite calls their “offensive boldness.”
That first 45 was as close as you’ll come to seeing a complete half. Take that third goal from Richarlison. After a South Korea clearance fell in his direction, he bounced the ball three times on his head, spun past his marker, and laid it off to Marquinhos. He played a short pass to Thiago Silva on the edge of the box, who responded with a bisecting through ball into Richarlison’s path and he finished the move off: both centre-backs playing a key role, playing with precision to craft a goal fit to honour any Brazilian vintage.
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It was jogo bonito in its 2022 form, Brazil playing as a crystalized entity. For those 45 minutes, the understanding and trust was complete. It extended into aspects of the second half — even to the point where Casemiro took it upon himself to remove a flying interloper from Neymar’s face as he prepared to take a second-half free kick with the attacker already locked in his set piece process — but of course with that sort of advantage and the disruption of substitutes, the intensity drops.
We’ve been waiting for this, and so has Neymar. Brazil have been on a journey of contrasting emotions here in Qatar. The perfect 2-0 start against Serbia was tainted by the setback of losing Danilo and Neymar to injury. Then came the 1-0 win over Switzerland, but it was weighed against the injury to Alex Sandro. The 1-0 defeat to Cameroon followed, as did the tournament-finishing setbacks for Alex Telles and Gabriel Jesus. The notable performances of Casemiro against Switzerland and the relentlessness of Vinicius Junior and Richarlison against Serbia was all lost in the concern and paranoia of another competition moving on without the Selecao.
In those last two Neymar-less matches, they lacked a spark in the middle of the pitch. They tried short-term solutions: Lucas Paqueta struggled to fill it against Serbia, though Rodrygo did better off the bench. Rodrygo then couldn’t get a hold of the tempo against Cameroon in a much-changed line up and that match slipped away. But although Neymar is unpredictably brilliant on the ball, he brings order to this team. Tite says Neymar brings “technical leadership.” Brazil’s assistant coach Cesar Sampaio added “[Neymar] provides competitive advantage, he makes the difference on the pitch.”
It wouldn’t be a World Cup without a Neymar setback. In 2014 he watched on injured as Brazil lost their semifinal 7-1 to Germany. In 2018 he came into the tournament off the back of an ankle injury and tried to play through the pain. Here it was that ankle knock against Serbia which triggered the return of painful memories. But maybe out of that misfortune is a sign of Brazilian fortunes aligning for their sixth World Cup triumph.
Neymar — complete with his new peroxide hair do — was mesmerising against South Korea, but above all, he was the glue. Brazil’s ability to switch seamlessly between formations must be enough to give the opposition motion sickness, but whatever the system — whether he’s dropping deep, drifting to the wing, or playing up front as a two with Richarlison, he found a way to influence matters.
“I am very content with my performance,” Neymar said after the match. “That said I can always improve, I cannot be 100% satisfied with the performance today. We need to grow as our team.”
For all the talk of Neymar, it perhaps does the rest of the team a disservice: this was Paqueta’s finest game of the tournament by some distance and his finish for Brazil’s fourth was testament to the confidence he found. Richarlison was outstanding. Raphinha was there to provide the assist for Vinicius’ calmly taken opener. The makeshift back four with Eder Militao at right-back, and Danilo switching flanks to the left meant South Korea’s efforts were largely from distance for so much of the match. And then there was Casemiro — the man who could control the game’s heartbeat.
Brazil have frequently referenced the importance of the collective here in Qatar. While it is classic sports-speak, when you see Neymar celebrating his goal from the penalty by running into the stands to give the injury-stricken Alex Telles a hug, and then Weverton coming on for the final 10 minutes for Alisson — the third-choice keeper was the only player in the squad not to have featured so far in this World Cup — you see manifestations of Tite’s vision for this group.
But of course, one glorious 45 minutes in the stadium of assembled shipping containers will mean nothing if the whole Brazilian tower comes crashing down before the final on Dec. 18. The second half showed they can be pulled apart at the back, and South Korea deserved their 76th minute goal. Nothing is perfect — which is enough to prevent complacency, let alone the standards a Brazilian player is held to.
When you’re a Brazil player, there are reminders of expectation everywhere. Watching on from the cushioned seats in the stands like benevolent Roman Emperors were the class of 1998 and 2002: Rivaldo, Ronaldo, Cafu and Roberto Carlos. They helped them win their fifth star in 2002.
Then there’s the nation’s thoughts with the ill Pele. Early in the second half, the supporters behind the South Korea goal unveiled a tifo sending their best wishes and prayers to Pele. The players displayed their own banner at full-time, which simply read “Pele.” The legend himself sent a message of good luck to the team earlier in the day, but those reminders of the past all add to the privilege and pressure of being Brazil player in the present. Whichever era you are in, successes and failures are forever compartmentalised and evaluated against the legacy of previous greats who wore the famous shirt.
That pressure of expectation is constant but that first half was them filling the shirt, rather than merely wearing it. And you felt Neymar’s return and subsequent performance was the catalyst for it all. It was the line-up Brazil fans have been calling for, and for those 11 on the pitch, the occasion and the returning personnel meant for 45 minutes they danced and pulled apart what could have been a tricky opponent as their manager Tite watched on. “They have a language of dancing,” he said afterwards.
That first-half performance has set the standard and benchmark which we must hold Brazil to. There are no caveats or get-out clauses for this group. After what we saw in the 974 Stadium against South Korea, anything less than Brazil getting that sixth star on their jersey would be falling short. Tite’s aware. After praising the team’s “equilibrium” in their win over South Korea, he followed it up with a grounding qualification: “If you lose balance, it can be fatal.”
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