It’s probably fair to say, Brazil’s status as favourites to win the 2018 World Cup will come as a surprise to some. It is after all just four years since they capitulated in front of passionate home support and conceded 10 goals in their final two matches at the 2014 tournament. Four years on, in the altogether more unfamiliar and less Brazilian conditions of Russia, most bookies view the South American giants as more likely winners than strong European sides such as Germany, Spain and France.
The reason for that is a pretty remarkable transformation that has taken place over the past couple of years when Brazil finally seem to have managed to rise again and put past misery behind them. However their path to this point has been far from simple and there were plenty of setbacks along the way as they tried to move on from what happened at the 2014 World Cup.
Their journey over the past four years has certainly been eventful:
Read more: Brazil’s squad for Russia 2018
Brazil 1-7 Germany
Brazilian sports daily Lance called the loss ‘The Biggest Shame in History’ as the Seleção were sent packing from their own World Cup in the most brutally humiliating of fashions. While no Brazilians were under the illusion that their squad for the tournament was one of their finest offerings, nobody could have predicted they would exit it in such an embarrassing way.
The inquest to the defeat was long and arduous with some reflecting on the death of the beautiful game in Brazil, a country that has given more to football than perhaps any other. Knee-jerk reactions aside, there were clearly some pretty serious issues that needed fixing if Brazil were going to be in a position to challenge to win their sixth World Cup at any point in the near future.
Dunga Returns, Players are axed but Old Problems Remain
The initial solution was a bit of a blast from the past as Brazil’s 1994 World Cup winning skipper Dunga returned for his second spell as coach having previous led the team at the 2010 tournament. His original reign was blighted by criticisms that he was too negative while his decision not to select Neymar in the squad for South Africa was another major blot on his copybook. In truth few Brazilians mourned his departure after that tournament but in the backdrop of a 7-1 Semi-Final defeat, the appointment of a more defensively minded coach didn’t seem such a bad idea.
After such a loss, there were widespread calls for a squad clear-out and Dunga didn’t disappoint. Brazil’s 2014 Semi-Final starting eleven included the mistake-prone Dante, unproven midfielder Bernard as well as the much-maligned forward Fred and keeper Júlio César, who plied his trade for QPR at the time. None of the quartet have featured since while Maicon, another starter against Germany, would only make one more appearance for Brazil following the tournament.
Initially Dunga seemed to get a lot right. Brazil followed up the 2014 World Cup with ten straight wins and eight clean sheets. The introduction of Miranda, then a key member of a formidable Atletico Madrid back four, was key in improving things although David Luiz still remained a key part of the side for now.
However the first competitive action since the World Cup brought fresh disappointment. Brazil exited Copa America at the Quarter-Final stage on penalties against Paraguay having failed to really catch the eye in any of their group games either. The sending off and subsequent suspension of Neymar in a 1-0 defeat to Colombia didn’t help matters and the tournament raised fresh doubts over the futures of several members of the side while Dunga’s second honeymoon period was certainly over.
A shaky start to World Cup Qualifying
The doom and gloom merchants were certainly back following Copa America and there were those that suggested Brazil may struggle to even make it to the 2018 World Cup given the strength in depth that existed in South America. Their qualifying campaign commenced with a 2-0 defeat in Chile and Brazil would win just two of their first six qualifiers to leave their participation in the tournament certainly in some doubt.
Defensively they were again looking increasingly vulnerable and March 2016 brought two 2-2 draws. First Uruguay created a host of chances as they fought back from 2-0 down to draw in Recife while only an injury time goal from Dani Alves rescued a point for Brazil in Paraguay. The results ensured Copa América Centenario would be a make or break tournament for Dunga.
Copa América Centenario & A Fresh Low
Brazil’s tournament metal was tested for a fourth straight summer (including 2013 Confederations Cup) with the one-off staging of a Copa América Centenario in the United States. Again they found themselves without their talisman as Neymar was rested so he could play in the Rio Olympics later that summer.
In his absence, Benfica’s veteran forward Jonas was the surprise choice to lead the line, one of several calls that didn’t really come off. There was a glimpse into the future with a 4-1-4-1 formation, Casemiro in a holding role and greater faith placed in Philippe Coutinho but besides a 7-1 demolition of minnows Haiti, Brazil again failed to shine on the big stage. A 0-0 draw against Ecuador and shock 1-0 defeat to Peru saw them exit at the Copa America group stage for the first time since 1987 and the writing was on the wall for Dunga.
Tite comes in, a New Star is Born and Fortunes immediately change
As coach of a Corinthians side that had won the previous year’s Brazilian title at an absolute canter, Tite was seen as the most obvious choice to succeed Dunga. Although he was an experienced coach, some 25 years into a managerial career that hadn’t been particularly remarkable until more recent times, Tite would prove the man to truly move Brazil into a new era. He succeeded, where Dunga had failed, in adopting a more European approach and learning from the likes of Germany who had offered a masterclass in positive, pressing football in 2014.
Brazil were suddenly defending a higher-line and playing a more attractive, exciting style than they’d utilised under Dunga. Results were good too as Brazil won their first eight matches under Tite, seven of which were World Cup qualifiers.
Tactical tweaks aside, the emergence of new attacking talent in the shape of Gabriel Jesus was also key. Tite handed the Palmeiras forward his debut in his first game in charge and the teenager didn’t disappoint. Two late goals from Gabriel Jesus secured a 3-0 win at altitude in Quito and Brazil suddenly had a new lease of life, scoring 18 goals in their next 6 qualifiers as they cruised to the top of the standings.
What had started out as potentially one of their toughest ever challenges in terms of merely making it to a World Cup, ended with Brazil becoming the first qualifiers as they beat Paraguay 3-0 in March 2017.
Read more: Brazil’s 2018 World Cup Timeline
The Build-up to Russia 2018 – A Nation believes again
Having sealed such an early qualification, the build-up to the 2018 World Cup has been a long one for Brazil. It has given Gabriel Jesus a chance to get more experience under his belt and an exciting front three completed by Neymar and Coutinho more game time together.
Results have largely been good too with just one defeat so far under Tite while a 1-0 friendly win in Berlin against Germany in March brought some closure on the events of four years previously in Belo Horizonte. Certainly belief and pride in the national team has returned to Brazil but ultimately we will have to wait and see what happens this summer to truly judge whether this is another false dawn or the reemergence of one of the true giants of international football.
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