After predicting that Manchester United were in an excellent position to run away with the Premier League title last summer, I should probably have made a note to never make such conclusive, concrete predictions ever again. But here I am, stating that I can see no other outcome than Brazil lifting the World Cup trophy for the sixth time at the Luzhniki Stadium on July 15. When will I learn?
It could also be described as foolish as Brazil were many people’s favourites on home soil at the previous World Cup before crashing out in the semi-finals in a staggering 7-1 defeat to eventual winners Germany. But in many ways, everything that happened four years ago, the good and the bad, is exactly why La Selecao are now in the perfect position to win the World Cup. The obvious place to start is with the squad, which in 2014 was ageing in areas and heavily dependent on a 22-year-old Neymar. Arguably too much pressure was placed on such young shoulders, and Brazil fell apart more than anyone could have ever imagined when the forward’s tournament was ended early through injury.
This year though, there is quality everywhere you look in the squad. Four of the last five World Cup golden glove winners have been from the victorious country, and by having two of the world’s best goalkeepers in Allison and Ederson, Brazil are in an excellent position to continue that trend. In front of them is a strong backline containing experienced heads Marcelo, Thiago Silva and Miranda, who played a key part in the Samba Boys achieving their best defensive record in a calendar year in 2017 – they let in just four goals in 11 games. In midfield there is room for defensive enforcers such as Fernandinho and Casemiro as well as creative sparks Renato Augusto and Paulinho.
At the top end of the side, an older, wiser and even better Neymar remains the talisman, but this time around he is surrounded by a wealth of attacking support. Gabriel Jesus and Roberto Firmino are two of the Premier League’s best strikers, whilst out wide the likes of Douglas Costa, Philippe Coutinho and Willian are also major threats. Simply put, there’s strength in depth in virtually every area.
Then in Tite, they have a very popular coach who has bonded this exciting squad together and created a positive atmosphere amongst the group, something that many previous managers often struggled to attain. The 57-year-old is seen by many fans to have given Brazil their flair and swagger back, and the team’s turnaround in fortunes under him is nothing short of remarkable.
Tite was appointed in June 2016, after Dunga was sacked following a group stage exit at the Copa America for the first time since 1987. He had also left the nation sixth in South American qualifying for the World Cup a third of the way through the campaign. But under Tite, Brazil won 32 of a possible 36 remaining points and ended up finishing ten points clear at top of the group with a goal difference of +30.
The wins have kept coming in friendlies too – England have been the only team to avoid defeat to Brazil since October. Tite’s men have picked up victories over fellow World Cup participants Croatia, Russia, Japan and most prestigiously of all Germany, and go into the tournament having conceded just once in eight matches.
Being on such scintillating form should make their group containing Switzerland, Costa Rica and Serbia, relatively easy to navigate. As we saw four years ago, Brazil will then grow into the tournament with increasing confidence, making for formidable opposition for Mexico, Belgium and then France if the tournament pans out as expected. Whilst these nations will undoubtedly provide tougher tests, I look at each of them and can see flaws much more easily than I can with Brazil.
It would then be down to a sensational final showdown with Germany. One thing that is for sure is that Joachim Low’s side are certainly better placed than many previous reigning champions to defend their crown and like Brazil have acquired a well earnt favourites tag for this tournament. But Brazil’s motivation, more specifically their desire to avenge that 7-1 defeat four years ago, puts them in pole position for me.
That night in Belo Horizonte was like nothing else ever seen at a World Cup before and stunned the entire world. It cast a dark cloud over Brazilian football that will always remain there to some extent, but a win against Germany in the final this year would go a long way to making that cloud hard to see. They will be helped by the fact the squad has been overhauled since the defeat. Just six of Brazil’s 2018 squad were in the 2014 contingent, whilst only four of those played a part in the embarrassment. So whilst the whole squad will have the desire to heal the nation’s pain, very few will have the scars from 2014 that could linger in their minds.
If Germany were to win then not only would Brazil’s wounds be cut deeper, but Die Mannschaft would draw level with La Selecao on five World Cup trophies as a result. Having been out on their own as the most successful team in the tournament’s history since 1994, it would be painful to lose that title, especially to a country who inflicted such torment on them four years ago. With that extra motivation, and without the pressure of being the hosts, Brazil have enormous potential in Russia. When they get set on a mission, they usually complete it.
There is of course the statistic that a non-European team has only ever won a European World Cup once, Brazil in Sweden in 1958, but for me this has very little significance. Russia 2018 won’t be that similar to any World Cup held in a central European country such as Spain (1982), Italy (1990) or Germany (2006) where Brazil struggled to make an impact. But regardless, only three of Brazil’s squad don’t play they club football in Europe, so it is not as if they are not used to playing in the continent.
They have experience of playing in Russia too, having faced this year’s hosts in a friendly at the Luzhniki Stadium in March when they ran out 3-0 winners and got a feel for the summer’s surroundings. In addition, with Russia being the vast country it is, there will be a lot of travelling for teams that could potentially take it’s toll. But this shouldn’t bother Brazil, who are used to clocking up air miles. Just one of their last 12 friendlies have actually been in Brazil – in the last year or so they have played in Australia, France, England (twice), Germany, Austria and, as aforementioned, Russia.
Ultimately, 2018 is Brazil’s chance to show that they remain one of the globe’s best footballing nations. Having reached the semi-finals in just one of the last three World Cups, before being humiliated once they’d got there, they have a point a prove. It’s time for a new generation of football fans to fall in love with the Samba Boys just as millions in the past watched on in awe as Pele, Garrincha, Romario, Ronaldo and more dazzled in front of their eyes.