Neymar is back, but Brazil is a changed team and country since the 2014 World Cup
June 8 at 10:06 AM
A mural of Brazilian soccer star Gabriel Jesus graces the ramshackle Sao Paulo neighborhood where he grew up. (Andre Penner/Associated Press)
RIO DE JANEIRO â" The Brazilian national soccer team was struggling to break down Croatiaâs defense during a friendly last Sunday in Liverpool, England, when Neymar came into a match for the first time since he fractured a bone in his foot in February. Running onto a pass, he headed deep into Croatiaâs penalty area, shimmied elegantly between two defenders, and shot high into the net.
Following Neymarâs game-changer, Brazil won, 2-0.
âThat goal was a perfect illustration of what Neymar brings to this Brazil s ide,â said Andrew Downie, the Brazil-based author of âDoctor Socrates,â an acclaimed biography of the great midfielder. âAt this level, these moments of inspiration are what decide matches.â
It also brought Neymar da Silva Santos Jr. closer to something he has yearned for since he was a small child.
âThank God I have this opportunity again, one more chance to try and be world champion for my country, which is a dream Iâve had since I was little,â he told Brazilâs biggest television news program recently, as the national team prepared to enter the World Cup starting June 14 in Russia as one of the favorites. âI hope it will be my Cup.â
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That moment of brilliance against Croatia made clear that the teamâs most important player is back in business â" good news for Brazilians with turbulent memories of the 2014 World Cup. An overconfident Brazil team assumed it would win the trophy on its home soil. Then Neymar was carried from a quarterfinal victory over Colombia on a stretcher following a nasty challenge from Juan ZÃºÃ±ega that broke a vertebrae. And in the semifinal, it suffered the most spectacular defeat in its soccer history, a 7-1 thrashing by Germany.
âIt was a tragedy, a sad moment for football, but it is in the past,â said Crizam de Oliveira Filho, an attacking midfielder known as Zinho who played on Brazilâs 1994 World Cup-winning team.
Since then, Neymar has shined for his professional teams, powerhouses Barcelona and Paris Saint-Germain, while Brazil has been roiled by repeated corruption scandals, a divisive and widely derided impeachment process, a crippling recession, record levels of violent crime, a Zika epidemic and, most recently, a 10-day truckers strike that brought South Americaâs biggest economy t o its knees.
No wonder Brazilians are angsty as the World Cup looms. Their soccer-loving nation urgently needs something to be cheerful about and the national team might just provide it. It heads to Russia with what Brazil soccer experts call a real chance of exorcising the demons of what is known here as âthe seven-oneâ and even winning a record sixth World Cup.
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Thatâs not just because of Neymar. Itâs also credited to Coach Adenor Bacchi â" known as Tite â" who in two years has reorganized the Brazilian team into a deeper, more balanced squad than four years ago.
There is also a more humble outlook.
âThis team could win. Not to say it will win, it could win,â said Paulo Vinicius Coelho, one of Brazilâs leading commentators. âWe realized that we will not win for having the best players. We will win if the best players become a t eam.â
The pressure on Tite is enormous, just as it is on every Brazilian coach.
âThis is a country in which whole population is in love with football and everyone is a coach. Everyone has an opinion,â Zinho said. But Tite brings leadership. âHe is able to motivate the whole group, not just the good players.â
Tite also knows how to win trophies. With the Sao Paulo club team Corinthians, he won the Brazilian championship in 2011, then the South America-wide Libertadores trophy and FIFA Club World Cup a year later, with a team famed for its robust defense. He had left the club by the time Brazil suffered its humiliating defeat to Germany, and expected to be offered the job as national team coach when Felipe Scolari quit. âWhen I was not selected for the job, I will be honest â¦ I was frustrated, pissed off, very sad,â he said in a recent interview for the Playersâ Tribune.
Instead of mourning, Tite spent a week with Carlo Ancelotti, one of E uropeâs most successful coaches, then at Real Madrid. âHe shared the data he collected on the players, the training philosophies, the strategic planning. For me, this was like going to the candy shop,â said Tite, who has filled notebooks with annotations on tactics from every match in the last three World Cups.
He also visited Carlos Bianchi at Boca Juniors, who told him how he had made Corinthians into such a mentally strong team that the Argentine club had been unable to rile them into losing their balance. Then he went back to Corinthians and created an attacking team that won another Brazilian championship, this time with flair. The beautiful game, as it is called in Brazil.
When the call to manage Brazil finally came, Tite was ready. Since then, he has taught Brazil how to win again. So much so that many Brazilians would prefer he took over the countryâs government from widely despised President Michel Temer â" in polls, 15 percent of Brazilians said they would vote for him, though he shows no sign of standing.
âPeople often refer to him as a kind of messiah in Brazil. He reminds me of a U.S. self-help guru,â Downie said. âHeâs got people believing in Brazil which they had stopped doing after the seven-one.â
Some fret that Brazil suffer from what is called âNeymar dependency.â But the team won recent friendlies against World Cup host Russia and defending champion and nemesis Germany without him.
âThey are much less dependent on him and heâs much better,â said Tim Vickery, the Rio-based South American soccer analyst for the BBC. âHowever one of the tasks will be conciliating Neymarâs individuality with the team and trying to contain Neymarâs petulance.â
Titeâs squad has only three players from Brazilâs domestic leagues â" 17 play in Europe against much tougher competition. Midfielder Philippe Coutinho, now with Barcelona, was included in the English Premier Leagueâs 2015 team of the year while at Liverpool. Just 21, Gabriel Jesusâ emergence from a community team in a underprivileged, ramshackle Sao Paulo neighborhood has already entered Brazilian soccer lore. His last-second goal from a long run and deft chip made his club team, Manchester City, the first in English Premier League history to reach 100 points in a season.
Three players on Brazilâs roster were featured in last monthâs Champions League final between Liverpool and Real Madrid: attacking defender Marcelo and defensive midfielder Casemiro for the Spanish team, midfielder Firmino for Liverpool. Neymar, Manchester City defender Danilo and Barcelona midfielder Paulinho are among eight players in their late 20s, âthat sweet spot that means theyâre at the peak of their careers,â according to Downie.
Preoccupied with their countryâs economic and political problems, Brazilians are yet engage with this World Cup as they had in previous decades. âThe world changed and Brazil is changing too,â said JosÃ© Roque Jr., a defender on Brazilâs 2002 world championship team. That could change when the games begin. And if Brazilian politicians were subjected to the same pressure as soccer players and coaches, he said, they might they deliver some solutions.
âIf politicians were under the same demands, I donât think the country would be in the state it is,â he said.
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