The only team to win a World Cup without ever being truly tested were Brazil in 2002. Their superiority dawned on a leading European club manager months after the final. He was trying to sign Brazil’s keeper Marcos. The player did physical tests, with disappointing results. Never mind, thought the manager, the guy’s a world champion. So he offered Marcos a contract. The next morning, the manager was awoken at home by a call from Marcos’ agent. “I’m sorry,” said the agent, “Marcos won’t sign for you.”
Then he confessed: Marcos had played the World Cup in pain from an imperfectly healed broken wrist. He could barely even catch a ball. Every day he meant to tell Brazil’s manager, Luiz Felipe Scolari, but he could never quite bring himself to do so. Marcos struggled on till Brazil had won. Total dominance is beating the world with a crocked keeper.
Are today’s Brazil similarly invincible? Even the Brazilians themselves don’t know. The Seleção typically only encounter the best Europeans once every four years, in the World Cup’s final stages. And given that Friday’s quarter-final pits them against ageing, uneven Croatia, the first true test in Qatar might only come in the semis, if then. Do Brazil have exploitable weaknesses?
They have sailed through the tournament so far, not conceding a shot on target in their opening wins against Serbia and Switzerland. Having qualified for the second round, they fielded their second 11 against Cameroon, losing 1-0. Against South Korea they led 4-0 by half-time, treated the second half as a slack training session, and won 4-1. By now, all their 26 squad members, even third-choice keeper Weverton, have had playing time. After playing 45 minutes of serious football in 12 days, their starters must be relaxed to the point of somnolence.
The coach, Tite, too, should be as calm as a Brazilian manager at a World Cup can be: whereas Argentina arrived here with the wrong starting line-up and have spent the tournament revising it, Tite’s preferred 11 has barely changed. Almost every player has instant ball control and, apparently, eyes in the back of their head.
Their attacks tend to advance sedately until the ball reaches outside-left Vinícius “Vini” Júnior or outside-right Raphinha, who take on defenders. Brazil have attempted the most dribbles of any quarter-finalist, though Vini’s runs are better described as sprints with perfect control. Both wingers like cutting in towards goal, which often leaves centre-forward Richarlison living off rebounds and other scraps.
Erratic supply lines have forced him into scoring possibly the tournament’s two best goals: setting up a side volley for himself against Serbia, and juggling the ball on his head under pressure before starting a collective move that he finished against South Korea. With four Brazilian attackers including playmaker Neymar requiring double-marking, room generally opens up. It is a mark of Brazil’s dominance that they have barely needed Neymar yet, though he will be called on to find inches of space against the tightest defences.
Richarlison, formerly of Watford and Everton and now at Tottenham Hotspur, is usually near the top of the Premier League’s rankings for tackles by forwards, and he presses tirelessly for Brazil too. Vini and Raphinha also do their bit. That’s necessary because Brazil’s three-man midfield includes only one defensive midfielder, albeit the world’s best, in Casemiro. The full-backs mostly defy Brazilian tradition by staying back. Thirty-eight-year-old Thiago Silva sits behind his defence as football’s last sweeper, supervising while his central defensive partner Marquinhos handles opposing forwards. Helpfully, the duo played together for years at Paris Saint-Germain.
And if anyone gets through them, he has to beat Liverpool’s keeper Alisson, who saved five shots against South Korea, mostly while his teammates were messing around in victory.
How to beat Brazil? A top-class opposition will want to attack them rather than sit back and hope somehow to survive 120 minutes unscathed. Brazil leave space in midfield, sprinters could test Thiago’s legs, and none of the Seleção’s potential left-backs is as superhuman as his teammates. Michael Cox, author of the tactics book Zonal Marking, also notes Brazil’s longstanding weakness against set pieces. Korea’s consolation came when a free-kick rebounded to the unmarked Paik Seung-Ho.
But so far, so sweet. Brazil’s greatest ever player, Pelé, fighting cancer in São Paulo’s Albert Einstein Israelite Hospital aged 82, would recognise moments of the Brazilian jogo bonito, “beautiful game”, that all football fans carry in their heads. The standard-bearers of the Global South are cheered on by stadiums full of Arabs, Indians and the odd Brazilian. The team have a different dance for every goal, with even 61-year-old Tite showing some moves during the Korean rout.
Brazil might yet fall to a European opponent for the fifth World Cup running or, as in 2002, they could romp to almost anticlimactic victory.