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Thursday, February 9, 2023

Brazil have lost their fear factor as the World Cup’s most successful nation

Brazil were the favourites to win the 2022 World Cup. Tite’s team had gone through CONMEBOL qualifying without losing a single match and the Selecao appeared stronger than at any other point in the last 20 years. Yet for the fourth time at the last five World Cups, Brazil failed to make it past the quarter-finals.

Defeat to Croatia came as something of a shock to many who predicted Brazil would have too much attacking quality for all opponents in Qatar. Ultimately, their lack of midfield balance cost them against a team who were able to control the centre of the pitch through the likes of Luka Modric, Marcelo Brozovic and Mateo Kovacic. That’s where Brazil fell down.

Tite has already departed his post as Selecao manager after six years in the job. “The cycle (it’s over),” he said. “It was a process. The previous World Cup (2018) was a team formation recovery process and now it has had an entire sequence. The performance you do the evaluation, it is on display.”

Speculation is swirling over who will coach Brazil at the 2026 World Cup with Carlo Ancelotti, Luis Enrique and Pep Guardiola all mentioned as potential candidates – the national association is seemingly open to hiring a foreigner. But Brazil have a bigger problem than just finding a new manager.

The fear factor that used to exist around the Brazilian national team is gone. It used to be the case that Brazil were viewed as the Barcelona or Real Madrid of the international game. They were a dominant force as they reached three successive World Cup finals in 1994, 1998 and 2002, lifting the trophy in the USA and Japan and South Korea.

Ronaldo became a World Cup icon over that period with others like Ronaldinho, Romario and Rivaldo also making Brazil the most feared team in international soccer. That, however, is no longer the case. In fact, Brazil are earning themselves a reputation as international soccer’s biggest underachievers.

This, of course, is somewhat peculiar for a country that has won the World Cup five times, more than any other country, but historic legacy only counts for so much. Smaller nations like Croatia, which would only be the third largest city in Brazil by population, have been emboldened to believe they can take on the Selecao and win.

Every so often, there are reminders of the team Brazil can be. Their 4-1 round of 16 victory over South Korea at the 2022 World Cup was arguably the most exhilarating attacking performance produced over the course of the tournament to date. There was nothing South Korea could do to stop them.

Yet when Brazil were required to see out the game against Croatia in the next round, they couldn’t. They were made to pay for pushing too hard for a second goal in extra time and got caught on the counter. That might have been a one-off failure, but this has become the norm for them at World Cups over the last two decades.

Brazil still have the talent to build another great team. Neymar will be 30 by the time the 2026 World Cup kicks off and so it’s reasonable to assume he will still be near the peak of his powers. Vinicius Junior and Rodrygo are both young and are expected to be a part of the Selecao for the next decade, maybe even longer.

Defensively, what used to feel like an inevitable rebuild has evolved into what could be a stable defense for the next few international tournaments. Thiago Silva has surely played at his last World Cup, but Marquinhos and Eder Militao could form the basis of Brazil’s defensive foundation for years to come. In Alisson Becker and Ederson, Brazil still boast two of the best goalkeepers in the sport at this moment in time.

Finding the right manager between now and the 2026 World Cup will be a challenge for Brazil, but there is plenty to make the job attractive to the best candidates. Preparation for the next World Cup in the USA, Canada and Mexico must start now, and the Copa America in 2024 will be a crucial measuring stick to whoever takes the helm.

No country has the soccer culture of Brazil. The nation lives for the sport and continues to produce some of the very best players. There’s no reason to believe failure at the 2022 World Cup will change any of this, but the wider perception of the Selecao requires some work. Brazil have now equalled their longest ever run without winning the World Cup. If they thought the pressure was on in 2022, just wait until 2026.

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