Time to wax lyrical about Brazil again as World Cup approaches

"I’m beginning to feel that old familiar tingle up the spine again, the one I first experienced sitting at home in front of the telly as a kid, all of 47 years ago."
Time to wax lyrical about Brazil again as World Cup approaches

Always something there to remind you.

Just when you think you’ve got to the point where the terrible flashbacks have finally subsided, the week brings news that the most Googled sports event in this country in 2017 was — you already know the result but you’ll probably still want to look away now — Ireland 1 Denmark 5.

For the record, it also claimed third spot in the overall Top Trending Searches, behind Donald Trump and, in first place, Hurricane Ophelia: A roll of dishonour if ever there was one.

There’s little more to be said — or, rather, there’s little more I feel like saying — about that infamous night in November except this: It could have been worse.

Think Brazil 1 Germany 7 in the semi-final of the 2014 World Cup.

For my sins, I was in the press box that night in Belo Horizone too, watching in sheer disbelief as the host nation’s dream of winning the World Cup on home soil was consumed in the flames and reduced to ashes with barely a half-hour on the clock, four of Germany’s five first-half goals coming in the space of a devastating seven-minute spell.

Brazil had ridden their luck, and a wave of national euphoria, to reach this penultimate stage of the competition but, now, in the absence through injury of the talismanic Neymar and suspended defensive lynchpin Thiago Silva, they suddenly, catastrophically, ran out of not just luck but pretty much everything you need to compete in a football match: Spirit, discipline, composure, quality and, most damagingly, the wherewithal to apply even the most basic of defensive principles.

And so the eventual World Cup winners were able to make merry and, in so doing, inflict abject humiliation and misery on a team, a stadium, and a nation. Those of us on the ground in Brazil that summer couldn’t but feel the natives’ pain — and, before long, their anger too.

True, the experience wouldn’t have cut to this Irishman’s heart in the way that Christian Eriksen did at the Aviva but, in some odd way, I still felt that ‘my’ team had been virtually blasted out of existence in Belo Horizonte.

Well, perhaps not so odd, actually.

For many football lovers who, like me, were lucky enough to be weaned on the phenomenal Brazil side which won the 1970 World Cup in such swaggering style, there’s a part of us which will always be romantically involved with the Selecao or at least with the idea that the players who wear the canary yellow and cobalt blue are the true progenitors and putative upholders of ‘the beautiful game’.

But, even though they won the World Cup in 1994 and again in 2002, perhaps not since those ‘beautiful losers’ who illuminated the 1982 Mundial in Spain, has there been a Brazil team cut in the finest ‘jogo bonito’ style. Until, perhaps, now.

The man who is being hailed for putting the samba soul back into the country’s true religion is Tite, the former Corinthians boss who took over from Dunga after, in what was his second spell as national manager, that old midfield enforcer had succeeded the hapless Big Phil Scolari in the wake of the 2014 apocalypse.

Under Dunga, Brazil were eliminated from the 2016 Copa America in the group stage for the first time since 1987 and then got their protracted 2018 World Cup qualifying campaign off to a stuttering start, losing one, drawing three and winning just two of their first six games. Dunga duly received his marching orders in June of 2016 with Tite replacing him six days later.

And the new man had an immediate, transformative effect, a 3-0 away win against Ecuador kicking off a sparkling run of results — including a 3-0 victory over Argentina, a 4-1 defeat of Uruguay and a 5-0 drubbing of Bolivia — which would see a rejuvenated Brazil cruise through qualification to become the first team to join hosts Russia at next year’s finals.

Tite has the players, of course. The magazine FourFourTwo has named 14 Brazilians in its list of the top 100 players of 2017, including such familiar names as Gabriel Jesus, Philippe Coutinho, Roberto Firmino, Marcelo, Fernandinho, Ederson, Willian and Thiago Silva.

Not forgetting, obviously, the main man, Neymar, the latest Brazilian icon in a stellar lineage stretching back through Ronaldo (the original), Romario, Zico, and, the greatest of them all, Pele, to the man some old timers argue was even greater still, Garrincha.

It’s not just that Brazil are winning again, it’s the way they are winning. As Frederic Fausser, writing in the Sambabeat website, put it recently: “Tite has got the team playing the Brazilian way, with the emphasis on attack. With virtually the same squad as his predecessor, he has turned them from a side lacking direction and belief into one that now plays in the opposition half and scores goals for fun.”

(While, crucially, appearing to have tightened up at the back too, it should be noted).

Experienced skipper and full-back Dani Alves has also touched on the importance of Tite’s man-management skills, saying: “Today in Brazil, Tite is very distant from all Brazilian coaches because of his way of understanding football. And because of the way he cares for people, it’s very different.”

Ah, even as I’m writing this, I’m beginning to feel that old familiar tingle up the spine again, the one I first experienced sitting at home in front of the telly as a kid, all of 47 years ago, watching wide-eyed as Carlos Alberto finished off that fabulous move to score the crowning goal in Brazil’s 4-1 victory over Italy in the World Cup final in Mexico.

If expectations are running high for Brazil at next year’s World Cup, well, they only have themselves — and their luminous footballing history — to blame.

And if they aren’t to make full amends for 2014 come July, then, as a second-best outcome, I’d happily settle for Argentina to go one step further than four years ago in Rio, if only to see Messi, the greatest player of this generation, fulfill his destiny on the greatest stage of all.

You know, just the thought of either outcome is almost enough to make you forget about how Ireland ended up missing out on next summer’s fiesta.

Almost.

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