On paper, they seemed strong and compact, but in reality, they were a shambles.
The iconic images of a sobbing David Luiz (left) and a dejected Brazilian fan hugging a replica World Cup trophy (right) sums up Brazil’s World Cup journey in 2014 – an utter disaster. Without their captain Neymar and defensive leader Thiago Silva for their semi-final match, Brazil were toothless against a dynamic, well-organized German side, and the final score speaks for itself.
Although reaching the semi-finals at the World Cup is a commendable achievement for any team, Germany was arguably Brazil’s first real test. They were unable to find any answers to overcome their opponent. Such was the manner of their defeat that even to give the Selecao a ‘fail grade’ would not diminish the shame that was heaped upon the entire nation.
With yet another shocking exit at the 2015 Copa America at the hands of Paraguay in the quarter-finals, as well as an embarrassing elimination from the group stages of the 2016 Copa America Centenario, the Brazilian dream has been shattered in three consecutive years. For many people, these early exits, though painful, didn’t come as a surprise. Brazil have become very, very fragile since 2014.
With the Rio 2016 Olympic Games less than two months away, the pressure on Brazil to succeed is immensely high, despite the fact that Olympic teams are restricted to under-23 players with only three over-age players permitted. However, with or without player restrictions, Brazil hopes of securing an Olympic gold for the first time in their football history seems unlikely.
And the reasons are crystal clear.
Individual talent overpowers the collective team
The current state of Brazilian football, at the national level, is going through a transitional phase – but, unfortunately, not in a way that will bring trophies anytime soon.
A decent crop of new young talents has emerged, such as Gabriel Jesus from Palmeiras and Gabriel Barbosa from Santos, however these young talents don’t seem to be of the same calibre as their European counterparts of the same age groups.
In fact, amongst the qualified teams for the 2016 Olympics, Brazil’s is far from the strongest contender. Their defeat to Nigeria’s U-23 team, who are the current African U23 champions, in an international friendly encounter in March highlighted that. Their weakness boils down to two crucial factors – strength in team cohesiveness and top flight experience.
Brazil, have always boasted a plethora of talented individuals, but rarely have they been so reliant on individual skill as opposed to collective team performance than their spell at the 2014 World Cup. It was painfully obvious how much of an impact Neymar, only 22 at the time, had on the whole Brazil team, as he almost single-handedly led the Selecao to the knockout stages of the World Cup.
Individuals, can make the difference, but over-reliance on individual talent alone will invariably be more of a hindrance than an asset. Talent wins games, but teamwork wins championships, as Michael Jordan put it.
Ever since the World Cup in 2006, Brazil have desperately needed an edge; without Ronaldo, Ronaldinho and co., hopes have rested on the shoulders of young emerging talents like Neymar. Which suggests that Brazil are not cohesive enough to defeat their opponents at the highest level. Over-reliance on individual contribution will surely trickle down from the senior team to the U23 team in this summer’s Olympic Games.
More worryingly, when comparing the players at Brazil’s disposal for the upcoming Games, the quality of those players is not on par with the ones who achieved silver in London four years ago. It is not to say that they are less talented or have not played well for their respective clubs, but what they lack is experience playing at the top level – that is, in Europe.
With a squad that included players such as Danilo (Porto), Alexandre Pato (AC Milan), Juan Jesus (Inter Milan), Neymar (Santos), Oscar (Internacional), Lucas Moura (Sao Paulo) as well as over-age players in Thiago Silva (AC Milan), Hulk (Porto) and Marcelo (Real Madrid), Brazil’s 2012 Olympic team had a mixture of experience and quality.
Of the current under-23 players, only a few are plying their trade in Europe and starring for their respective club sides, Felipe Anderson (Lazio), Fabinho (Monaco) and Anderson Talisca (Benfica). Former head coach Dunga, who was sacked and replaced by Corinthias boss Tite after Brazil’s exit at the 2016 Copa America Centenario, was expected to include a host of home-based talents like Rodrigo Caio (Sao Paulo), Jorge (Flamengo) and Vitinho (Internacional) in his upcoming Olympic squad, which is fantastic experience, but these players are not yet at the stature as the likes of Neymar, Oscar and Lucas Moura who competed at the 2012 Olympic Games. Whether new coach Tite choose to follow Dunga’s selection path or not, Brazil will not being feared by their opponents.
As for Brazil’s three over-age players, Neymar is already confirmed. Other potential candidates include Inter Milan’s defender Miranda, Chelsea’s standout performer this season Willian, Bayern Munich’s in-form winger Douglas Costa, waiting in the line, Brazil are not short of decisive players to choose from.
However the concern is whether the chosen over-age players can inspire the team collectively or if they become the ones that others have to rely upon. Judging by the nature of the team, the latter seems more likely.
Lack of true leadership
Brazil are not lacking a leader, but they are lacking leaders.
Whether you have the presence of players like Carlos Puyol, Patrick Vieira or Paolo Maldini who epitomise the characteristics of a vocal, active leader or more silent, passive leaders like Andrea Pirlo or Zinedine Zidane the importance of a leader is undisputed.
To many, Neymar, the current national team captain, does not have the profile of a leader. Cafu, for example, the former Selecao captain and the most decorated male Brazilian player, has gone on record to say that he feels Neymar is not a born leader and should instead concentrate more on his attacking prowess.. Neymar’s party-loving nature as well as his on-pitch antics, most notably his clash with Valencia’s Antonio Barragan after Los Che defeated Barcelona at the Nou Camp certainly does not enhance his image as a composed and mature leader.
Former coach Dunga had a different point of view, claiming that Neymar is Brazil’s ‘technical leader’ and a benchmark in Brazilian football. Sure, it is a vote of confidence for Neymar’s leadership qualities, but, at the same time, reinforces the fact that while he can lead with his technical and attacking abilities, he is not ready to lead in the same capacity as Cafu or even Dunga himself.
Whatever the reason behind Thiago Silva’s continued omission from the national side, he is the most authoritative figure for Brazil, he can instil the team with a winning mindset. Whilst many would argue that David Luiz is more suited to the captain role, his inconsistencies and lack of discipline are an issue.
This leaves Brazil with a big dilemma. If, say, the rules were to forbid over-age players from participating in the Olympic Games, then Brazil would find it very difficult to nominate a suitable candidate to lead the U23 national team to glory. The current pool of U23 players are just too inexperienced to lead the team on the international stage.
Moreover, it also raises the question as to who will step up their game and become future leaders for the Selecao when Thiago Silva, Miranda and David Luiz are past their peaks. Solely depending on Neymar to stamp his authority is not a sustainable, long-term solution.
Overwhelming pressure to succeed
Having failed to meet the high expectations on home turf in 2014 World Cup, Brazil, as the first South American country to host the Olympic Games, will have added pressure to deliver – not only in terms of football but as a whole sporting nation.
The presence of pressure, regardless of profession or environment, is inevitable; yet, it is critical in the road to success. How you cope with pressure is a different story.
During the 2014 World Cup human rights demonstrations and socio-economical issues were a major factor, which only increased the pressure to perform. Brazilians hoped that the Selecao, by clinching the title, could bring a feel-good factor to the country.
With president Dilma Rousseff facing impeachment trials for allegedly manipulating government accounts, the spotlight is, once again, on the political crisis in Brazil. The Olympics would be, from Brazil government’s standpoint, a chance to escape some of the negativity by diverting people’s attention to the Games. Almost mimicking what Argentina did with Diego Maradona, using him as a vehicle to conceal the political conflicts that the nation was involved in. For instance The Falklands War coincided with the 1982 World Cup held in Spain, where Maradona was first introduced onto the world stage as a 22-year old.
Unlike Maradona’s era, where social media was non-existent, external pressure, whether projected from the fans or political forces, can easily transform a player, or a team, from hero to zero in matter of seconds. Of course Maradona was not immune from criticism however the scale of criticism that players, coaches and teams receive from the public today, with the help of social media, has escalated dramatically.
The fear of not performing to the standards set by themselves and by the general public, as well as the likelihood of experiencing some World Cup déjà vu, will be in the back of their minds, and the pressure generated from it could be overwhelming. Dealing with pressure is something that requires experience. And this Brazilian side lack that experience.
For now we can only speculate whether or not Brazil can cope with the pressure and deliver at the Olympics. The jury is still out, but the odds are that Brazil will crumble under pressure. Again.