Russia: You don’t always enjoy watching the current Brazilian football team play. It embodies substance more than style, grit more than flair, and is more careworn than carefree. It dances little to the Samba beats that made the Brazilian teams of yore the most entertaining to watch. But it has the ingredients to become world champions in Russia.
Not since the 2002 edition, when Brazil lifted the trophy the last time, have the Seleção looked more likely to win, albeit for different reasons. Back then, they had Ronaldo, Ronaldinho and Rivaldo as the front three, with midfielder Juninho behind them and full-backs Roberto Carlos and Cafu sprinting down the wings. It was the offensive-minded beastly Brazil we have come to know and love though it had great defenders as well.
Brazil in 2018 are much less adventurous but more balanced than any other Brazilian team in recent memory and quite effective under manager Tite. Since taking over the reins in 2016, Tite has brought in a more sophisticated European flavour and a hefty dose of practicality to the style of play. It reflects in the team’s current run of results: three 2-0 wins on the trot in Russia, with a big focus on that “nil" part.
Lothar Matthaus, the former German midfielder, wrote in The Sun: “Tite is all about the ‘nil’. His first thought is to keep a clean sheet—because he knows with the quality of his offence they will score goals and create chances". After Tite took over, Brazil let in only three goals across 12 World Cup qualifying matches—including nine clean sheets—and also rolled off nine wins in a row. Prior to his arrival, Brazil had earned only one shut out and two wins in six qualifiers, and had found itself in a precarious position.
A lot of times, though, Brazil are almost too functional—almost too worried about being hit on the counter-attack. The central midfield of Casemiro and Paulinho isn’t inspiring but destructive enough to get the job done, while Willian’s industry is preferred on the wing to Douglas Costa’s more expansive style in un-Brazilian fashion. Against Costa Rica, when Brazil toiled to a late 2-0 win, Costa had replaced Willian in the second half to alter the dynamics of the game. This tactical flexibility is another trait of Tite’s side: he can go for broke if he has to but the primary motive is to never be in a desperate position in the first place.
The world has come to expect a lot out of Brazilian teams. Because the Seleção isn’t just a team—it is a world-famous brand. Brazil are invited and flown across the world to play in friendlies, much to the disapproval of the fans who long to see them play at home. But this brand is based largely on mythology and nostalgia. The world’s expectations of this team are obscured by it.
Over in Brazil, aside from Neymar’s petulance, the locals approve of this modern-day Seleção. And why wouldn’t they after the horrors they have endured during the last few years? In 2014, Brazil were humiliated 1-7 by Germany in their home World Cup—the darkest day in its football history. One year later, they were knocked out by Paraguay in the quarter-finals of the Copa America and the following year they failed to advance from the group stage at the Copa America.
Brazil were on a steep slide before Tite came in and shored things up. It meant sacrificing some of the values the world loved the Seleção for. No Jogo Bonito on show today. This Brazil doesn’t overrun teams through free-flowing football but, with the likes of Neymar and Philippe Coutinho, it relies on a few moments of brilliance to get over the line.