The events of July 8th, 2014 at the Estadio Mineirao in Belo Horizonte caused arguably the darkest day in Brazilian football history.
Full of confidence and playing in front of a home crowd fully expecting the Selecao to win their first World Cup since 2002, what followed can only be described as evisceration at the hands of Germany in the semi-final, with Germany emerging as fully-deserved 7-1 victors.
The Brazilian fans in the stands could only watch in horror and weep as German goal after German goal nestled in the ‘home’ side’s net, with Oscar’s last-minute strike not even worthy of the word ‘consolation.’ It was humiliation on the grandest scale imaginable, and it had to be a seminal moment for a footballing nation that had been slipping for years without even realising it.
Luis Felipe Scolari, the hero that had guided Brazil to glory in 2002, resigned one week later. The media did not hold back in their criticism of the team, with the word “disgrace” being flung about regularly and emphatically. The fans, meanwhile, had decided on their scapegoats, with the likes of Fred and Hulk bearing the brunt of most of the supporter anger as a revolution was called for.
Unfortunately for Brazil, it was about to get worse before it got better. Legendary player Dunga, captain of the side that won the World Cup in 1994 was appointed as manager for the second time. Having attracted criticism for his side’s style of play and early exit from the 2010 tournament, it was something of a surprise that he was given a second crack at the role after a period of just four years, but Brazilian football was at a low ebb – and having seen the defence ripped apart by Germany, perhaps a more conservative style of play was in order.
However, this bright new era for Brazilian football failed to materialise. The Copa America took place in consecutive years in 2015 and 2016 (the second being in celebration of the tournament’s centenary), and yet Dunga’s side performed well in neither. A first knockout round in the first year was followed by a group stage exit in the second – the first time since 1987 that Brazil had failed to emerge from the group. Just two years after the ‘revolution’ was due to begin, it was back to the drawing board for the CBF.
Enter Tite. The well-travelled coach had been in contention to replace Scolari in 2014 – and reports since have suggested that he was expecting to be offered the role – but in the end the Brazilian football authorities, seemingly not taking the 7-1 spanking by Germany as enough of a sign that change was badly needed, went with the safe pair of hands in Dunga.
In 2016, they couldn’t afford to make that mistake again. The World Cup was still two years out, and they surely realised that they had the chance to build a team that could be a force in Russia provided they took a risk and appointed a manager with the vision to pull it off.
While Dunga was floundering with the national side, Tite was winning the Brazilian manager of the year award in 2015, winning the league title for the second time with Corinthians in the process. The style of play wasn’t earth-shattering, it wasn’t the free-flowing samba soccer that Brazil fans might have been yearning for – but it was successful. It was balanced. It could drag Brazil back to the top of the international football ladder.
That, essentially, is what Tite has brought to the role over the past 18 months or so. Brazil qualified at a canter for the World Cup in the end, and although they probably aren’t seen among the favourites for the tournament itself (outside of the fact that their name alone guarantees them to be part of the conversation), perhaps that unfamiliar underdog status will suit them better.
The key difference between Brazil now and that of the past few regimes is that the team looks far more balanced now. The upturn in form of Paulinho, derided as a failure at Tottenham but who has rebuilt his career in China and now at Barcelona, has been crucial, as has been the retraining of Renato Augusto in a deeper role. Real Madrid’s Casemiro has already been earmarked as the man to complete the midfield trio -though Manchester City’s Fernandinho can also slot in if required.
The defence is brimming with experience, with full-backs Dani Alves and Marcelo playing outside of centre-halves Miranda and Marquinhos, and in Roma’s Alisson Becker the Selecao possess one of the best-performing goalkeepers in the world right now.
However, the forward line is always where Brazil have been judged the most, and this week’s friendly against Germany – the first time the two have come face-to-face since that night – will go some way to showing how far this side have come.
They will be without Neymar, just as they were in 2014, but this time it feels like they are better equipped to function without their star forward. Back then, Scolari’s side had no Plan B – from the very second David Luiz and Julio Cesar held Neymar’s shirt aloft during the national anthem, tears streaming down their faces as if he had just died in battle, they were beaten. It was the ultimate sign of overreliance on one player and Jogi Lowe’s side could smell blood right there and then. Fred, Bernard and Hulk looked clueless throughout the 90-minute lesson.
Without the PSG man this time around, Tite has alternatives – both in personnel and system. The manager has already suggested that Neymar, Philippe Coutinho and Gabriel Jesus would start in the World Cup and yet, even without Neymar, the side lined up differently in the 3-0 victory over Russia at the weekend. Coutinho operated in a midfield role while Douglas Costa and Willian flanked Jesus in attack.
With the likes of Roberto Firmino and Anderson Talisca on the bench, there is definitely greater strength and depth and a number of interesting variations for the management to choose from.
The greatest test of Brazil’s progress will come this summer when they line up against Switzerland, Costa Rica and Serbia. Bettering 2014’s shambles has to be the main priority, and Tite’s calming brand of calming pragmatism could be just thing to get them back to where they believe they belong.