Before the Selecao’s opening game of the World Cup, Tite was asked how it felt to be the only person in Brazil to be universally liked. He was smart enough to dismiss the suggestion, but there’s no doubt that since he took control of the national team, everyone has felt much better.
Tite took over a side in a mess and turned them into the favourites for the World Cup. But in their opening game against Switzerland, while they justified that favouritism in patches, Brazil also provided plenty of reasons to be cautious about their prospects of lifting the trophy on July 15.
In short, their performance was uncertain enough to wonder just how good this Brazil team is.
First, the caveats. This was a World Cup game between a big team and a smaller team, and the smaller team played exactly as you’d expect in those circumstances. They were physical, they tried to break up Brazil’s play at every opportunity, and they kept their attacks to a minimum. This sort of thing can happen, and you could say it would be foolish to read too much into it.
The 1-1 draw also has to be taken in the context of the tournament. Argentina and Germany both suffered adverse results in their openers, so perhaps it would be harsh to criticise them too much for drawing with a side ranked by FIFA as sixth in the world.
In addition, Switzerland’s goal probably should have been disallowed, Steven Zuber’s push on Miranda slight but enough to clear the defender out and create enough space to score the goal.
And yet, all of those factors are things that Brazil will have to encounter and overcome if they are to win the whole thing. That Switzerland were able to frustrate them into not converting their first-half dominance into a second or third goal, does suggest it’s a little too easy to frustrate them. They have to prove they’re better than Germany or Argentina. Bad refereeing decisions are an occupational hazard.
Tite made this Brazil team sing in qualifying, constructing a side that simultaneously made the most of Neymar’s remarkable gifts but ensured they didn’t rely upon them. He made Philippe Coutinho an integral part of the side when he’d previously been a fringe player, first on the right flank and later in a more central midfield role. He made their defence drum tight, keeping 15 clean sheets in his previous 20 games in charge.
But this is the beauty of the World Cup. You can prepare immaculately, put together a team you think will blow everyone else away, but once you get here, the World Cup stares you in the eye and says: “You think you’re good? Prove it.”
It’s perhaps the difference between theory and practice. Anyone can come up with a good idea, but the ones who succeed are the ones who can carry it out. Qualifying was the theory, now it’s time to put that into practice.
After the game, Tite suggested his team’s decision-making was “rushed,” and perhaps more worryingly, that their mental process was askew. “If we were better mentally, we could have scored the second goal, or at least made the goalkeeper work harder.”
There were enough questions to ask about this performance to raise concerns. Is it necessary to play Paulinho and Casemiro? Why was Marquinhos left on the bench? Should Roberto Firmino have started ahead of Gabriel Jesus? Should Neymar have started at all?
The latter question is the one that is likely to cause the most public angst. Since breaking his metatarsal in February, Neymar has barely played a game of any real significance. Tite admitted before the game that his No. 10 was not “100 percent,” and it showed in Rostov on Sunday. He was trying to be the Neymar that Brazil depend upon, but he couldn’t quite manage it. And he can’t be criticised too much for that.
It was a little like watching a virtuoso pianist try to play a complex sonata after recovering from broken fingers. He looked frustrated, and the 10 fouls he suffered — the most of any player in a single World Cup game since Alan Shearer in 1998, apparently — won’t have helped matters either.
Neymar limped quite heavily past the waiting press after the game, and while he insisted his foot was fine, he looked irked.
“We did not deserve to only draw, but I think we can improve, play a little better,” he said.
They certainly can. The worry for Neymar, Tite and Brazil is that Switzerland might have put on a demonstration of how to stop them, how to ensure that they remain frustrated and their mental processes remain confused, a demonstration that others might follow.
One result does not change that Brazil are still among the favourites to be smiling in Moscow in a few weeks’ time. But it might just temper their optimism a little. We will soon find out just how good they are.