- Brazil didn't play all that badly vs. Belgium, and its quarterfinal exit is plagued with 'what if' questions. What is clear, though, is the progress made under manager Tite, despite a result that doesn't meet the typical expectations.
KAZAN, Russia – Dawn comes early here. It was a little before 2 a.m., and across the marshes behind the stadium, the first amber glow was beginning to tinge the darkness. In the parking lot, Neymar walked alone as though confused. Perhaps he couldn’t find the Brazil bus, perhaps he was reluctant to board it. His tournament was over. Brazil’s tournament was over. The dawn was not for him. It was not for them.
In Brazil, the post-mortems were already beginning. In the Jornal do Brasil, columnist Juca Kfouri called the defeat “disappointing and unfair.” In Folha de Sao Paulo, Paulo Vinicius Coelho blamed what he saw was a mistake by Tite in trying to play thorgh the space left by Kevin De Bruyne operating as a false nine. Globo Esporte was its familiar mix of self-pity and recrimination, weirdly attacking an Argentinian newspaper for pointing out that “the sixth World Cup will have to wait” and former England striker Gary Lineker for suggesting that Kylian Mbappe had learned how to dive from Neymar. Fernandinho was condemned both for his own goal and for the mistake that led to Kevin De Bruyne’s brilliant strike in the 2-1 defeat. Scapegoats will be found, blame will be apportioned. That’s the way it is.
But there is a huge danger of overreaction. Brazil went out a round earlier at this World Cup than it did four years ago, but that does not mean it had a worse tournament. On the contrary, for the first time in well over a decade, Brazil looked like a vibrant modern side. It cannot go back to the Jurassic era of Luiz Felipe Scolari and Dunga. Tite, modern, outward-looking and keen to learn, made it a side that played cohesive, pressing football. His 26 games in charge have brought 20 wins and just two defeats, 53 goals scored and just eight conceded.
One defeat cannot be allowed to undo all that, and especially one in a game that could easily have fallen the other way. What if Thiago Silva’s effort had not hit the post? What if Paulinho had not missed his kick when well-placed? What if Renato Augusto and Philippe Coutinho had not put late chances wide? What if a penalty had been awarded for Vincent Kompany’s challenge on Gabriel Jesus? What if Casemiro had not been suspended? What if Dani Alves had been fit? What if Thibaut Courtois had not had the game of his life?
Brazil always has an extra problem to face, which is the intense expectation of its media and public, the demand always for victory, the denigration of anything that does not result in a trophy. Brazil press conferences tend to follow a familiar pattern. They begin with frenzy, with journalists demanding to know either why the Brazil national side is letting them down or why there is a global conspiracy preventing them from achieving the victory, and end in calm, after Tite has pacified them with his punchy good sense and even-handedness.
After the defeat, he was offered the chance to blame Fernandinho, the referee, even God. He rejected them all. Look not at the result, he urged; look at the event.
“It was a great game with two teams of incredible technical qualities,” he said. “Even with all the pain I feel now and the bitterness, I say that if you like football, you have to watch this game and you will have pleasure if you are not emotionally involved. Triangulations, transitions, saves, what a beautiful game!”
Had Brazil, then, been unlucky?
“I don’t like to talk about luck,” he said. “It’s an educated manner of putting down people’s skills. They were skillful. They finished well. There was no luck. There was Courtois. Was he lucky? No, he did well.”
He is remarkable to watch, passionate and intelligent, waving his hands and pointing his finger, always aware, remarkably so, of the bigger picture.
But then there is the one issue even Tite could not handle: Neymar. If there is a lesson of this World Cup, it is that teams who submit themselves to one individual do not prosper. Cristiano Ronaldo, Lionel Messi and Neymar have all gone home; Sweden, liberated from Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s ego, has prospered. Neymar, who had not played for his club since breaking a bone in his foot in February, grew in fitness through the tournament and produced his best performance against Mexico.
Too often, though, he was self-indulgent. Too often he did tricks for no reason other than to show off. Too often his frustration at not being the central character in the World Cup’s great drama led to tantrums and dives. He was chastened against Belgium, even discouraging the referee from checking VAR at one point. There was a dive late on, but it was so unconvincing it felt his heart wasn’t really in it. It is absurd to say that when his country needed him, Neymar failed to deliver, just as it was absurd to say of Messi. That is not how football works. Yet people will say it.
It is precisely that vision of football that Tite has tried to drive Brazil away from, and that’s why he ought to stay. He said, understandably, that this was not the time to make such decisions, but his tone was valedictory.
“Football,” he went on, “has many variables and has to be seen in context. It’s not just blah, blah here, it has to be assessed in a holistic way, tactically, technically, emotionally and physically.”
That is what has brought Brazil such progress over the past two years, but you fear the "blah, blah" may win.